Global management consultancy Boston Consulting Group has pledged to cut its business travel-related carbon emissions at least 30 percent per full-time employee by the year 2025 from 2018 levels. The target is part of a commitment BCG announced in September 2020 to reach net-zero climate impact for the business by 2030 through carbon-reduction initiatives while investing in carbon-removal projects for the footprint that remains.
Slashing business travel emissions is central to BCG’s sustainability strategy, but it is a daunting challenge because travel accounts for more than 80 percent of the company’s total carbon footprint. “Travel is an integral part of the way we operate,” said managing director and partner for global operations services Kathryn Bell, who is responsible for BCG’s travel and sustainability as well as procurement, security and facilities. “We know there is no single lever we can pull. We are dependent on traveling to put our teams together with our clients.”
Yet continuing to travel as before—more precisely, before coronavirus—is not an option, as far as Bell is concerned. “BCG believes that we have a responsibility to the planet,” she said. “The topic is urgent and important for us to be credible with our employees and our clients.”
A net-zero climate impact is a more ambitious target than the more established concept of carbon neutrality. Net-zero means attempting to remove one metric ton of CO2 from the atmosphere for every metric ton emitted, partly by planting trees but also by investment in nascent technologies for sequestration of carbon into soil and oceans. “They are expensive, they require investment, they require focus, but there are organizations working on them, and they are beginning to prove themselves,” said Bell.
Given its pledge, failure to reduce travel-related emissions also would be expensive for BCG. The company has pledged to invest $35 per metric ton of its remaining emissions in 2025, rising to $80 per metric ton in 2030—much higher figures than the current voluntary carbon-offset market average of $3 to $6. Beyond 2030, BCG aims to be climate-positive, removing more CO2 than it emits.
We have a level of confidence at the firm that we will be able to meet, if not improve upon, the reduction goals that we have put out.”
BCG’s Kathryn Bell
“The science is clear,” said CEO Rich Lesser when BCG issued its net-zero pledge. “If we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change, we, as a planet, need to halve CO2 emissions in this decade and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 … but those that can move faster should do so.”
Rival consultancies Bain & Co. and Accenture subsequently made similar net-zero pledges. The latter said one of its actions would include “equipping Accenture’s people to make climate-smart travel decisions,” but neither Accenture nor Bain stated public targets for reducing travel emissions as part of their pledges.
Devising a Strategy
BCG started reducing its travel-related emissions, which in 2018 stood at 438,000 tCO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent).
The company intends to cut emissions further through a twin strategy of reducing trip numbers and reducing carbon footprint per trip where there is no acceptable alternative to travel. Tactics for achieving the latter, said global head of travel Gehan Colliander, include extended stays at customer locations instead of shuttling back and forth; choosing meeting destinations that require the lowest combined travel emissions for all participants; and tweaking policy to favor rail over air, or direct flights over indirect routes.
Colliander said it is also “super-important to put information in the hands of our travelers where they need it. It’s a combination of investing in online tools, for example, that enable you to filter and select flights on the basis of lowest emissions.”
Although the company has not made any forecasts on the split between travel avoidance and lower emissions per trip, “I think most of the reductions are going to come from where we can shift physical meetings to virtual,” said Bell. “The experience we have had [with coronavirus] has proven certain things work extremely well virtually.”
The travel hiatus enforced by Covid-19 has proved an unexpected but useful laboratory for BCG’s decarbonization plans. “It has reinforced and built confidence in the levers we could pull,” said Bell. “We have a level of confidence at the firm that we will be able to meet, if not improve upon, the reduction goals that we have put out. It’s been an unnatural context that we have been living in and so it is hard to fully extrapolate, but we have had some large meetings and training events where we have improved experiences from being virtual. We will take that learning and carry it forward.” Bell added that connecting clients to subject matter experts remotely instead of having that talent semi-permanently in the air has made them more accessible and efficient.
Gathering the Data
To gain a better understanding of which trips can and cannot be converted to virtual interactions, “we’ve looked across our whole business, and at why we travel, in partnership with Gehan and the travel team,” said Bell. The review was built on data assessment and deep internal collaboration, the two key recommendations she and Colliander offer to other travel managers contemplating intensification of their sustainability strategies.
“Good data is fundamental in making any good decision,” said Colliander, adding that a central project team needs to take ownership for collating reporting and making it relevant, comprehensive and consistent.
It’s super-important to put information in the hands of our travelers where they need it.”
BCG’s Gehan Colliander
The data BCG pulled together can be divided into three buckets. The first was operational reporting about the business: size of the organization, projected growth, locations of clients and so forth. The second, said Bell, was “the giant amount of transactional travel data so that we could deeply understand how, where, when and why we travel.” Colliander’s travel team was involved heavily, “cleaning” BCG’s travel management company data to fit sensibly into matrices provided by a sustainability consultancy for assessing travel patterns.
“Travel is complicated,” Bell said. “One has to understand deeply the way the travel supply chain operates and the nuance of the data. The sophistication of analysis that was required to ensure the sustainability team really understood how travel emissions relate to travel data was a very important role for Gehan and her team.”
The third bucket was environmental data: measuring how emissions are influenced by such criteria as aircraft type and load factor to determine with reasonable certainty how much CO2 is emitted for every flight taken by a BCG employee. “I learned a lot,” said Colliander. “Usually in travel you would not be thinking about the impact of a load factor on carbon efficiency. I would think of its impact on price.”
The fusion of management, travel and environmental data epitomizes the intense cooperation among these three functions at BCG, which resulted in the present sustainability program. Colliander said the strategy was driven “first and foremost at leadership level,” creating a sponsorship that has ensured engagement with relevant experts and stakeholders throughout the organization.
So far, so familiar, perhaps: All travel managers are aware that corporate travel initiatives rarely flourish without senior buy-in. However, for Bell, the senior status of Colliander and her team was equally important. Travel is treated as a critical strategic function at BCG, and the sustainability push “is the classic example of the importance of our travel team having a seat at the right table to be able to influence strategy,” Bell said. “This is one of the most important commitments that BCG is making. The travel team was right there at the table fueling the information.”