Symetra strikes a balance

Commitment, not money, drives this small company’s business travel sustainability push

Company: Symetra
Business type: Insurance
Headquarters: Bellevue, Washington
Key green travel goals:
• Push internal travel to virtual platforms
• Travel approval with senior executives
• Future carbon offset purchases

Much of the drive toward sustainable business travel strategies in recent years has been driven by large companies – those spending tens or even hundreds of millions annually on global air travel. Many of these firms report the tens of thousands of metric tons of Scope 3 carbon emissions generated by their business travel, and some even have appointed executives dedicated to greening the travel programme. Some deploy systems to closely monitor the use of travel alternatives and the environmental impact of doing so, and some are developing innovative partnerships with suppliers to further reduce emissions.

But all of that costs money. It’s often good business for large public companies to ensure their commitment to sustainability is visible internally and to the public, and so the investment in developing green travel strategies can pay off not only in public image but also in employee satisfaction and retention.

Small companies, however, might not be so quick to embrace it. Even before the pandemic, measures like buying carbon offsets or investing in the kind of remote conferencing systems that could provide an alternative to business travel might not have been so high on the list of spending priorities.

But that doesn’t mean they’re all ignoring or evading the issue, and in fact many small companies are beginning to acknowledge the carbon impact of their business travel and are taking steps to ameliorate it. One such company is Symetra, a Bellevue, Washington-based provider of life insurance, retirement plans and other related products, which has a small, strictly domestic travel programme.

Driven in part by its Japan-based parent company, Sumitomo Life Insurance Co., which acquired Symetra in 2016, the firm is embracing sustainable initiatives in all aspects of operations, including travel, said Symetra senior global travel and merchandise manager Karen Beauchamp. “Our company in the past couple of years, we’ve been going through several big initiatives, and sustainability is a big one,” Beauchamp said.

The initiative at Symetra has manifested in several areas of the company, she said. More than half of its employees employ an alternate commute to get to work – pre-Covid, naturally – be it mass transit or carpooling, and the office has instituted an extensive recycling and composting programme, as well as a paper-avoidance strategy.

“Our company in the past couple of years, we’ve been going through several big initiatives, and sustainability is a big one”

Karen Beauchamp

For business travel, though, the company has embraced a virtual-meetings strategy, pandemic notwithstanding. Symetra’s meeting planning team is in-house and business travel policy compliance is high, and the company enthusiastically pushes remote conferencing as an alternative to travel as part of its sustainability initiative, she said.

“We actively promote it, and we will have people come after you to ask, ‘Why didn’t you do this virtually?” Beauchamp said. “One of the things that we had done – and it just finished two months before Covid went gangbusters – is that we had moved to a work-from-home opportunity plan. Maybe it’s full-time or a day or two a week, but pushing virtual meetings, that is key to success. People are staying at home. We do everything on Teams now. Everyone has laptops with cameras now. It’s a huge part of this.”

Still, there are pressures. Beauchamp noted that in-person interaction is important in insurance sales, and some Symetra salespeople are eager to receive a Covid-19 vaccine so they can resume business travel. “When you’re talking sales, nothing sells better than face to face,” she said. “I fully expect that by the end of the year, many of those guys will be in [airplane] seats.”

As such, limiting travel for live meeting attendance should remain the most effective sustainability strategy for the time being. Senior divisional leadership must approve such travel, Beauchamp said, and divisions are expected to remain within annual travel budgets. The company is experimenting with hybrid options to limit attendance and business travel once live meetings return to the scene.

Next up for Symetra could be the purchase of carbon offsets for travel. “We don’t buy a lot of credits for offsetting yet,” Beauchamp said. “But I feel that’s coming within the next year.”