After several years on my own sustainability journey, I no longer let the dream of 'perfect' get in the way of 'better.'
The Discovery: Ignited by Small Moments
I was wading in emerald waters off the white sand beaches of a quiet, remote island in the Philippines. The beaches were pristine. The water was clear. And the palm trees leaned into the gentle, warm breeze. I had never felt so serene.
Making my way to the beach, I looked behind me at the tour boat — a 6-passenger dingy with two local Filipino guides. “We’ll be back with lunch,” they had said when they dropped our 4 person Canadian/American group of ESL teachers off at the island to explore. Then I realized…they were going fishing. The picture was coming together for me.
I recalled how moments before we reached the island, the boat had slowed. The driver silently did a semi-turn while the second mate leaned over the side of the boat to retrieve a piece of litter. No words were exchanged, as the small bit of trash was set in the boat.
Local food, locally-owned businesses, community stewardship of the ecosystem, and cultural preservation.
These were small acts, but I was getting my first glimpses of sustainable tourism, and the importance of communities leading the way.
The First Steps: Reflecting on the Impacts of Tourism
And so, during my 4 years in Asia, I started looking for these slight differences. I lived in rural South Korea and experienced a cultural way of life completely unlike anything I had before. But as I engaged with their cities, I was recognizing signs of cultural loss and heritage exploitation that didn’t sit well with me, even before I understood exactly what I was observing.
A Starbucks on their “cultural” street, written in hangul. Hanbok-wearing performers, dancing in front of a 1200-year-old temple — on the hour. The inauthenticity of it all was crushing in a deep way that can only be described as a mix of nostalgia and regret — but for a thing so far in the past, it had become something entirely different by the present and was becoming lost in its replication.
In each instance, I ached with that nostalgia for authenticity.
Packing the Bags: Sustainable Tourism Development
Fast forward 5 years. It’s 2015, summer. I’m in my final semester of graduate studies in global sustainability, concentrating on sustainable tourism. I’ve just taken the PM4SD™ exam, a project management methodology for sustainable tourism, and I’ve passed the Practitioner test. I’ve been elbow deep in UNDP papers and researching capacity building tools for sustainable tourism projects in developing regions for my thesis.
I’m writing case studies on a DMO in the Danube and the cultural roadblocks to creating an itinerary around the controversial Umayyad history. I’m firing off emails to all the sustainable tourism consultants I know, and it hits me: This is what I want to do. I want to facilitate sustainable tourism projects in developing regions.
I fell in love with the idea that through tourism, I could impact development to help ensure future generations wouldn’t suffer the way we had been setting them up to.
Carving a Path: Experiencing The Real World of Sustainability
It didn’t work out exactly like that, though.
I started small, with a part time role as a sustainability coordinator embedded into a separate full-time job for a product company. My MA and training were helpful to identify spaces for improvement, but when it came to official data collection, policies, and altering performance, my work became theory, suggestions, and eventually, a dust collector. There was no internal support, funding, or frankly, intention from those that could make the decisions to make an impact.
Next, I ended up doing ESG GRI reporting for an investment company, analyzing supply chains, human rights, gender equality, energy and water use, environmental impact, and more. For three years we reported on these metrics, with no real outstanding improvements. Just another work output measuring disappointments.
I audited hotels on the east coast of Florida against the Florida Green Lodging criteria, and although they were successfully meeting many of the requirements, I couldn’t help but feel there was so much more they could be doing.
I regularly hassled my coastal city in Florida to boost sustainable action further, developing and recommending a sustainable business application and recognition system, and citing our neighboring city, Orlando, as an up and coming true devotee of ‘better.’
I made little progress.
The Vista: Framing Sustainability for Better
Yes, it’s true…I’ve experienced some professional disenchantment with sustainability over the years. But at some point, I recognized — then accepted — that ‘sustainability’ is always going to fall short of my expectations. I want all the changes… And I want them now.
But sustainability is a journey, right?
Despite my disappointments over time, I’ve finally found space for gratitude that the conversation is being had. That there are hotels that are switching to low-flow showers and toilets and energy efficient appliances…that there are companies adding bodies to payroll to do sustainability reporting that many investment firms have come to consider it a risk to ignore sustainability, human rights, and responsible supply chains.
These are all wins, no matter how small.
After several years on my own sustainability journey, I changed my cynical tune and started my own company based on the new perspective: The Guilty Granola, where I no longer let the dream of perfect get in the way of better.
As a freelance consultant, I lend my expertise in sustainability to brands that are actively engaged in the pursuit of better, such as destinations, tourism-focused marketing brands, B2B or B2C companies. I now focus on the communication of brand responsibility — and all my past experiences from my MA, travels, project management, sustainability reporting, and marketing and copywriting, have merged to give me the skills to move fluidly between positions, companies, and roles, while maintaining a single thread: supporting the pursuit of sustainability. I consult, I advise, I manage projects, I strategize, I write.
But whatever I am doing, I can comfortably say that my professional efforts do make a difference — no matter how small — because every day I support organizations, brands, destinations, and individuals putting their efforts behind regenerating this world.
Sustainability is a journey. And along the way, we’ll stop at better, over and over again…
Holly Prievo is a sustainability expert, with knowledge spanning sustainable tourism, capacity building for sustainable development, sustainability certifications, and best practices for businesses. She is the founder of The Guilty Granola, a content strategy and copywriting service for sustainable and ethical brands. She’s presented at the European Summer School in Leadership and Governance for Sustainable Tourism on the topic of Capacity Building for Sustainable Tourism Projects, writes a lifestyle blog for personal sustainability, and has authored a draft sea turtle certification program for coastal lodging. She currently works with GLP Films, a sustainable tourism storytelling agency based in Maine. She holds a graduate degree in Global Sustainability with a concentration in sustainable tourism.