One sustainability professional’s journey for climate justice

Susanne Etti is embedding climate action into Intrepid Travel's business.

Amy Foyster
November 16, 2021
7 min read
Susanne Etti laughing.

The travel sector isn’t the most obvious industry for a climate scientist to gravitate towards. But as  the world’s largest certified travel B Corp, and the first global tour operator with a verified Science Based Target, Intrepid Travel is embedding climate action into their core business. And that’s thanks in part to Susanne Etti, their Environment Impact Specialist.

For German-born Susanne (who now resides in Australia), her journey from the world of academia to corporate advocacy has been her biggest adventure so far.

“I was really interested in the natural world from a young age and as I grew older I learnt about human impact on the environment. Growing up in Germany, my family were all passionate hikers and skiers, so I became aware of glaciers melting across Europe.

“My childhood was defined by exploring Europe by train or car, not really using any aeroplanes and eating seasonal food bought directly from local farms, which influenced me to be curious about nature, the environment and how the world actually works.”

Susanne’s early passions led her to focus on biology in high school. From the age of 14, she says she was aware of the deforestation of the Amazon through news articles and became fascinated by understanding the role of the rainforest around the carbon sink. 

“That made me want to do something, which was why I was excited to study biology, because I thought that by understanding the ecosystem and the science of how things work, that would open up that door for me to create change.”

In 1993, Susanne enrolled in a Masters of Biology, where she looked at how climate change impacted the way mosquitoes were transmitting malaria in Europe, long before human health and climate change were commonly linked.

Susanne describes her Masters as her “ticket to the world,” as she had the opportunity to undertake field work in a remote part of Greece, as well as Ecuador, deep in her beloved Amazon. As a self-professed bookworm and lover of learning, Susanne didn’t stop at a Masters, and next began her pHD at Oxford University, in collaboration with the University of Bonn in Germany, this time with a focus on climate change and lyme disease.

“My funding stopped after the first year of my pHD, and probably due to the fact that I had to work part-time, I realised I didn’t want to be in that ivory tower of academia forever. I had exposure to different projects and I realised I liked to engage with people. 

“One of my part-time jobs, which started off as an internship, was at a start-up carbon offsetting company. It was actually the first ever registered carbon offsetting project in 2004, so it was really early, even before the Kyoto Protocol. It made me realise that while I thought academia was good, I could create bigger change in the corporate sector.”

"It made me realise that while I thought academia was good, I could create bigger change in the corporate sector.”

By the time Susanne finished her PhD, she had been offered a full-time position with the carbon offsetting company, which, as she says, was a welcome pay cheque after a decade of being a student! The company was a pioneer in many aspects of the sector, including the development of the first project registered by the Clean Development Mechanism (the NovaGerar landfill project in Brazil), and the first project to receive Certified Emissions Reductions (a small-hydro project in Honduras). While working there, she met John Curtis, an influential man within London’s corporate sector, who was also on a personal climate journey.

“When I first met John, he’d had an epiphany. His daughter was a young teenager and they were touring in the Swiss Alps and she’d asked him whether the snow would still be there when she was his age… And he realised he couldn’t say for sure. For him, that was the moment he said he realised he needed to do something. So, he developed a new business model that he believed could really drive climate change consulting services. He offered me a job and I accepted.”

Susanne’s new role saw her setting up what became known as ‘Carbon School’, where she ran global workshops and webinars internally for staff, to give people the knowledge to take climate action. 

In 2008, this role saw her relocate from Europe to Australia, moving into an internal corporate sustainability consulting role within the business. She spent some of that time in Thailand working with multinationals in oil, gas, chemicals and mining to advance their sustainability performance and reporting and ultimately help them improve their practices enough to make the Dow Jones Sustainability index.  

“I realised I did really enjoy working with companies and helping them improve on their maturity curve. At the start, they’d often ask whether they really had to do it. And my response was always, yes you do and it’s important, but you don’t have to do it all at once.”

Susanne says that in her experience, it’s extremely helpful if a company has a leadership team that is already supportive of climate action and open to change, but it isn’t integral to seeing results. 

“My advice to staff at these companies is speak up, even if it takes a bit of bravery."

“My advice to staff at these companies is speak up, even if it takes a bit of bravery. If there are staff engagement surveys, or town halls, or the CEO walks past you in the hallway, think about asking questions like ‘What are we doing on sustainability? What is our company doing on climate change? What are the risks and how are we responding? Why aren’t we using renewable energy? Can I speak to our HR department about switching our company’s default superannuation to an ethical super fund?’’ Because unless you use your voice and ask these questions, change won’t happen.”

As someone rooted in academia, Susanne always falls back on the power of knowledge. While she acknowledges not everyone needs to become a climate scientist or even a sustainability professional, she believes learning the basics and connecting with other like-minded people within your organisation is a start. 

“I’d recommend as a first step forming a ‘Green team’ if this is not in place already and start with small things like waste management in the office. This will help kickstart those conversations about improving at a small scale and then you can move the needle in bigger ways. You can go from waste management, to renewable energy, to superannuation!”

After 12 years in consulting, Susanne returned to Australia and joined Intrepid. While she’d never specifically thought about working in the travel industry before, when she saw the role advertised it felt like a natural fit.

“I’ve worked and lived in six different countries, and I always realised that travel is a big force for good, but it obviously has a big environmental impact; 8% of the planet’s greenhouse gases are caused by travel. 

“I saw the role at Intrepid and thought, that’s really cool, I can go into a company that is already on the way, so I wouldn’t be starting from scratch. But I was also coming in and saying, what you’ve done is great but if you want to keep your reputation, you have to do more than just being carbon neutral, because it’s not enough anymore. 

“Being able to introduce Science Based Targets and encourage the business to look at models for how the company will grow with a 1.5 degree pathway (because that’s the one we need to choose) and being able to bring that to life with support was such an opportunity and achievement for me.”

"If you want to keep your reputation, you have to do more than just being carbon neutral, because it’s not enough anymore."

Susanne’s next big focus is on advocacy and shifting the entire travel sector. She is on the voluntary board, Tourism Declares, sits on the steering committee for the B Corp Climate Collective and co-leads their tourism specific business working group focusing on enabling businesses to reduce emissions with Ndevr consulting.

Hearteningly, she remains optimistic about the future. 

“My hope is three-fold. Firstly, pre-COVID we saw the rise of the youth movement, which has continued digitally, but generally seeing activism like the school strike in Melbourne and the corporate sector coming along is fantastic. 

“Secondly, I am optimistic seeing big economies shifting. The US rejoining the Paris Agreement after four years and the agenda they’re now pushing is huge. There is still a long way to go with governments, but there are highlights and seeing they are thinking the right way and putting things in place is a start. Also worth noting is the voices of citizens, the uptake of voting with their purses, superannuation and supporting B Corps and the changing consciousness. 

“And thirdly, seeing more corporations getting to the point of realising they need to change. More companies are signing up to science-based targets — there are 1,000 now committed.

“I definitely have my moments, especially when you see the data coming in, because it’s so urgent. But I believe that working in this space is about creating the ripple effect. If I can share my knowledge and learning and help others to do the same, that will help create the changes that are so needed.”

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Hero image by Lucy Piper.

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