As the Global Environmental Impact Manager at Intrepid Travel, Susanne ensures that climate-consciousness is interwoven within all business operations and management structures. She goes the extra mile to produce open-access, industry-leading resources for other businesses to embed the same ethos in their own operations.
Intrepid’s sustainability journey has been incredibly inspiring to witness. They are the world’s largest travel B-Corporation and the first ever global travel organisation to have verified Science-Based Targets. Intrepid has a seven-point climate action plan to reduce its carbon footprint as much as possible, before credibly offsetting the rest. As a leader in community-based tourism, Intrepid supports local communities to build capacity towards their own goals - they even have a not-for-profit that accelerates sustainable development internationally. We at Better Futures wanted to learn more about Susanne’s climate journey and how she became so active in this space, having been inspired by her work.
Susanne grew up in Germany and spent much of her childhood exploring Europe by train with her family. She became fascinated with the Alps, as her parents were avid skiers and hikers. Her family ingrained a sense of connection and respect for the environment in her, which made her more perceptive of changes in the natural environment. She recalled that each year, the glaciers seemed to be melting faster come summertime.
I was always interested in the natural world, and I took a particular interest in biology at school…around that time the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest started to gain attention in the German media.”
She recalled how rapidly fast food chains were popping up around her hometown, and it clicked for her that the increased demand for animal agriculture was accelerating land clearing. Susanne became fascinated with how forests function as carbon sinks, and learned more about their crucial role in maintaining planetary health. This curiosity of the natural world in school led Susanne to pursue it further in tertiary education.
I decided to study biology [at university] as it opened the door to the whole world; it shows us how human health is connected to the health of land, water and air.”
In her Master’s degree, Susanne conducted nascent research on how infectious diseases were spreading more rapidly due to climate change. The implications of climate change for human health, she said, were not well understood at the time. She was studying in Greece, where there was a particular concern about the rise of malaria due to the changing climate. Having discovered this to be a serious issue, she considered how other diseases may be on the rise for the same reason.
I continued to do a PhD and moved on to look at Lyme disease, but it focused on the same problem…that ecosystems are changing and disease is spreading.”
Susanne worked throughout her degree for a carbon offsetting company; one of the first that was registered and had a rigorous methodology. She decided that she would like to continue working within the business community after graduating, as she saw a clear role for bringing climate science into the business sector.
After some time, her manager brought her along to a new climate consultancy group - Ndevr Environmental - to help build capacity on sustainable practice. They grew this group into a global network, educating around 400 practitioners on how to engage industry leaders on embedding sustainability within their businesses.
We used a knowledge-sharing approach to accelerate learning.”
In 2008 Susanne moved to Australia, inspired by the traction that the climate movement was having here.
Unfortunately, Australia then went backwards. Globally too, we went backwards because the financial crisis happened. There was no money for climate change. Businesses were investing in health and safety, which was primarily about social licence to operate - it wasn’t developed like it is today.”
A four year stint working in corporate sustainability taught Susanne more about how to engage with companies and get them registered with Dow Jones Sustainability Indices; which are best practice metrics for sustainable business.
That was the link with how I got to Intrepid where I could continue my passion. I get to work with a business that is very committed and passionate about climate action with Darrell Wade.”
Susanne is always excited by her work, as she is able to push for greater action within Intrepid and set a high standard for the rest of the industry - providing others with the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. She has relished the opportunity to work within communities over her time living in six different countries, to embed sustainable business practices wherever she goes. For her, Intrepid is the pinnacle of all her work on climate in the business space.
By empowering people through sustainable travel experiences, we can make travel better for everyone and simultaneously take care of our planet".
Intrepid has been operating for over 30 years and have over 800 trips across every continent, doing things the local way. Intrepid also gives back to the communities that make their trips possible through The Intrepid Foundation. Their not-for-profit has raised over $12 million for more than 130 charities around the world since 2002.
According to Susanne, the need for climate action grows more obvious year on year. Not only is the changing climate leading to extreme weather events that threaten people and wildlife the world over, but it is a significant threat to their business. She reflects that many of the destinations they love may well be impacted by drought, fire, or other weather events over the next decade.
Susanne is currently working on calculating emissions factors for each element that comprises a trip, so they can break down carbon intensity at the product level. This will enable Intrepid to more accurately calculate the total emissions of each trip. The overall aim of the project is to move towards a carbon labelling system so that their customers can see what their options are.
Sustainability itself is not a product, it’s embedded across all products.”
By providing their customers with different options, they are able to customise their own trips and better understand the carbon intensity of their options. For instance, many people may not consider the difference in carbon intensity between camping or staying in a hotel. Labelling these options brings greater transparency and thoughtfulness to travelling, she reasons.
Susanne would like the Australian Government to implement policy that supports Electric Vehicle (EV) infrastructure development, as well as support for the uptake and availability of EVs more generally. It would, according to her, have a huge impact on reducing the carbon intensity of Intrepid’s journeys. Ensuring that the electricity generated for EV charging comes from a renewable source is also important, she mentioned.
While Susanne joked that they were not leasing Teslas for their customers at this point, it was certainly a stimulating thought to consider - if Australia had fleets of EVs, imagine the impact that could have on the transport sector’s emissions, which is the third fastest growing source of emissions in the country and makes up 30% of all annual emissions.
In January 2020, Intrepid declared a climate emergency with Tourism Declares, a global collective of tourism businesses, organisations, and individuals who have pledged urgent action on climate change. As a founding member they have spent a significant amount of time with this collective, bolstering community capacity to act on climate change. The collective now has nearly 450 members, and you can view Intrepid Travel’s declaration here.
Susanne described how the tourism industry has taken a huge hit by the pandemic, and that many sustainability leads were lost as companies tried to reduce expenditure. She, along with others at Intrepid, took initiative to breathe life back into climate action within the industry.
Their quick-start guide to help travel businesses decarbonise their operations and a carbon measurement tool for tour operators launched at The United Nations Council of Parties 26 (COP26). Intrepid partnered with Endeavour Environmental and Tourism Declares to develop this tool, as there is no one standardised methodology for setting SBTis in the tourism sector. The tool can also be used by any small business, as it provides general advice on measuring carbon emissions as well.
Coming out of the pandemic and having the support of the United Nations Council of the Parties Glasgow Climate Pact, sustainability within the global tourism industry is getting back on track. Several international groups are putting energy behind revitalising sustainability practice, including Future of Tourism, One Planet and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). In particular, the UNWTO has the structure and capacity to monitor the commitments made by those within the tourism sector.
Intrepid Travel was part of the launch party in Glasgow for the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, helping to kickstart energy for this movement. Companies of all sizes are joining this initiative, demonstrating renewed commitments across the sector for sustainable practice.