Sustainable (ish) Ethical Travelling – updated 20th July 2019

Airplane wing over beautiful sky

Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

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My husband says that when I die he’s going to put the phrase ‘Did you know …?’ on my headstone. I’m a total data nerd and loooooove information. More than that, I love sharing it. I really don’t see the point in gaining knowledge if you don’t spread it around for the benefit of mankind. On that note, did you know that your return flight from Ireland to Malaga this year caused 2.4sqm* of arctic ice to melt? WTF! In fact even a short-haul return flight from London to Edinburgh contributes more CO2 than the mean annual emissions of a person in Uganda or Somalia, and that’s before you take into account the heat-trapping-effect of contrails. We know the melting of the arctic ice is bad, but why? Here’s a quick explanation.

  • Firstly it results in a loss of biodiversity (creatures to you and me) in this area, mostly notably polar bears and penguins.
  • Secondly as ice melts it pours into the seas, raising the sea level, which threatens coastal communities forcing them to migrate to other areas or countries, putting pressure on resources and land-use.
  • Thirdly melting ice affects salt levels in the ocean. This is because the ice is typically freshwater and as it melts into the salt sea it makes the sea less salty. Salty water is denser than fresh water and when this desalination occurs it effects ocean currents like the Gulf stream that we in Ireland rely upon for our temperate climate. If this current changes direction, which is increasingly likely, our weather would be more like Alberta in Canada, which sees average daily temps in December of -17.
  • Fourthly the melting of arctic ice also speeds up climate change and it does this in two ways. Remember your physics? Well white ice reflects solar rays back into space, whereas the sea that replaces the melted ice is dark and, because dark colours absorb more of the suns rays more than light colours, it absorbed the suns rays causing it to heat up, which causes the water to expand therefore threatening more coastal communities quicker. The second way is that, to date, the permafrost up around Greenland and Russia, have acted like carbon sinks, that is trapping carbon and keeping it locked in the ice and out of the atmosphere. As this permafrost melts it releases carbon and methane into the atmosphere, therefore speeding up climate change.


Depressed? Well I am, and when you consider that in 2017 less than 20% of the world’s population had ever flow, the problem is only set to increase. So what are we going to do about it? Given the severity of the crisis we really should all stop flying tomorrow, but I know and you know that this is not going to happen until the flood waters are lapping at our own front doors. I’m torn between wanting to do what I can to help slow down climate change and wanted to lead an interesting life, and for me that involves some travel. So my compromise is one return flight to Europe once a year. It allows me to get my fix of a foreign culture, while keeping my carbon footprint reasonably low. I’m not saying that you need to do this. Everyone’s efforts will look different. This just happens to be mine.

Even if we do fly abroad there are still some opportunities to lesson the environmental damage of journey. Here are a few;

Before you go

  • Book sustainable accommodation and trips with ethical organisers. (see below for links) websites.
  • If you use visit the site through They’ll plant a tree in Southern Thailand for every bed you book – at no cost to you. They explain how it work on their website.
  • Fly economy rather than business or first class. The more people we fit on a plane the more efficiently we’re being with the fuel.
  • Don’t buy travel books, they’re only valid a year or two and so wasteful to buy. Instead borrow from your local library and use Google maps to make your own personalised travel guide.
  • Rome to Rio is a great tool for finding how to get anywhere and gives various options using different transport methods.
  • Check out my Sustainable Summer blog post and limit the impact of your sunnies, cossie and shades and opt for coral-friendly toxin-free sunscreen
  • Pack reusable bottles, cups, lunchboxes, cutlery to use on day trips.
  • Pack your own toiletries and avoid those offered by hotels as they often get chucked once you’ve checked out
  • Bring your own clear plastic bag to put toiletries in when going through airport security
  • There are water refill points after security at most airports allowing you to avoid those nasty single-use plastic bottles of water.
  • Buy package-free locally grown plant-based food in the airport if possible. I’ve used my own containers at Sprout in Dublin airport and bought organic coffee in my own cup at Soho Coffee there too.
  • If you must buy a magazine for the flight do some good with it and buy the Big Issue
  • Aim to take public transport to the airport
  • The more a plane weighs, the more carbon emissions it produces so pack as lightly as you can. Two useful minimalist packing lists can be found on the websites Travel Fashion Girl and Kosan Travel.
  • One exception to the pack lightly rule might be to bring supplies to communities in need at your destination via pack with a purpose
  • Offset the carbon generated by your flight via a website like Atmosfair. This tip comes with a caveat, offsetting your carbon emissions while continuing to fly with abandon is akin to putting a plaster on your wounds while continuing to stab yourself.


When you get there

  • Avoid buying bottle water by sterilising the tap water in your hotel room. According to the World Health Organisation doing this allows you to sterlise tap water, killing all pathogens (Source: Gippsland Unwrapped)
  • Eat as much locally grown, organic, plant-based food as possible
  • If drinking alcohol drink locally make beer, wine or spirits.
  • Walk or use as much public transport as you can.
  • Aim to travel by train instead of taking internal flights if possible.
  • Spend your money locally with locals. You can find some interesting options on Airbnb’s experiences


Responsible Travel
There are plenty of websites and blogs offer advice on how to travel responsibly. World Nomads is a tour company that helps travellers, particularly backpackers, be more responsible on their trips. They’ve lots of great articles on responsible travel on their website, which are worth checking out before you head off.

