Peaks of Purpose – Scaling Sustainable Adventure Travel
When we started One Planet Journey, deciding to focus on sustainable tourism, I had a fear that it might be too niche, that the market wasn’t ready. I’m happy to say I was wrong. Demand is surging, destinations are getting on board, and every day I come across fellow entrepreneurs in the travel industry, uncompromising in their quest to reshape the sector into a responsible part of the economy. Tom Peacock, founder of Pinnacle, a sustainable adventure tourism consultancy, is one such warrior, using skill sets within business, tech and mountaineering to turn the fast-growing segment of adventure travel into a force for good, and protecting the incredible nature which underpins its existence.
Over a joint interest in mountainous adventures, we chatted about the future of the industry, a long-lasting commitment to fight climate change and whether the planet is beyond saving or not. Read on and get inspired by Tom’s infectious desire to be the change society sorely needs.
Sustainability runs like a theme in your career, from management consulting, adventure travel and climate change champion. Tell us more about your drive and enthusiasm for the topic.
My interest in sustainability, in particular surrounding the great outdoors, stems from a childhood where I was lucky enough to have exposure to amazing places in the Swiss Alps. It made me appreciate the natural world as it is today but also what it once was. I recall looking at pictures of glaciers in science books when I was in school and even then, glacial retreat was highlighted as a problem and as a young child I couldn’t wrap my head around why no one did anything to stop the destruction of these wonders.
Fast forward to adulthood and that has turned into frustration concerning the lack of sustainable progress in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. I founded Pinnacle in early 2022, combining my consulting experience with my passion for the mountains and outdoors to ultimately enable a transformation within the adventure travel sector. I have always felt an unwavering obligation to do something about climate change, but as we are all too aware, sustainability can often be a dishonest box ticking activity for organisations. My mission with Pinnacle is to focus in on businesses that both operate and service the adventure travel industry and to guide them towards a better way of doing business, with tangible positive impact on the environment and our planet.
How has the work with Pinnacle progressed?
For me, Pinnacle is my contribution to changing the status quo in the adventure travel industry. I’ve paired my considerable consulting experience relating to change management with my personal passion for everything outdoors related. I work with businesses to help them understand the impact they’re having on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and then through close collaboration we put in place a good foundation for reducing and responsibly offsetting emissions followed by business specific, sustainability oriented innovation.
Adventure Base, a specialist in mountain experiences, has been a brilliant case study for me. I started out by calculating emissions for scope one, two, & three. This means direct, indirect and value chain related emissions. We then agreed on reduction targets within the team, and using forecasts, worked out how much it would cost to offset emissions over the next 10 years in a responsible manner. Understanding your business is always the first step and as soon as you have tangible and reliable data, you’re ready to make informed decisions, with minimal effect on profitability, and the greatest positive impact on sustainability. I believe in consistency and, as part of the service to Adventure Base, I’m guiding them through the B-Corporation certification process.
What are the main challenges for sustainable adventure travel?
Adventure travel is a delicate place to be in as a business in terms of climate change. They are solely reliant on the environment being in a good enough state in order for people to want to travel to these locations, whilst the same businesses contribute emissions from their operations. Besides this, I would say there’s two major challenges facing the sector at the present.
First, and foremost, the infrastructure around the world isn’t good enough to support and encourage more sustainable travel. Why would someone pay three times as much for a journey that takes 4 times as long when they could fly? We see slight progress here, however, and it’s refreshing that countries like France banned short-haul domestic flights. In order to enable sustainable travel, we need governments to invest more in our rail networks, open up more routes and reduce ticket prices and travel time for longer journeys.
Second, businesses fail to realise that they are accountable for their scope three emissions throughout the value chain, as much as their clients are. They need to take accountability for mitigation and reduction. I speak to representatives operating in this sector on a regular basis and it would surprise you how many don’t understand that their offerings are the enabling factor for scope three emissions to be created. By changing how they deliver those services, it will influence travellers’ decisions in a more sustainable direction.
Although these are both huge challenges to overcome and they can’t happen overnight, it’s refreshing to work with businesses like Adventure Base who are very open to accepting accountability for those scope three emissions. By doing this, they have established a more honest and transparent relationship with their clients, which I believe they value a lot.
For a company like Adventure Base, how near to core operations is sustainability, and how much awareness do their clients already have?
