Becoming a Positive-Impact Company: Vagabond Tours Sustainability Governance Example
- Don’t just do good. BE a good business. Commitment to sustainability should (definitely include but) go beyond solar panels and EV charging stations. Companies should commit to a way of doing business that thinks about its impacts over 10, 50, and 100 years, locally and globally.
- Push for an organisation-wide change in mindset. Committing to becoming a positive-impact company takes both leadership from the top, and buy-ins and passionate support from across the team.
- Dedicate necessary resources for sustainability certification. Quality certification programs require thorough review and reporting on sustainability commitments. To achieve certification, therefore, companies need to be prepared to invest time and resources into the process.
- Certification can lead to indirect benefits for internal and external stakeholders. It’s not just about getting a label. While having a certified status may or may not lead to more bookings, there are other factors that can positively impact the business bottom line, e.g. boosting employee morale and engaging team members who value a sense of purpose in their work.
Commitment to Responsible Governance
Vagabond Tours, a leading responsible travel company offering small-group off-the-beaten-track tours of Ireland, started offering its tours in 2002, focusing on providing an adventurous way of seeing Ireland and the country’s great scenery and fascinating history.
Vagabond’s commitment to sustainability has led to the Gold Level Certification by EcoTourism Ireland (currently: Sustainable Travel Ireland) in 2017.
In 2021, Vagabond Tours became Ireland’s first B Corp certified tour company, committing to “a more ethical and sustainable business model”, which, in addition to focusing on good governance practices such as transparency and stakeholder engagement, is a commitment to a way of doing business that looks over 50 years into the future, and that recognises that decisions we make now can have a significant impact over the long term.
This long-term view also means the company strives to ensure that for many years to come tourism will:
- Provide a product that people want to buy
- Have a positive impact on the environment and communities it affects
- Serve an industry that people want to work in
- Be a financially viable sector that investors want to invest in
“Locking In” Sustainability Values
Committing to sustainability isn’t just about individual goals and milestones. It takes an organisation-wide change in mindset. For Vagabond, sustainability values came naturally to all staff members, who strongly expressed their desire to focus on sustainability through a core values exercise that the company conducted shortly after achieving the Ecotourism Certification.
Vagabond’s management took this as a sign that the whole team was waiting for the company to take a bold stance on sustainability, and that if it did, all staff would embrace such commitment and direction.
That’s exactly what happened. Since that exercise, all business decisions have factored in sustainability. Further, as part of the B Corp Certification process the company updated its constitution to include a clause that ensures that sustainability is built into all major business decisions.
Dedicating Resources for Certification
Improving governance is key to being a responsible company, and certification can play a key role in this, as the process of pursuing certification offers opportunities for thought-provoking discussions, and challenges everyone to improve all areas of the business.
Both the EcoTourism Ireland and B Corp certification processes involved a dedicated project team within Vagabond work on the related tasks. Key aspects that ensured smooth operations and success of such project teams were:
- To ensure the group represented the different sections of the company.
- To assign the right people from various teams within the company to the task, and enable them to dedicate necessary time and resources to work through the certification steps, so they are empowered to drive the process forward.
- To create workflows where the team members working on certification had direct access to management, so that critical decisions on business priorities and spending could be promptly approved where required.
In both cases, the certification process took several months to work through, which the Vagabond team considers a significant but worthwhile investment of time and resources.
In addition to team members working on bottom-up efforts towards certification, it’s also important that leadership comes from the top, with a clear commitment to completing the job thoroughly and properly.
Certification as a Tool for Engagement
For Vagabond Tours, other than the organisational factors (such as enabling necessary staff hours dedicated to certification requirements, and allocating money and resources where needed), there have been very few challenges or roadblocks.
This can be attributed to the company culture, which makes “using business as a force for good” a natural part of how it operates. If your staff members are already passionate about sustainability, it is not hard to ask them to be responsible for certification-related reporting, tracking, measurement and communication tasks - that is, as long as you provide them with the right environment and support needed to complete their tasks.
There is also a “ripple effect” of positive impact across the company, not just the project team members directly involved in the certification steps. Although it’s hard to quantify direct benefits of certification (e.g. increase in sales), achieving external certification has positively impacted the business in many ways.
One good example of that is staff engagement. Vagabond’s B Corp certification process was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the business was badly affected and needed to down-size the team. But as soon as it was possible to allocate time and resources to certification, the process was restarted, and it brought the team together during a very difficult time. As the company achieved certification at the end of 2020, it was also a much-needed morale booster for the team.
For this and many other reasons, Vagabond Tours encourages any other tourism businesses considering sustainability certification to “go for it and keep plugging away,” as the investment will be well worth it in the end, if you embed sustainability as a core part of your business and ensure your team members are engaged and empowered to walk the talk on sustainability.