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Japan Airlines is bringing new meaning to the phrase “travelling light”. An initiative it launched this week will enable travellers to rock up at check in counters with little more than the clothes they are wearing. A two-week pre-selected supply of rental clothes will be delivered to their accommodation ahead of their arrival in Japan. Reserving a flight ticket to Tokyo will now also involve reserving outfits based on size, season, formality and colour.
The zany scheme raises several questions. Will my size be available? What if the weather forecasts are proved wrong? What if my clothes do not arrive? Japan Airlines has plenty to answer — but it believes the scheme will attract flyers hoping to make a “sustainable choice”. Apparel will come from excess-stock or second-hand sources, and less luggage could reduce travellers’ carbon footprint. A 10kg reduction in baggage is estimated to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 7.5kg. That is not much, but maybe every little helps.
The initiative is, though, largely a gimmick. The company is tapping into rising demand for sustainable travel. The aviation industry belches out about 2.4 per cent of global annual CO₂ emissions. Airline chief executives are alive to losing eco-conscious passengers, particularly amid guilt over flying as the climate warms. Indeed, flight shaming or flygskam in Swedish, where the term originated, became part of the lexicon pre-pandemic. The anti-flying movement, which aims to reduce the environmental impact of flying, gained momentum in 2019 following backing by climate activist Greta Thunberg. A UBS survey that year found one in five travellers had cut the number of flights they took for the sake of the planet.
With the first officially post-pandemic summer travel season ahead, flygskam will be back alongside revenge tourism. But schemes such as Japan Airlines’ “Any Wear, Anywhere” are unlikely to satisfy the more ardent climate warriors, even if it helps some fly with less guilt. In April, Dutch Airline KLM agreed to scrap its “Fly Responsibly” adverts. Its carbon offsetting offer — which allows flyers to contribute to reforestation projects and purchases of biofuels — was accused of giving the false impression that its flights would not make climate change worse. Australia’s flag carrier Qantas has a “Green Tier” program which rewards customers for making ‘green’ choices — partly by offering incentives to fly more.
Airlines may try to put a green spin on flying, to monetise the sustainable traveller, but they cannot escape the fact that air travel remains a high polluting activity. A round-trip flight from London to San Francisco for example emits per person more than a car in a year on average. Lighter luggage or partial offsets are marginal actions, particularly when passenger numbers are forecast to soar over the coming decade or so. Yet, green schemes can give the impression that the onus is on travellers to cut emissions.
This does not mean broader attempts to curb demand are entirely pointless. Celebrities’ private jet use has come under scrutiny. Some companies, governments, and universities have also already introduced short-haul flight restrictions. In May, France banned domestic flights under 150 minutes where suitable rail services exist. The Swedes even have a term for bragging about taking the train: Tågskryt.
Despite flight-shamers’ hopes, air travel will remain important for business and leisure. But consumers’ options for real sustainable travel, and not the illusion of it, need to improve. Better rail connections and cheaper train fares would help. As for airlines, a stronger push towards greener aviation fuels and technologies is vital. Ultimately, it will come down to big actions by governments, industry, and international bodies to drive sustainable travel — not a few climate-conscious backpackers.