The rise of “flying shame” points to a blind spot in conscious consumerism

“Flying shame” on the horizon?
“Flying shame” on the horizon?
Image: AP/Yves Herman
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It’s a phrase so obvious it’s surprising that it’s only just entered the lexicon: “flying shame,” as it’s been dubbed in Sweden, or the feeling that jetting off to far away places is something to be ashamed of in the age of climate change.

And it’s not just an attitude but, increasingly for Swedes, a consumer choice. A survey conducted by WWF found that 23% of Swedes had chosen not to fly in the last year to reduce their impact on the climate. A further 18% had opted for rail travel over planes for the same reason.

But the phrase is notable precisely because it’s a sentiment that doesn’t seem widespread. As the idea of conscious consumerism has become nothing short of mainstream in affluent consumers’ lives over the past decade, there’s been one notable blind spot: getting on a plane. It’s not hard to find people who have changed their diet to one that’s more environmentally friendly, who drive a hybrid vehicle, or who seek out clothing and household products made from sustainable materials. But it’s much rarer to find someone that says: “I’m not going on vacation or traveling for work this year—it’s bad for the environment.”

The aviation sector accounts for 2% of carbon emissions worldwide. By 2050, it could account for as much as 27%, according to the UN, thanks to the growth of global air travel. Long-haul flying is regularly listed in the top actions humans can take to cut down their personal carbon emissions (alongside eating a plant-based diet and not having children). So if it’s clear that drastically cutting down on our flying would make an impact, why isn’t doing so as commonplace as adopting a plant-based diet?

To understand why flying hasn’t brought about the kind of shame on display in Sweden, you have to understand the very nature of what conscious consumption is. Halina Szejnwald Brown, a professor emerita of environmental science and policy at Clark University, says you can start by thinking of it as an oxymoron: “By definition, [consumption] is what’s driving production and the use of products that, in the end, leads to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Szejnwald Brown, who also helped found an international knowledge network for sustainable consumption research, says the choice to avoid air travel is fundamentally different from changing your diet or buying different products: “I like to make a distinction between behaviors on the one hand, and lifestyles on the other hand. You can change behaviors but they’re usually minor changes,” Szejnwald Brown says. “But lifestyles is a much deeper issue. People choose lifestyle in connection with their view of themselves, their social position, their aspiration.” In other words, buying more organic vegetables or cycling to work has an additive on one’s quality of life—it’s aspirational—whereas not going on vacation or forgoing business travel is a real sacrifice for affluent consumers.

“When I talk to my colleagues in the sustainable-consumption field, they are willing to change a lot of things in their lives before they consider reducing travel,” Brown said. “Travel has become so much part of professional life … If you don’t travel, you don’t create networks—the entire system of success for professional life requires travel.”

But just because travelers aren’t currently demanding it in droves, that doesn’t mean airlines and the industry at large aren’t eagerly looking for ways to improve their environmental footprint. Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst with the Atmosphere Research Group, points out that airlines have plenty of reasons to reduce their environmental footprints, even if most travelers are not yet ashamed to fly them.

“The airlines also want to reduce their emissions and their fuel consumption for a couple reasons,” Harteveldt said. “It’s one of their two biggest expenses (along with labor) and they know that for their current and future customers—especially the millennials and Gen Z—corporate social responsibility is very important to them. They know they cant just give it a PR spin and conduct business as usual. Their employees demand it, and I think you’ll start to see shareholders asking more questions about this.”

The aviation industry (along with shipping) were left out of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. However, 10 years ago the industry agreed on its own targets, including 1.5% per year improvement in fuel efficiency until 2020; the goal to attain carbon-neutral growth by 2020; and to halve emissions by 2050 versus 2005 levels. A December 2018 report from CAPA Centre for Aviation on the industry’s environmental outlook said advancements in technology—specifically biofuels and hybrid as well as electric-powered planes—are making strides, but conceded that “in the long term a step change reduction in carbon emissions will require completely new propulsion systems.” By most accounts, those systems are a long way from being implemented on long-haul consumer jets.

Even with current technology, though, one could technically make more planet-friendly choices. Harteveldt cites low cost airlines like Ryanair and easyJet who have tried to tout their sustainability credentials for operating densely-packed flights. Additionally, Norwegian was recently named (pdf) the most fuel-efficient transatlantic carrier, with a per-passenger fuel efficiency 33% higher than the industry average, thanks to its rock-bottom fares (which get people on board) and its lighter—and thus more fuel efficient—dual-engine jets made from carbon fiber-reinforced polymers, rather than metal.

Harteveldt points out the somewhat uncomfortable truth that the types of affluent consumers who might care about, say, the sustainability of their diet or the eco-credentials of their vacation resort, are also the most likely to balk at a cramped economy seat.

“I think where there is this contradiction is within us as travelers where we say we want to be comfortable when we fly, we recognize that comfort may cost more, but we also want that environmentally sensible approach towards air travel,” Harteveldt said. “So we want to have our cake and eat it—and have no fat, no calories, and taste really good. That’s a challenge.”

But still, Szejnwald Brown says if cheap flights like Norwegian Air’s stimulate demand—if people are flying long haul because it’s cheap, not because they need to—therein lies another way that conscious consumption is a kind of fallacy. In climatic terms, there is no getting around the fact that not flying is better than flying.

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future of air travel will be in the age of a warming planet (other than more extreme weather and disrupted flights). If technology keeps up with the need to reduce emissions, air travel could continue at its passenger-friendly price point. If it doesn’t, Szejnwald Brown predicts that’s when we’ll see the biggest change start to take place.

“Money is the most important factor in changing not just behaviors, but the system. System changes happen when everybody is somehow affected by some change and it affects how the institutions function.”