When I first worked with Adventure base, they had good awareness of sustainability, and had already taken steps, but on the whole, there was more to do in order to close the gap. 12 months later, it’s become a natural part of each business decision and I’ve tried to instil the ‘sustainability by default’ thinking within the team. Each choice should consider all environmental impacts associated with it. Safe to say, they’ve come a long way over the past year and are set to launch their 2024 season with an improved sustainability structure in place, which is exciting for both them and myself.
In general, individuals who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, skiing, and alpinism are aware of how climate change adversely affects our ecosystems, including the mountains. Of course, there are some pure sport enthusiasts that care about the snow to ski on and nothing more. This second group of people represents a challenge. To reach them, we need specific engagement to bring them on-side. As the planet warms, it will impact all aspects of outdoor sports mentioned before.
Climate change affects nature in such a profound way. What are your thoughts on the future of adventure travel, and do you see any opportunities for innovation?
There’s always an opportunity to innovate and transport has the greatest sustainability impact. For adventure travel companies, client travel equates to around 80-90% of their total emissions and if governments prioritise greener infrastructure, cheaper fares and shorter travelling times, it will fast-track the reduction of emissions.
Furthermore, I know there’s an opportunity to improve how adventure travel companies work more closely with other businesses in their immediate areas. For instance, hotels, restaurants and shops all benefit from clients coming for an adventure, and it is therefore in their best interest to help drive forward positive change. Renewable energy, water efficiency, reduced waste; quick examples of how to contribute to sustainable practices that lower emissions and preserve the surrounding environments.
You have a background working with big clients in the consulting industry with a specific focus on technology. How important is tech in relation to behavioural change in our quest for a sustainable society?
I think they go hand in hand – you need technology for more sustainable ways to operate a business, but people have to use it in the correct way. By nature, humans don’t appreciate change, which is holding back the changes in behaviour necessary to live a more sustainable life. It’s easier to accept technological shifts for consumers. Look at the recent adoption of social media over the past 5-10 years and, more recently, AI tools like Chat GPT. We put a lot of faith in tech as a saviour to help us out of our current mess. It’s the easy thing to do.
On a 1-10 scale, 10 being confident as hell, how optimistic are you about future generations’ opportunities to enjoy nature and adventure travel the way we are now?
I would class myself as an optimist on most counts, but when it comes to climate change and the impact it already has on adventure travel, I’d score myself somewhere in the middle at a 5.
Last season, Mont Blanc was closed to mountaineers due to the amount of rock fall and avalanches; we’re experiencing record melting of glaciers and a decline in biodiversity of wildlife, which cannot be reversed. Future adventure travellers will be able to visit these places, but with a look very different from today, and some of the lure and attraction might have evaporated.
As a species, we’ve proven that if we focus on one pressing issue, we can solve complex problems. Take Covid-19, for instance. Manufacturers like Dyson paused their production lines and built respirators. We developed and approved vaccines in record time, and everyday companies turned their attention to producing PPE. While the implications of Covid-19 had more short-term visibility as it threatened profitability, we are only starting to see the impacts of climate change on society. The adverse effects will increase as global temperatures rise, and when we hit tipping points, the snowball effect might be unstoppable. There are reasons to be hopeful, but we need to pull together as a collective and make this our priority.
What is your most memorable travel experience and which mountain can you recommend for us beginners?
It’s actually one that happened only recently, a story of retribution! Last summer, I was on Mont Dolent in the Swiss Alps with my climbing partner and we had to turn around about 400 metres from the summit because of pure exhaustion. It was the wake up call I needed and, as a result, took my mountain fitness much more seriously.
Fast forward to this summer, we had our second attempt and successfully summited in record time. I remember the feeling of sheer elation as I reached the peak. All that hard work and sweat in the gym had been worth it, and the incredible views made it even sweeter.
For beginners, I’d always recommend starting with some easier hiking in the UK, like some hills in Dartmoor or the Lake District. If you’re thinking of taking the mountaineering path, book yourself onto an essential skills course in Scotland/Wales to make sure you nail the basics!
Sage advice. I can vouch for the Lake District myself. Manageable peaks and good training for more adventurous undertakings. Tom, thank you for sharing your expertise on adventure travel. As more travellers get the taste for this adrenaline filled form of tourism, it is paramount that tour operators and the wider hospitality industry transition to sustainable practices and instil a sense of responsibility in their clients so that future generations have a possibility to experience our natural wonders. With purposeful advocates like Tom and organisations, such as Pinnacle, there is a fighting chance to turn things around.
Are you an adventure traveller? Have you climbed any famous mountains? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.