The Human Face of Sustainable Travel

Protecting the planet must include the people who live on it.


What comes to mind when you think of sustainability? Our first thought is often of the planet and its natural environments: conserving fragile ecosystems, protecting vulnerable species, and addressing global warming. It’s why many of us are taking steps to minimize our impact on the environment through our diets, transportation choices, consumer habits and travel practices.

But there’s more to sustainability than just environmental considerations. It’s a holistic consideration of how we can protect our world for the future— which includes the people who live in it. Human sustainability is another dimension that considers how we can protect the rights and well-being of people, especially those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and economic inequality.

In her TED Talk, climate activist Greta Thunberg spotlights “climate justice” as a critical component of sustainability, saying, “That means that rich countries need to get down to zero emissions within 6 to 12 years...so that people in poorer countries can have a chance to heighten their standard of living.”

Just as an ecosystem needs protection and care to flourish, so does each individual. Human sustainability requires social and economic conditions, including education, health care, clean food and water, and freedom from discrimination and inequality. Without these foundational elements, people cannot reach their full potential.

photo by Sarah Tesla

Choose sustainable destinations

Although they may seem unrelated, environmental and human sustainability are deeply linked. Vulnerable populations in developing nations, and Indigenous populations across the world, are already feeling the effects of climate change despite contributing very little to global emissions.

The warming of the Arctic is harming Inuit cultural practices and their traditional hunting and fishing activities. Climate change has also made tropical storms more frequent and deadly, particularly affecting developing island nations like the Bahamas, which produces 0.01% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Likewise, efforts to protect the environment can also protect humans. The fashion industry produces 10% of global emissions, more than all international flights combined. This is largely due to fast fashion, which has transformed consumer habits: we buy a lot of cheap clothing, and throw a lot out too (81 pounds per year, on average). Fast fashion relies on exploitative labor practices that can have devastating impacts, like the collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed more than 1000 people. Curbing your shopping habits not only protects the environment, but also textile workers.

photo by Annie Spratt

The same is true in travel. Many destinations with tourism-focused economics have tackled environmental and human sustainability in their efforts to attract conscientious visitors. Palau requires all visitors to sign a pledge, which includes respecting wildlife (don’t touch the fish!) and people (learn about and observe local customs). And Uruguay staunchly defends its green spaces and the rights of its LGBTQ citizens.

Before planning a trip, do your research

Changing your shopping and travel habits to minimize the harm you do is important. But what if you want to take a more active role in improving human sustainability?

At home or abroad, there are ways to make an impact. Volunteer holidays (or “voluntourism”) are appealing for providing travellers with the opportunity to experience new places and cultures while making a positive contribution. However, voluntourism can have unintended negative impacts when the agencies involved are irresponsible or deceptive. Reputable operators like People and Places publish transparent information and ensure that volunteers are appropriately matched to placements.

Doing your research before traveling is always an important first step. Initiatives like the Responsible Tourism Awards provide detailed reviews of destinations and accommodations that can help you understand what to look for when considering human welfare abroad.

photo by Gregory Hayes

When you’re making your travel plans, considering factors like amenities, cost, and location, don’t forget to factor in people. Consider resorts like Soneva Fushi, which offers luxurious experiences but also provide local education and employment while implementing sustainable practices like innovative waste management.

It can be daunting to undertake this type of research; fortunately, there are many guides to ethical travel and organizations like the Rainforest Alliance that certify hotels and tour operators abroad.

Support human sustainability at home

If you live in relative safety and security, it’s easy to forget that injustices and inequality may happen in your own country as well. Indigenous communities are severely affected by climate change, which impacts their traditional territories, food systems and cultural practices. And their needs are often neglected, particularly when they live in rural or remote regions; consider that one Canadian First Nation hasn’t had safe drinking water in more than 25 years. Supporting initiatives like Indigenous Climate Action, which empower Indigenous communities to address climate change, can help make a difference closer to home.

Autumn Peltier, a teenage activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ont., addresses the United Nations General Assembly on March 22, 2018. Photo by Manuel Elias


One of the most wonderful parts of a journey is developing a deep, meaningful connection to a new place, one that buoys your spirit and fills you with wonder and empathy. The incredible good fortune of finding a kindred spirit halfway around the world, whether you encounter them in a museum or on a beach or across the table at a cooking class, is almost miraculous. These moments make us realize that all over the world are people, communities and cultures of unique and irreplaceable value. Embracing sustainability means fighting for their survival too, as well as the world we share.

Written by Michelle Cyca