The term "sustainable" has become so elastic that, ironically, its continued effectiveness as an indicator of vital issues may not be sustainable.
In modern usage, it rose as shorthand to describe practices critical to maintaining environmental conditions: initiatives that can slow climate change, conserve resources and ensure that pollutants don't despoil land, water and air.
Subsequently, people began -- also in the name of sustainability -- to raise awareness of issues that are likewise critical to the long-term prosperity of travel enterprises but go well beyond the original meaning: a more equitable distribution of profit between global companies and local communities, increased awareness and sensitivity toward host cultures, building a more diverse workforce, food sovereignty, addressing overtourism and ending the exploitation of animals to entertain tourists, among others.
The industry should address these topics; each represents an essential concern. And perhaps part of the reason that all of these topics have fallen under "sustainability" is that, even in its original usage, universally sustainable practices are hard to define. For example, water conservation in the U.S. Southwest is a serious issue, but in Scotland, not so much.
The lack of an easily audited, checklist definition of sustainable practices has resulted not only in the expansion of what may be considered a sustainable activity but has opened the door to anyone and everyone claiming, without oversight or accountability, that they run a sustainable company.
Fortunately, more and more companies have begun to look carefully and thoroughly at their businesses to identify ways they can address issues that relate specifically to their operations.
And many have, in the name of transparency, shared their status publicly. Among the companies whose efforts have come to my attention in this regard are the Travel Corporation, which earlier this month released an impact report on the progress of its initiatives; AndBeyond, which was among the first companies I saw issuing a comprehensive report on its practices and progress; Intrepid Travel, which has quietly led the industry on many meaningful fronts; and Ma Cher, a supplier of logo-branded gear and clothing whose CEO, Derek Hydon, is the most knowledgeable industry executive on responsible travel topics that I have met.
The last two of these companies are also Certified B Corps, a designation indicating that they have been through a rigorous, top-to-bottom analysis and auditing of their practices ("B" stands for "beneficial").
There are too many travel companies making an honest effort to be responsible corporate citizens to list; if yours is among those who are moving the industry forward, feel free to add what you're doing in a comment below.
I attended the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit in North Lake Tahoe earlier this month. The nonprofit has embraced the word "meaningful" as its pole star, beginning a few years ago with the creation of the Meaningful Map of Jordan, which highlights local social enterprises and lesser-known attractions in the country that bring deeper experiences to both visitors and hosts.
While "meaningful" wouldn't be the appropriate label for every item that's fallen into the sustainability basket, I like it because it puts the traveler front and center in the equation. Each day, the Tourism Cares summit began with a "land acknowledgement," which brought attention to the fact that the ski resort where the meeting was held -- and, in fact, the entire Lake Tahoe region -- had been home to the Washoe tribe for centuries prior to American westward expansion. The acknowledgement was meaningful to the Washoe who were in the room but equally so to attendees. It certainly led me to search for more information about the tribe than was readily available in regional attractions.
I also had the opportunity last week to participate in a roundtable discussion with New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and tourism officials from her country. Similar to the land acknowledgement, the meeting began with a Maori recitation.
Interestingly, she spoke about the benefits for visitors who go to a destination that takes its stewardship of the land seriously. "We want to make sure that when people come and visit, they feel good about doing that," she said.
Odd as it may seem, in the eyes of some activists, travel has joined the unenviable constellation of industries seen as villainous, not unlike Big Oil, Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. Perhaps this speaks to the reason that so many initiatives that relate to responsible travel have embraced "sustainable." It allows them to rub up against a term that's synonymous with responsible corporate behavior.
But whatever the label, we shouldn't forget our responsibility: Whether the primary purpose of a trip is to lie on a beach, visit a museum or eat local cuisine, people will increasingly want to, as Ardern suggests, feel good about their vacation. Regardless of the activity, before they return, they want to know they have done more good than harm by having traveled.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly spelled one instance of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern's name.