Wilderness Scotland was created to share a passion for the inspiration, spirit and value of the natural environment. What the team didn’t know when they started their business was how significant the threat of a changing climate would become. They have always sought to run an environmentally sustainable business (and have been independently recognised several times for doing so) but now feel the time has now come to ramp up the action, work harder and act more creatively to respond to the climate emergency with renewed focus and energy.
Wilderness Scotland – Ben Thorburn
My name is Ben Thorburn, I’m Head of Marketing here at Wilderness Scotland. Wilderness Scotland is an active and nature-based tour operator. We specialise in guided small group adventure travel and fully customised experiential private tours, with the Scottish mainland and our Islands as the inspiring backdrop to our tours.
What steps has your organisation taken to improve nature-based solutions?
We find nature-based solutions are an integral part of business. We focus on three key areas: conservation, education, and climate change.
We run a conservation contribution scheme and through that we add £10 to the cost of each traveller and that goes towards direct action for path building, peatland restoration, habitat improvement and tree planting. This is in partnership with Trees for Life and the John Muir Trust, of which we’re peat partners. This collaboration is recognised as having the biggest impact for protecting the wild places in which we operate.
On the education side, each member of our team goes to ‘Leave No Trace’ training, so we are aware of the principles of prior planning, respect for the environment and minimising our impact. Our guides follow these behaviours while leading clients and it becomes a talking point during a week-long holiday with us, allowing us to spread the knowledge across a pretty diverse client base.
Lastly, our work on climate change has led us to set a target of reducing our carbon impact per traveller by 90% between 2000 and 2030 and achieving net zero. To do that, we initiated a project of carbon benchmarking for Wilderness Scotland, assigning carbon scores to each of the 60 itineraries on offer. These scores allow us to track our improvements as we strive for true net zero by 2030.
Wilderness Scotland has become the first tour operator in Europe to commit to this standard and have our carbon reduction targets validated in terms of achievability. The John Muir Trust has been a long-term partner, and we have dedicated a significant amount of staff time to volunteering with them – including building paths and aiding in the funding of interpretation panels.
With Trees for Life, we have integrated their estate at Dundreggan into our existing tours and excursions with our tour operator partners from the US.
What drove you to take these steps and how does this align to the purpose of your organisation?
Ever since Wilderness Scotland was founded over 20 years ago, sustainability has been a core value. Sustainability has been a constant North Star for us that shapes our decisions on a daily basis. Climate change is happening now, and we are committed to being part of the solution. We know that tourism contributes 8% of carbon emissions worldwide, and while it’s also the largest employer in the world we recognise that we can make a significant change.
The John Muir Trust is currently undertaking habitat restoration, with the improvement of peatland areas on their estates. This definitely helps to improve habitats and supports the ecosystem there and the key species that they are trying to help.
What have the benefits been for your business?
The benefits for our business have been largely altruistic. I think our position can help to leverage leaders on climate action within the travel space, becoming an increasingly important part of travellers’ decisions regarding who to travel with in the future. Travellers are seeking a company that can fulfil their dream holiday but are simultaneously taking care of the areas in which we operate.
In terms of consumer trends, we see sustainability, green travel and responsible travel becoming more important as we recover from the pandemic. The pandemic highlighted the environmental impacts of travel with the significant improvement to air quality. Sustainable travel is at the forefront of travellers’ minds, and in particular choosing a responsible travel agent and tour operator for their annual holiday and beyond. We see ourselves as being ready to adapt to these new trends, and our market positioning makes us leaders in the ecotourism sector.
How easy and affordable was it to take these steps?
There has been an incredible investment in time during what has been the most challenging period in travel worldwide. But the challenge starts now in terms of the way that we begin our journey towards net zero and continue to improve habitat restoration. It will cost us more over the long-term, but it’s the right thing to do.
What do you wish you knew when you started down this route?
I think that we would wish we started our journey earlier for the impacts to be felt sooner and for the changes that need to be addressed to be done so over a longer period of time. However, I think the most important part is actually to take action and commit to seeing it through in the first place. We feel we can influence other operators to take similar action and as such encourage their travellers and our own travellers to make conscious decisions when choosing who to travel with.
What skills have you had to grow within your organisation to adapt your business? And did you get advice to help you get started on this work?
There’s no doubt that it has been a steep learning curve to understand the myriad of options that are available to us in terms of the way that we work to improve habitats and start our journey down towards true net zero. We work with the ecollective; they help focus our minds and guide us through the process of benchmarking and carbon labelling.
Any advice for SMEs looking to do something similar for nature-based solutions?
I don’t think we are necessarily in the habit of giving out a lot of advice, but if this is something that a business has interest in, then reach out to us or the team at the ecollective. We would be happy to chat through the methodology we went through. How we did it and how it helped us benchmark our impact and measure the improvement that we can make on a continual basis. But overall, I think our advice would be to start now and commit to the long-term.
The John Muir Trust is a community focused conservation charity dedicated to the experience, protection and repair of wild places across the UK.