We need to talk about flight-shame

It is an uncomfortable truth for event organisers, particularly those like us that consider themselves sustainable event organisers, that as part of the business of bringing people together, we are contributing massively to climate change. Carbon emissions from attendees travelling to events can make up 70% of the overall emissions, which puts noble efforts to use energy efficient laptops and switch off lights into perspective.

Purchasing a flight is one of the highest carbon purchases that a business can make and most will already be feeling pressure from their stakeholders to act on climate change. A recent UBS survey suggests that high-profile campaigns – like the example set by Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg, which has helped push the climate crisis up the political agenda – has triggered a change in flying habits in wealthier parts of the world, particularly in the US and Europe. After surveying more than 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK, UBS found that 21% had reduced the number of flights they took over the last year. As the concept of flight-shame becomes more prominent, event organisers will not be able to hide – we need to discuss whether it is still feasible to encourage attendees to traverse the globe.

'I am with Greta' sign
'I am with Greta' sign on bicycle

What’s the solution for the events sector?

At the heart of most business deals will be human relationships and it is difficult to replicate the process of relationship building, which humans have evolved over millennia, online. While video conferencing has improved, it is unlikely to completely replace face-to-face contact any time soon. Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of the global airline trade association IATA, has a point. He wrote in a blog post: “Confining people’s horizons to train distances or boat speeds back-steps on a century of worldwide progress. Relying on virtual meetings to make global connections ignores the feelings and sensations that make us human.”

Events are not going anywhere. If anything, as the chart below shows, the demand is increasing as younger generations eschew material possessions in order to accumulate experiences. An event is often a physical manifestation of a brand, and as more brands position themselves as more conscientious, it’s essential their events follow suit.


Realistically, planes are also not going anywhere. Our planet is big and our lives are ever more busy. Until someone invents an electric plane (please hurry up!), flying will make up a substantial chunk of global carbon emissions and the aviation industry is taking its time to decarbonise.

That does not take away from the fact that we are all going to have to make some dramatic lifestyle choices if we are really serious about acting on climate change. In the UK, 10% of the population is taking the majority of the flights, a shocking statistic that suggests that not everyone deserves to be ‘flight shamed.’ If we tackle that small group, we can make a big difference. Perhaps the answer is a ‘flexitarian’ approach, where we acknowledge that we still need to fly but commit to doing it less often.

Plane flying over clouds
Plane flying over clouds

Our tips for managing flight-shame

The general rule is to reduce or avoid flying as far as possible. We are assuming that you have already undertaken a rigorous exercise for all your events to confirm that a virtual meeting will not cut the mustard.

  1. Carbon offsetting should be the last option not the first. To deal with the worst effects of climate change, we need to dramatically reduce our emissions. Offsetting, by definition, maintains the same level of emissions, whilst creating the illusion that high-carbon lifestyles can be maintained. Offsetting by planting trees that take 50 years to grow is unhelpful in a Climate Emergency. Offsets that are located in countries that have already committed to carbon reduction targets are likely to be double counted.
  2. Try and reduce travel related carbon emissions at your event location. For example, you could organise shuttles to transport your guests to your event instead of relying on taxis, and then use that time in transit to brief guests on an aspect of the event or even give tour of the location.
  3. Do not fly between destinations where there is a viable, low carbon alternative. Those people who fly between London and Manchester, we’re looking at you.
  4. Consider slow travel options. Travel broadens the mind and the idea that people might take their time to travel overland to events, getting more time to view landscapes and interact with local communities is intriguing. In Switzerland, you can actually hire a train kitted out for meetings so that your guests can work effectively as they travel to their destination. Organisers could reward their guests for taking low carbon alternative modes of transport with discounts on tickets or other incentives.
  5. If guests must fly, encourage them to choose lower carbon airlines. Not all flights are equal. Sites like Skyscanner provide an estimate and will usually identify the most carbon efficient flights available.
  6. If you have done all the above and it is unavoidable that guests will fly to your event, then do offset their flight emissions but use a reputable scheme.

How we do it

This is something that our team at Legacy struggles with constantly. We are pretty critical about the language around shaming, and guilt-tripping and virtue-signalling – multiple studies show that this is not an effective way to change behaviour. We strongly believe that encouraging people to interact face-to-face is a positive thing. It leads to more integrated societies and a better world for all of us. And let’s be honest, everyone on the team loves to travel, it makes us happy! This year we have had our heads down with product development (building our sustainable event supplier marketplace! Sign up here to be notified when it is ready) but even so, we have made international return flights to Europe, Israel and the US to work with clients.

We assuage our guilt by telling ourselves that (a) we are flying to do good – helping to raise standards for sustainability in events worldwide; (b) we travel by low carbon methods of transport, such as train or coach wherever feasible; and finally; (c) we double-offset our emissions from flying to make sure that we are helping to lower emissions globally.

We know it’s not a perfect solution and we’d love to hear what you think, please do leave your suggestions in the comments.

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