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Social Impact: Altruism Is Not Enough to Fuel Progress

No rational business leader views inequality or pollution as a good thing. But many, if not most, do not view these as business priorities. Sure, most travel & tourism companies have programs to ensure they are good corporate citizens, and many are doing great things for their communities. But the efforts are largely kept separate from the main objectives of the company and its definition of value creation, even in the non-profit space.

The U.S. Has Lagged Behind

Globally, travel & tourism has been a pioneering industry when it comes to sustainability. From a cynical point of view, that leadership may have been driven by pragmatism more than anything else. Without preserving the things travelers come to experience, the whole industry would fall apart. One could argue this dynamic is why sustainability efforts have largely been led by destinations that are nature centric, remote or have fragile attractions that need protection. Many U.S. destinations have been relatively slow to start in part because of the country’s vastness, connectivity and youth – over-tourism has not been much of an issue across much of the country.

The sustainability implications for cities are also not so stark, particularly because despite broader intentions, the concept is generally associated with environmental and cultural conservation. A city’s local culture radiates from large populations; concrete jungles won’t be cleared to make way for tourist attractions, and whatever waste travel generates is undiscernible. It’s easy to see why sustainability has not been a top priority for many urban destinations – the tie-in to the ultimate goal of growth/economic development has not been obvious.

The connection between sustainability and growth, however, is becoming increasingly clear. Climate impact has already been established as a common consideration for corporate and meeting planner decisions. Consumers are not far behind. According to a 2020 study commissioned by[1], an average of 82% of travelers around the world consider sustainable travel to be important. The percentage is substantially lower among U.S. travelers at 69%, but still represents a strong majority.

Ultimately, regardless of the destination type, tourism already has massive positive social impact from an economic opportunity perspective. Ours is an industry for which diversity truly creates advantage. The millions of jobs it creates provide upward opportunity without requiring specialized education. But focusing objectives singularly on economic gain can have unintended consequences, causing tourism to potentially become parasitic to the host community. We’ve always known that the benefits of tourism can go far beyond visitor spending – it’s time to expand the value proposition and prove it.

Altruism Is a Luxury; Value Creation Is a Basic Business Goal

In the never-ending quest for DMO funding and general consideration for the travel & tourism industry from policymakers, determining how tourism not only brings economic growth but also meaningful wins against systemic societal challenges can be incredibly powerful. After all, showing “what’s in it for me” is the key to persuasion, particularly in the politically divided environment we find ourselves in today. Rewording the message from sustainability to social impact implies a more inclusive range of efforts for both people and planet, as well as a focus on results. Narrowing the benefits from global to local scale can help make the impact more tangible and easily tied to existing community and policymaker priorities.

Of course, describing benefits is one thing, quantifying them is another. Value cannot be defined by a list of vaguely benevolent characteristics. Unfortunately, value measurement beyond economic fundamentals is often maddeningly subjective. Climate change is not even accepted universally as a problem across the U.S. Therefore, defining a framework for measuring value creation requires a foundation of stakeholder perspective and a degree of flexibility. But at the same time, metrics must adhere to standards or there will be no context or comparability – without them numbers are meaningless.

iolite group is certainly not the first to recognize the challenge and opportunity of social impact measurement, but it is our mission to help organizations generate evidence-based measurement of their impact beyond economics. As agents of change, our approach is to apply the rigor of established research methodologies to social impact efforts, with a specific audience in mind: the skeptic. Reframing social impact as a business objective to create value for stakeholders, rather than a solely altruistic objective to do good may be the key to shifting the conversation from the employee cafeteria to the boardroom.

[1] This independently conducted research commissioned by surveyed a sample of 20,432 respondents across 22 markets (Brazil, Mexico, United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Israel, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Morocco, Kenya and South Africa). To participate, respondents had to be 18 years of age or older, had to have traveled at least once in the past 12 months and be either the primary decision-maker or involved in the decision-making of their travel. The online survey took place in March 2020.

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