Is it time to ban the word ‘sustainability’?

Is it time to ban the word ‘sustainability’?

sustainability earthrise gaia responsible tourism

I am just back from speaking on the first World Hospitality Day at the 51st Annual Congress of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association in Interlaken where there was a panel on Changing Frameworks for Sustainability. There are some serious problems associated with the word sustainability, we have not managed to define in ways that enable us to measure. There are many in business who will argue that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it – and I am inclined to agree. One of the great advantages of the large corporates having engaged with the sustainability agenda is that they have begun to set targets, measure their performance and report on progress. Staff have KPIs which relate to their contribution to achieving the targets. I argued in Interlaken that it is time to stop talking about the abstract and vague aim of sustainability – time to ban the “S” word.

It was in 1968 that we first saw that dramatic first colour image of Earthrise that came back the Apollo 8 mission. It is too easy to forget that we inhabit a finite earth, a natural spaceship. Most of us subscribe to the view that we hold the earth and our environment in trust for our children, it is an important principle but is doesn’t change the way most of us live our lives, the idea of sustainability is important but it is inoperative. We use the idea to justify business as usual; it rarely impacts on the way we behave.

recycling responsible tourism impacts sustainability

So if we ban the “S” word where does that leave us? If we start with the specifics it immediately becomes clearer about what we can do about it. If water is an issue we can respond by reducing consumption, using it more efficiently. We know that most plastics are not biodegradable – we can recycle and reuse or shift to using biodegradable plastics

We can increase the local economic benefits which arise from tourism by buying locally produced goods. We can campaign against child sexual exploitation and for human rights. By determining local priorities, the things which matter locally to people and their natural and cultural environment, and responding we can make a difference. When we respond we take responsibility and as Denis Wormwell, Chief Executive at Shearings Holidays, pointed out at one of our conferences “responsibility is free, you can take as much of it as you can handle”.

Responsible Tourism In Destinations ConferenceOn 3rd and 4th April the 8th International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations comes to Manchester and we’ll be discussing the issues of carbon and climate change, local economic development and human rights with a host of industry speakers. These include: Elise Allart, Manager Sustainable Tourism TUI Nederland; Jane Ashton, Director of Group Sustainable Development at TUI Travel PLC.; James Berresford, CEO of VisitEngland; Caroline Brown, ABTA UK Leisure and Tourism Group Chairman and Commercial Director of Shearings Holidays; Andy Cooper, Director of Government and External Affairs, Thomas Cook Group; Justin Francis CEO,; Tony Gates, Chief Executive, Northumberland National Park; Dr Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive of Transport for Great Manchester; Peter Lane, Chair of British Destinations Executive; Stephen Miles, Founder Hotel Future The National Hospitality Training Academy; Simon Press, World Travel Market, Paul Simpson, Managing Director, Visit Manchester; Nikki White, Head of Destinations and Sustainability, ABTA.

Travel and tourism are what we make them, we can change the way we travel and holiday to make better experiences for consumers, better business for companies and better places to live in for people. We can make tourism better, in Manchester the debates will be about how to do it.

(Click on the logo or to find out more and book your place at the conference.)

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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracted 4000 participants in 2020 and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Latin America. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.


  1. The term sustainability is important to keep, with more specificity in evaluation criteria. Culture is the cornerstone of of sustainability, for all actions regarding economy and ecology are based on beliefs. My new book Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions presents a methodology for cultural value-based development and specifics for assessment. Susan Guyette, Ph.D.

  2. One frequently overlooked variable in forecasting is culture—from differences in preferences in cultural group market segments to ways of reaching ethnic groups. My new book, Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions addresses a cultural value-based methodology for tourism planning, development and marketing. Attracting new markets is an important factor in forecasting. Susan Guyette, Ph.D.

  3. Your analysis resonates with me. There are few human enterprises that are actually sustainable. Just like competency there are no half measures, we are either competent in a field or we are not. If we are not competent then logically we are incompetent until we gain the requisite training and experience. The same applies to sustainable, until all the criteria are fulfilled then a business or way of life is not sustainable.
    Sustainability has not lost its meaning, it has just been hijacked by marketing departments in the same way as terms like environmentally friendly. Sustainable travel is the goal, but it is a lot further away from us than some organisations would like us to believe.
    Identifying and risk assessing the big social and environmental issues affecting travel and addressing them would be an effective way forward. Cars are taxed on their carbon emissions and the public can compare carbon footprints of cars relatively easily and make purchasing decisions accordingly. You mention water, I think many of the attendees at the session on water at WTM 2013 were surprised and shocked by the impact of embedded water. If water is addressed specifically instead of being shrouded in the sustainable smokescreen, then travel consumers will begin to understand more than just toilet flushes, shutting off taps while cleaning their teeth and not demanding fresh towels each day.
    Separating the elements of sustainability would also give consumers more choice in selecting travel products that align with their ideals. Some consumers would give more weighting to environmental footprints, others to human rights and others to local businesses.

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