Ethical Animal Attractions
My family love visiting animals but animal attractions can be a double edge sword. Sometimes you’re supporting the misuse of animals by visiting them. It can be so hard to tell if a place is a genuine sanctuary or not. In fact a report published in 2015 studied and scored the conservation status and welfare impacts of animals in 24 types of Wildlife Tourist Attractions (WTA) and then compared their findings to tourists’ reviews on TripAdvisor. Despite only 7.8% of all tourist feedback on these WTA’s containing negative comments regarding the welfare or conservation of the animals the study reported that an overwhelming majority of WTA’s were bad for the animals.  (Source: Here to There Collective).To avoid supporting such attractions here’s a few tips on how to spot a genuine sanctuary from one that’s exploiting the animals;

  • There is no direct contact with the animals, i.e. animal rides etc
  • Animals don’t perform tricks and are allowed to live out their lives in a natural way
  • There is no breeding programme because the focus is on caring for injured or orphaned animals rather than creating more
  • Is it a member of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It doesn’t have to be but it’s a good sign if it is.


Sustainable Accommodation
If you can’t find accommodation that suits your needs in my previous posts on Ireland and the UK, The Americas and Asia and need to research your own, Green Suitcase Travel have a good blog post on how to ensure your hotel is actually green. In summary, they believe hotels are on the right track if they

  • have someone in charge of sustainability,
  • have initiatives that go beyond asking guest to reuse towels
  • keep surrounding development to a minimum, i.e. no manicured lawns and golf courses
  • clearly state their sustainability policies
  • measure energy, water and resources consumption
  • support local causes or charities
  • use organic, ethically sourced products
  • are sustainably built
  • are independently certified by a credible organisation
  • pay their staff a fair wage


There are a few websites dedicated to sustainable accommodation but they’re either hard to search or have a very loose definition of the terms green / eco. Here are the ones that I found while researching.

  • Zerob&b allows you to find short-stay accommodation in zero waste homes.
  • does exactly what it says on the tin; let you find a house in the middle of nature, and for every night booked they’ll plant a tree.
  • Although the website Green Hotelier is a treasure trove of information on sustainable hotels, it doesn’t have a user-friendly search facility. You can only list destination by continent, which gives you a series of articles, rather than just information on accommodation.
  • Responsible Travel is a much more user-friendly website for traveller and holiday makers, allowing you to search for sustainable holiday accommodation by country, date and type of holiday. The only downside is the extent of their database. I searched for accommodation in Ireland and only one place came up.
  • During my research I came across the Green Tourism website where you can search for businesses that have won a Green Award by location. Green Tourism is a not-for-profit organisation established in 1997 with a mission to encourage and enable companies in the hospitality / tourism industry to make sustainable choices that reduce their impact on the planet. They have 2000 member in the UK and abroad. They claim to be one of the most rigorous certification programmes of its kind, stating that it is the only one independently validated by the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT). I have searched for eco-accommodation in Ireland using it’s website and I was surprised at the results. None of the destinations I listed in previous posts appeared, in fact the main result was for a Jury’s Inn, which wouldn’t strike me as a particularly ‘green’ hotel. I’m listing the website here but I personally won’t be using it to source green accommodation.
  • One Planet Rating appears to be a green version of Trip Advisor, where you can view hotels, restaurants and attractions based on their eco-rating. It seems to depend on the rating of the public and could be great if it works like Tripadvisor but so far the only hotel in Dublin that received a rating was the Radisson Blu, which I’d hardly rate as a particularly green hotel.


There are also some companies specialise in tailoring trips that are low-impact and ethical. Undiscovered Mountains is an mountain focused adventure holiday tour company that use small independent accommodations wherever possible and local guides and instructors so the money you spend on your holiday is ploughed straight back into the local economy. They also run an Eco-Challenge to raise money for Tourism Concern and operate a carbon offsetting program through a rewilding project with our partner Mossy Earth

Better Places Travel connect local travel experts with travellers to deliver experiences that are focused around nature and the local population. All of the local travel experts are Travelife certified, or in the process of obtaining their certification. To minimize the negative environmental impact of travel, they make sure that when booking through them you are travelling carbon neutral by compensating not only the in-destination travel you book through us, but also the emissions from the flight you took to reach your destination. Better Places Travel is also a Social Enterprise, and part of the Social Enterprise NL community.

And above all enjoy your trip.


PS – The calculation of how much arctic ice melts is based on a research paper published in the academic journal Science in 2016 by two climatologists, which I learned about in this article in the New York Times. The amount of carbon emitted by the flight was obtained using this carbon calculator

PPS – I don’t do sponsored posts or accept gifts. Instead I rely on the support of my readers. If you enjoyed this post then please share it and consider supporting me with a monthly donation via Patreon or with a once off donation via Paypal.


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