From climate action to animal welfare, there’s a lot going on at Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, reports Dr Emma Harvey, head of sustainability.

High on Emma Harvey’s agenda is the environment. She came to Virgin Atlantic nearly 10 years ago to focus on climate solutions. “I was genuinely surprised by how much was already going on,” she says. “There were lots of people within the business – and the wider industry, actually – making great progress on carbon.”

“Like a lot of people who work here, I’m a travel lover, and acutely aware of how many people share our love of travel to meet different people, experience different cultures and do business. Travel brings huge economic, social and community benefits – many people’s livelihoods depend on it. But it comes with big environmental responsibilities, too. If you look at our combined carbon footprint across airline and holiday operations, by far the biggest environmental impact is the carbon associated with aircraft movement – the fuel we use,” says Emma, “It accounts for 85 per cent of our total emissions, and it’s why we focus our efforts here.”

Since the launch of the Change is in the Air programme in 2007, the number one priority has been carbon reductions, especially around the ‘three big wins’ – fleet, CORSIA and fuels. “This is now led by Shai Weiss, our CEO, and our leadership team, and of course Richard. Thanks to their drive, we’re now poised to go even bigger on climate action.

“Since 2011, we’ve been gradually replacing older, less fuel and carbon-efficient aircraft with more efficient twin-engine ones. If you put the right aircraft on the right route, optimising passenger numbers and cargo load, you see roughly a 30 per cent carbon reduction per trip,” Emma says. “Overall, the result is a 20 per cent reduction across our operations so far, with more savings to come as our A350s and A330-neos come into service. Of course, new aircraft are fantastic for noise reductions and customer experience, too”.

“Small things add up as well. For years our teams have been reducing onboard weight. We want our customers to help, too. If they all carried 1kg less weight it would equate to taking 1,500 cars off the road each year.”

The next big step is CORSIA, the UN’s carbon off-setting and reduction scheme for International Aviation, designed to help the industry achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020. “International aviation sits outside the Paris Agreement, which is based on each country’s own domestic emissions,” she says. “Because international aviation travels across borders, a key UN principle says airlines on the same route must be treated equally. Not only does this keep things fair, crucially it prevents carbon simply being passed from one airline to another, which could potentially increase emissions.”

“We were one of the first airlines calling for carbon pricing and a global market-based measure for our sector. International agreements are hard won, so when the agreement came through it was a big deal. It means that from 2021 to 2035, airlines from participating countries will collectively put billions of dollars into completely new, independently verified carbon-saving schemes, like new renewable energy and forestry projects,” says Emma, “preventing an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon entering the atmosphere. The implications are huge.”

Focus on fuel

After stabilising emissions, the next big opportunity for reductions is advanced, waste-based sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). “We’re at a critical tipping point with these exciting new technologies,” she says. “For example, our cleantech partner, LanzaTech, makes fuels by recycling waste carbon gases from heavy industrial facilities, like steel mills and refineries – meaning lifecycle carbon savings of at least 70 per cent compared to fossil jet.

“I really believe we’re close to some significant breakthroughs now. Since our world-first biofuel test flight more than 10 years ago, there have been thousands of commercial flights using an SAF blend, so it’s clearly technically viable. At the moment, these fuels are expensive, but with a little bit more push from governments, fuel suppliers and investors, we could have the first full-scale plants making affordable, sustainably robust fuels as early as the 2020s. This is when the big change will happen, as we’ll be able to use them routinely and get those big carbon savings.”

Food for thought

Emma says that their next-level priority is around other parts of their supply chain – the products and services bought across airline and holiday operations. “The first principle of sustainable supply chain is waste reduction: do you need to buy it in the first place?” she says. “Then for the products and services we do need to buy, how do we improve their sustainability profile?”

Emma was keen to shine a light on the company’s on-board food and drink project. “Our In Flight Services (IFS) team has a long-standing partnership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), to work with our suppliers to improve labour and animal welfare standards, have more Fairtrade products, source sustainable fish, reduce waste, and replace products that may be contributing to deforestation such as beef, soy and palm oil. When we first took this idea to our caterers, they weren’t exactly keen! But the SRA and IFS really championed what later became our Thoughtful Food programme; now, 63 per cent of our flights are served by caterers who meet all our standards and nearly 90 per cent meet six out of our seven core principles. The teams are working hard to get the rest across the line as soon as possible.”

Sea sense

Animal welfare is important when it comes to holidays, too. “When you see dolphins in the wild, it’s magical,” says Emma, whose passion project at Virgin Holidays has been to encourage the move from attractions featuring captive whales and dolphins (collectively known as cetaceans) towards more responsible wild-watching experiences. Emma is “a huge animal lover” and knows she’s not alone when it comes to her colleagues. “Ethically and morally, it’s clear our people want to support experiences that are kinder to animals,” she says. 

It’s been quite a journey. In 2014, Virgin companies got together with Virgin Management to initiate the Virgin Pledge – a commitment to work only with attractions that agreed to stop taking cetaceans from the wild. “It was an important big step forward. At the time, I was responsible for the airline side of things and our people were very supportive. Our cargo team have always had high ethical carriage standards and were happy to commit to never moving animals for the captive industry. And our fantastic In-Flight Entertainment team elected to show Blackfish [a documentary about the treatment of captive killer whales] on board, even though it was seen as challenging at the time.

“In 2017, after consultation with cetacean experts, we were able to update our position and commit to more steps. We agreed to promote the Association of British Travel Agents animal welfare standards for captive animals, and pressed pause on adding any new attractions to the Virgin Holidays offering. We supported world-leading sanctuary work by investing in the National Aquarium Baltimore’s scheme to move its captive dolphins to a more natural coastal home. And we partnered with the World Cetacean Alliance to provide our customers with more responsible wild-watching experiences.”

Finally, earlier this year Virgin Holidays added its latest and biggest commitment – it decided to stop working with captive cetacean facilities altogether. “We decided that sanctuary- and wild-watching work had progressed well and were encouraged by market research showing that consumers supported our approach for more natural experiences” says Emma, “so we finally decided to withdraw from featuring captive whale and dolphin experiences altogether.”

When the move was announced internally, Emma says the response was very positive. “It was heartwarming and incredibly rewarding to see such an excited and positive response for all the years of hard work. It was a really difficult and complicated journey. We knew it wasn’t going to be straightforward and that we’d never please everyone, but some of our people had to endure quite a bit of flack from those who disagreed with us. But the team was brilliant at weathering the storm and keeping things on track, and it all came from a place of really caring for the animals. All in all, I can say it  was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever worked on,” says Emma, “but also one of the most rewarding.”

Read about Virgin Atlantic’s environmental initiatives here and Virgin Holidays’ here