Sustainability’s Competitive Advantage

Peoples ethical spending has always been of great interest. After meeting a particular customer I wondered if sustainability was finally becoming part of consumerism… Could it be possible that people are beginning to think of ethics first?

The customers very first question was;

‘I am looking for a responsible holiday where I can make a positive impact on Namibia, how does Responsible Travel’s holidays provide this?‘.

Sustainability and social consciousness has suddenly been given a competitive advantage. So perhaps it is time for businesses to move fluffy, tokenism charity work into real business practices?

The answer is yes according to Nielson, a leader in consumers behaviour analysis. Brands that demonstrated a commitment to sustainability grew by 4% in 2015 whilst those without grew by 1%. However, the question of cognitive dissonance always creeps in. There is a strong temptation to appear a good citizen when answering a questionnaire investigating ethical spending. Although, Nielson’s Sustainability Imperative report looks multilaterally, investigating over 30,000 peoples opinions globally, actual retail sales and analysed companies marketing strategies.

Even after these results, I still continue to be a cynic. I do not believe it’s just a result of conscience as Nielson suggests. It needs to be more than that if people are going to part with their money. Yes, they are interested and care about sustainability; the rise of B Corp certification exemplifies this. BUT when there’s a better and cheaper product I know what most people will opt for…


This change is because sustainable and ethical products are just getting better and better, but importantly becoming more desirable. When a Tesla outperforms a Lamborghini or Patagonia offers to fix your favourite jacket people begin to think ‘hey, maybe I want to hang with these guys now!’. Although, it’s not necessarily the physical object people are looking for. Fairphone admits its product is not going to be as good as an iPhone however, over 100,000 have bought it! There are some very cool features like the easily replaceable parts giving the phone an endless life. Alt ugh, consumers are not really purchasing the physical product, they are buying the story and with that comes image and lifestyle.


Working in the tourism industry this change in mindset has never been clearer. The search for deeper and more meaningful experiences has really picked up pace. With AirBnB leading the way in more immersive accommodation experiences and providing not only a more authentic experience but a route for local people to access the tourism economy.


Arguably these products are getting better because customers needs and wants are evolving. Skift recently released a report discussing the rise of the geopolitically-aware and immersive traveler. It highlights how connectivity has made the traveller braver but also desire richer experiences that provide greater stories. The accommodations or transport may not be physically better but the experiences will be far more engaging and interesting, not only to the tourist but importantly to those who will be listing to the stories in the future. These shifts have slowly given responsible tourism added competitive advantage.


Revisiting my Namibia customer, I still think she is part of a small but growing crowd. Travellers are about experiences first, social and environmental responsibility second and I think it will stay this way. But the desired experiences have evolved. People are searching for trips that can only be provided by responsible and sustainable tourism, transforming it into the better product.

So to conclude, its not enough just to pronounce yourself as a sustainable/ethical company. You need to create a story, a way of life and identity for people to buy into…


4 thoughts on “Sustainability’s Competitive Advantage

  1. Saul, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the economic advantages available to responsible tourism operators.
    Your customer looking to visit Namibia asked a vague question in wanting to make a positive impact. I which areas was she looking to make a positive impact? Each of us have different values. Some see economic growth as making a positive impact, others want to ensure that the the money they spend there is going to be spread equitably without it promoting exploitation, while others hope that the environment and cultural landscape of the country visited will be improved in ways that the locals will appreciate.
    From what you say about customers looking for experiences I’m guessing that their questions relating to your company’s offerings are mainly related to experiential aspects. When they do ask questions about the social, cultural and environmental impacts of their potential choices what are the most frequent questions for each of these impacts?


  2. Thank you John, I am pleased you enjoyed it. I am afraid customers are often vague, in fact they are often quite vague on the type of holiday they are looking for!

    This can be a problem in adventure tourism, ‘they don’t know what they want until they have it’. It is my job and our holiday providers job to help narrow peoples holiday searches. Because they are vague on the type of holiday they want they are not surprisingly vague on the impact they would like to have. The question was how does Responsible Travel make an impact i.e. how do our holidays facilitate that not how can I make an impact. Many consumers do not understand responsible tourism and I don’t blame them for that. I feel its our responsibility to guide people in the right direction. We are the experts and consumers put a certain amount of expectation on that.

    You are right we do all hold different values, but that is dependent on the destination rather than customers demands. The most frequently asked questions is really quite simple ‘how are your holidays responsible?’ or ‘what makes your holidays responsible?’. Most, not all, customers aren’t clued up enough to dig any deeper. Many are not seeking to be ‘responsible’ but are seeking an experience that ‘mainstream tourism’ cannot provide.

    I hope that answers your questions?


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