When Emma Thompson decided to join the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London last year, her message was largely silenced in the face of the heavy criticism she attracted for flying from LA on a fuel-guzzling plane.
Perhaps wary of succumbing to the same fate, Greta Thunberg travelled to the US from her native Sweden by boat. While some criticised the teenage climate activist’s choice as tokenistic, many seemed impressed by her resolve.
You may not have heard the term, but there is one word that perfectly encapsulates this new social attitude around planes: flygskam. Translated literally, it means “flight shame” in Swedish, and suggests that plane travel should be a source of embarrassment and discomfort, rather than pride.
The term rose to prominence thanks to Björn Ferry, a Swedish Olympian biathlete, and Thunberg, who both used the term as part of a pledge to minimise their air travel. It was quickly adopted by eco-conscious travel influencers using their platform to discourage their followers from flying.
It may seem hard to believe that this would have much of an impact, but SAS chief executive Rickard Gustafson told Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv that he was “convinced” the movement was behind a slump in Swedish air traffic, which reportedly fell by 5 per cent in the first quarter of 2019.
There is ample evidence that influencer-backed travel trends have a lot of sway among consumers. A survey conducted by UK-based holiday rental home insurance provider Schofields showed that 40 per cent of those under 33 prioritise “Instagrammability” when choosing their next holiday spot.
According to National Geographic, between 2009 and 2014, visitors to cliff Trolltunga in Norway increased from 500 to 40,000 in what many consider a wave of social media-fueled tourism. Last year, a spokesperson for New Zealand's Department of Conservation told the BBC that visitor numbers to the summit of Roy’s Peak in Wanaka had increased by 12 per cent between 2016 and 2018, because the spot had become a "quintessential icon for the region through social media".
At the centre of these trends lie travel influencers like Ula Fiedorowicz, who has around 14,500 followers on Instagram, posts about sustainability and “conscious travel”. She’s recently jumped on the flygskam trend and says she makes an effort to avoid air travel as much as possible.
“I think for many influencers it’s still difficult to spread the sustainable message. It would mean not participating in many campaigns sponsored by brands that have nothing to do with being eco-friendly,” she says. But with sustainable travel increasing in popularity, it seems more and more people are willing to take this leap.
Nikki Vargas is the founder of feminist travel publication Unearth Women, and was a travel influencer herself before starting her business. She sees things moving towards a more conscious type of travel content.
Earlier this month, Instagram announced it was going to be removing users’ ability to see how many likes a post receives. It was just a trial in a handful of countries, but Vargas sees this as an example of how evolving algorithms will prioritise the intrinsic value of content as opposed to its popularity, meaning that “the idea of a travel influencer is changing as we speak”.
Vargas is seeing an increasing interest from consumers in making their travel ethical, both from an environmental perspective and in broader terms giving back to the communities they visit.
This trend is clearly infiltrating the travel industry, which relies on influencers more than ever. In 2017, before flygskam was a trending Instagram hashtag, travel search platform HolidayPirates surveyed more than 1,000 travellers and found that 40 per cent were actively trying to be environmentally conscious when travelling.
CEO David Armstrong believes that as the media continues to highlight the environmental consequences of air travel, and as activists continue to pressure the travel industry to produce more ethical holiday alternatives, we’ll start to see a shift in consumer and government behaviours – and influencers will be at the centre of this change.
He highlights two key emerging trends: The first is “slow travel”, which combines slow methods of transport, such as trains, with longer stays in one destination, and making mindful choices about interactions with local food, cultures, and communities. The second is “microadventures”, which are short, local, and cheap, yet still fun, challenging, and rewarding.
“We have also seen an increase in users booking more staycations and sustainable accommodation – such as glamping or treehouses – in the UK,” says Armstrong.
People are becoming more used to rethinking travel. Millennials who came of age during a recession have been doing so for years, leading to an explosion in the van-life trend, which sees people trade in their homes for vans (or tiny houses on wheels) allowing them to travel across land without leaving home.
Similarly, on Unearth Women one of the most popular types of content are the Feminist City Guides, which offer a new way of experiencing a city, focusing more on specific areas of history and supporting independent women-owned businesses that connect to travellers’ values.
Travelling has long been associated with a positive lifestyle choice – a way to become better acquainted with the world we live in. With more young people prioritising experiences over possessions, giving up travel may seem like a step too far. But while the concept of travelling remains hugely popular, its methods are being reimagined.
This isn’t a tokenistic move – it could have real impact. According to analysis conducted by Channel 4, one would need to recycle more than 20,000 cans of beans – that’s one a day for over 54 years – to offset the carbon footprint for a return flight from London to New York.
Burning fuel for planes currently contributes around 2.5 percent of total carbon emissions, a staggering statistic in itself, but which could rise to 22 percent by 2050 as other sectors emit less. Crucially, and unlike other carbon-heavy industries, there’s no alternative in sight.
“There is currently no way to fly 8 million people every day without burning lots of dirty kerosene,” explains University of Southampton environmental sociologist Roger Tyers in The Conversation. “Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth. Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.”
But, much like the panicked SAS chief, businesses will be watching closely if influencers and consumers continue to go further than ever before to lower their impact. As with so many trends today, online content creators are at the centre of that shift, wielding their influence on the followers who trust and admire them, and the companies that desperately want to tap into that audience.
Planes might not become obsolete any time soon, but the rise of flygskam may at the very least see the end of the notorious #windowseat Instagram pictures, and make flying something to be ashamed of, rather than to brag about.