Breaking Travel News investigates: Making sustainability accessible through storytelling | Focus

John Speers, board director of the Tourism Society, tells Breaking Travel News how important the skill of storytelling can be to the development of the hospitality sector

Sometimes in life you have insightful conversations with great people, and they shine light on a subject at a different angle to give a wholly fresh perspective. That’s what happened the other day when the famed environmentalist, activist and documentary maker, Céline Cousteau, and Shannon Guihan, chief sustainability officer of the TreadRight Foundation, joined me for one of the Tourism Society’s ‘Big Thinkers & Themes’ webinars.

According to Accenture, 73 per cent of executives now identify “becoming a truly sustainable and responsible business” as a top priority for their organization over the next three years, and that 21 per cent more environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures have translated to 21 per cent more profit on average over last three years. That’s a compelling commercial argument, but how can our sector amplify these messages in a way to capture the imagination of the broader population and further advance the cause?

Well, according to Cousteau and Guihan, part of the answer lies in storytelling. Everyone loves stories. Whether emotive or entertaining, they can be used to convey messages of awe, wonder and change. And we certainly need change right now.

Cousteau explained its significance to open the discussion: “Storytelling in the context of tourism is really key to remind people that the stories we come back with then become part of us, and that changes how we see ourselves in the world. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves, all things are bound together, all things connect. This can be applied to just about anything in life. And I think that’s why it’s so universal and appropriate in this context. This is where I feel that we have an incredible opportunity to offer.”

I believe that using storytelling to talk about sustainability and humankind is essential. When people travel, every journey made yields an experience, and that person will come back with a story of something that will have impacted them. We must give them the opportunity to make travel matter, to influence their choices before they travel.

I do think that the era that we have just gone through has been an opportunity. Admittedly, also a hard lesson to learn for a lot of different industries who have suffered and the emotional and financial stress that it has caused, but for those who have an opportunity to make choices, and perhaps travel again, maybe they will do so more thoughtfully because they understand how precious it is. And that there’s been a time of reflection to really think how we utilise this opportunity of perspective to create something.

Céline’s new documentary film ‘Tribes on the Edge,’ developed over seven years at the request of the indigenous people of the Javari in the Brazilian Amazon, is a brilliant story that has acted as a catalyst to doing a whole lot more. 

“This is where I really believe again in the power of storytelling to catalyse change, creating a coalition of partners in health and biodiversity and creating an education curriculum for nine–12-year-old kids, based on the notion of interconnectivity of everything, informed and inspired by the tribes,” Cousteau continues.

“Kids then learn how they relate to their ecosystem through natural resources, biodiversity and their food system by understanding how the tribe interact with those elements and therefore how we are interconnected with everything on the planet. That reality is the only way to live. We can put all the terminology on it, we can also simplify it to the basic essentials of survival.”

Our discussion led to a more local story about an olive mill that utilises regenerative farming practices. On this Guihan had sage advice for any UK practitioner in travel: “We work with a great number of wonderful, what we call Make Travel Matter Experiences, largely food-based across the UK, offering guests local and organic farm-to-table experiences, for example. It’s wonderful when you’re on a trip with a glass of wine or whatever you fancy in your hand and learning about the place that produces the food you’re eating while you’re physically on the land it comes from. The impact of stories of regenerative agriculture is amplified and it’s a gentle way of raising awareness of food provenance, it’s not about hitting them over the head with the information.”

Cousteau agreed. “I think food systems are really important because it’s such a direct way of making an impact. What starts as a meal becomes a broader conversation and can drive impact and more sustainable purchasing and consumption choices. Storytelling is about making it relevant, connecting at a very personal level and then amplifying the message.”

At the Tourism Society we know through the United Nations that food systems cause as much as a third of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 80 per cent of biodiversity loss and use up to 70 per cent of freshwater reserves, so the impact of these local level, farm-to-table food production stories can be profound.

Cousteau and Guihan are impacting the world through the stories that they tell, and inspiring people to play their part. They’re using the narratives to help travellers and consumer move from talk to action. “Because if we really believe that everything we do matters, we’re going to continuously do that thing. And it’s going to inspire people around you that will create this ripple effect,” said Céline.

We know we’re beyond the tipping point and that now fundamental change needs to be driven operationally and communicated well to “fuel the fire” of change. And we must tell stories to inspire participation and engagement.

Travel companies need to harness their stories and make the telling of these narratives part of their DNA, galvanising the company’s purpose and driving action around it. For TreadRight that purpose is “to have a positive impact on the people and communities we visit,” according to Guihan. They provide stories from both the travellers and the local communities perspective, sharing both sides in balance. And from this anchor point, more than 60 local community and sustainable initiatives have been developed, the stories of which are then told, which then inspires more action both within the company and in others.  This is to say nothing of the measurable sustainability goals TreadRight oversees across The Travel Corporation.

From a purpose with meaning comes a font of storytelling and a virtuous circle. 

That’s the message for today. Find the meaning in what you do and start storytelling. No matter how small or large, get started. The world wants to hear them. A recent bookings.com report revealed that 83 per cent of their audience believes sustainability in travel is now vital. So, we have consumers demanding it and ready to pay for it, and Accenture has reassured us of the profitability. Therefore, we have no further excuses and every reason to get more stories out there. 

More Information

Find details about future events from the Tourism Society on the official website.

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