Millennial Dilemma: Balancing Travel with Environmental Ethics

Millennial priorities are transforming the hospitality industry to focus on sustainable travel, but are good intentions enough?

Living in a tiny house appears to be a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. And it can be. But many millennials embrace a minimalist lifestyle at home to free up funds to travel the world. Can the carbon savings of a tiny house really compensate for the fuel burned jetting around the world?

balancing travel with environmental ethics istock

Both sustainability and travel are high priorities for millennials. In a March 2023 survey for the State of Travel and Hospitality in 2023, 32% of the 17% of adults who planned to fly in the next three months were millennials. That’s the largest cohort of travelers, followed by 30% who were baby boomers, 25% Gen X and 13% Gen Z.

More than half (55%) of millennials said that net zero carbon is extremely or very important to them in a recent COGNITION survey by Green Builder Media.

millennial responses to importance of Net Zero Carbon

In a 2022 survey, 81% of travelers said sustainable travel is important to them, and 50% of travelers said that recent news about climate change has influenced them to make more sustainable choices.

Whether it’s your tiny house or your travel plans, there are choices that can make a big difference to your carbon footprint. For example, a tiny home that’s fully optimized with energy-efficient features can create as little as 2,000 pounds of CO2 annually. That compares to the 28,000 pounds of CO2 created annually by a typical house.

Some “tiny houses” are actually RVs used for a nomadic lifestyle. While the RV itself is typically smaller than a house and therefore requires less energy for heating and cooling, when you take it on the road you’re driving one of the least energy efficient vehicles. On top of that, plenty of RV owners use a gas generator for power when they’re parked. Switching to solar or wind power with an invertor may be an option for some RV owners.

Millennials committed to sustainability can be proud of their decision to live in a tiny house set in a permanent location, but the carbon savings can be quickly offset by extensive travel.

Carbon Impact of Transportation Choices

How you travel and how far you go have a big impact on your carbon footprint. But it’s not quite as simple as “long trips are bad” and “short trips are good” in terms of sustainability.

Generally, fuel-efficient trains and buses are best for both short and long distances, according to research. While flying is considered bad for the environment, the level of damage depends on how far you fly. On a short haul flight, 97 grams of carbon are released per passenger per kilometer, but on a long-haul flight, that drops down to 30 grams.

There’s a difference in trains, too. A train that runs on no-fossil electricity releases one gram of carbon per passenger per kilometer, but a high-speed train that runs on coal-fueled electricity will release 47 grams. 

While a bus may seem like a better option, especially a high-occupancy city bus that releases just four grams of carbon per passenger per kilometer, a low-occupancy, high-comfort bus releases 28 grams per passenger per kilometer. Traveling cross-country in a light truck as a single occupant releases 96 grams of carbon per passenger per kilometer, far more than the 20 grams released by a two-occupant smaller car.

In the March 2023 State of Travel and Hospitality study, 53% of people who planned to travel expected to use their personal vehicle, while 47% expected to travel by plane, 21% with a rental car, 9% by bus and 8% by train. That suggests a disconnect between the stated preference for sustainability and the actual decisions people make.

Of course, you can change your destination or make alternative decisions based on the carbon footprint associated with your plan. Nearly one-fourth of respondents to the survey said they traveled to a place closer to home to reduce their carbon footprint, and 22% said they researched public transportation and bike rental options at their planned destination. The nonprofit Sustainable Travel International organization has a carbon footprint calculator to compare various options.

But sometimes there’s no choice but to fly or drive to your destination. That’s when purchasing carbon offsets can be an option. Tourism accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to Sustainable Travel International. While the organization recommends ways to reduce your CO2 emissions when traveling and to practice sustainability, you can also purchase carbon offsets through their site or at Terrapass

Carbon offsets typically fund projects that lower CO2 emissions or sequester them, such as planting trees or building renewable energy resources. The idea is that even if you increase carbon emissions somewhere by your actions, such as by flying, you can reduce carbon emissions in another place to generally compensate the environment. 

The preference, though, is to reduce your own carbon footprint wherever possible.

Responsible Travel

If you’re looking for alternative destinations or for tour companies or accommodations that commit to sustainability, a good place to start is the  Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). GTSC develops standards for destinations and organizations in four areas: sustainable management, socioeconomic impact, cultural impacts and environmental impacts.

According to the GSTC, sustainable tourism does not refer to a specific type of tourism, rather it is an aspiration for the impacts of all forms of tourism to be sustainable for generations to come. The site defines ecotourism, which some people confuse with sustainable travel, as a niche segment of tourism in natural areas. 

The GSTC supports responsible travel, which refers to the behavior and style of individual travelers. The behaviors align with making a positive impact to the destination rather than negative ones.

10 Ways to Travel Responsibly

You can take multiple steps to reduce your negative environmental impact while you still enjoy traveling, such as:

  1. Choose a green-certified destination. The GSTC has a searchable database of sustainable destinations.
  2. Fly nonstop. Airplanes use the most fuel at takeoff and landing, so a single flight means you’ll be contributing less to carbon emissions related to flying.
  3. Don’t rent a car. Use public transportation, walk or bike when you reach your destination.
  4. Choose accommodations with sustainable practices. The GSTC has a searchable database of sustainable hotels.
  5. Leave no trace. Consider your impact on the community where you’re staying and the sites you visit. Don’t damage the landscape or litter when hiking, and don’t use sunscreen that can hurt coral reefs.
  6. Conserve water. Don’t do unnecessary laundry or have the hotel wash your sheets and towels daily. Look for hotels with sustainable practices including water conservation.
  7. Continue to recycle. Look for recycling bins and ask at your hotel where you can leave recyclable items.
  8. Pack reusable items. Bring a water bottle, shopping bags and reusable containers for food.
  9. Avoid single-use toiletries. Bring a refillable small container of recycled plastic with shampoo from home instead of packing and tossing tiny plastic bottles in the trash.
  10. Shop local. Support the economy by eating at local restaurants and shopping at small businesses.

Traveling the planet doesn’t have to be a guilt trip if you take the time to be intentional about your choices and your behavior as you explore far flung destinations.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors. These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.