Holiday giant Thomas Cook is serious about sustainability, but its rather sunny report needs to tackle the issues more directly and deeply
In 1841, Thomas Cook ran his first tour: a one-day rail excursion from Leicester to Loughborough. Now the eponymous global travel company, a constituent of the FTSE 350 index of the UK’s largest firms, has annual sales of more than £8.5bn, more than 22,000 employees and a fleet of 88 aircraft to ferry its 22 million customers to idyllic destinations.
But it has not been all fun in the sun for the group over the past few years, and Thomas Cook is in the midst of a global transformation. Its sustainability report, “Transforming for a better future, Year 2”, provides an update on business progress and sets out the company’s vision for sustainability, which is underpinned by the Thomas Cook Business System.
This system aims to align sustainability with the business strategy in four key areas, which also provide the structure for the report:
- Profitable growth through trusted, personalised products
- High Tech, High Touch: a digital business
- Top-to-bottom leadership and relentless performance management
- Efficient structures, systems and processes through lean and innovation
Structuring the report around the business strategy positions sustainability as integral to the business. This is laudable, but unfortunately there is insufficient follow-through to provide credibility. Financial data is missing and its absence undermines the company’s corporate sustainability message. For example, the reported 55% reduction in energy consumption across the office and retail estate must produce a significant cost saving, but this good news remains unreported.
Thomas Cook is reporting in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 guidelines. The group aims to reach GRI’s comprehensive level in its next report (2015), when it will also publish an updated sustainability strategy.
At 43 pages, the report is fairly concise. The clear design and interactivity of the landscape PDF make it easy to navigate and find information, with videos and further information available online.
The report claims to be based on the group’s most material issues, though it would benefit from greater prioritisation of those topics. For example, Thomas Cook aims to improve accessibility, customer experience and communications by focusing on digital platforms. This means, in part, that it uses less paper, something the report trumpets. Paper consumption is important but not nearly as significant as, say, fuel efficiency of aircraft. But both issues get the same prominence.
Thomas Cook’s key impact is, surely, carbon emissions. The environmental impact of the tourism sector presents huge opportunities for the company to show leadership in the climate change debate. In 2014, the group’s airline fuel efficiency, measured in emissions per passenger kilometre, increased very slightly compared with 2013 (although it had improved by 5.6% since 2009). A graphic clearly presents the key projects to improve efficiency, including light-weighting and improved aerodynamics.
The group’s ambitions are defined in its 2020 targets: some ambitious, others too easily achieved. Paper use has been cut by 53%, but the target was 20% by 2020. The report promises updated targets in 2015. Having overachieved on a number of goals, it would be good to see strong commitments to build on the impressive progress made so far with truly testing targets.
Thomas Cook is undertaking some interesting projects to contribute to local economic development. Unfortunately the case studies describing these are written in the same style as the main report, missing a great opportunity to communicate success.
For example, Thomas Cook’s “Local Labels” holidays enable customers to experience the local culture, while helping to preserve traditions and protecting ancient sites and natural habitats. This is a really good product, but again the descriptions are dulled by the lack of input from locals and customers. Telling the stories through their voices, or including images and quotes, would have a much greater impact than offering a few statistics and lame claims that “our customers value the new excursions”.
It’s clear that Thomas Cook is serious about sustainability and sees it as integral to the business. But the report unfortunately undermines this commitment by presenting a wholly positive view of the company and its performance. If sustainability is indeed the clichéd “journey”, we are led to believe that the group’s travels to Costa Sustainability are as sunny as their brochures promise.
- Follows GRI? Yes, in accordance with G4
- Assured? No
- Materiality analysis? Not communicated in the report
- Goals? Yes
- Targets? Yes
- Stakeholder input? Limited
- Seeks feedback? No
- Key strengths? Sustainability aligned with business strategy
- Chief weakness? Lack of stakeholder voices
- Pleasant surprise? Interesting projects under way
Pete Statham is a consultant at Context EuropeCR report review reporting Thomas Cook travel