Travel

Symetra Strikes a Sustainability Balance

PROGRESS PROFILE: SYMETRA

Company: Insurance

Headquarters: Bellvue, Wash.

Key Green Travel Efforts: 

• 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 with tens
or even hundreds of millions of dollars in annual global air spending. 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 program. 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, potentially quite a bit. It’s
often good business for large public companies with tens of thousands of
employees to ensure their commitment to sustainability is visible internally
and to the public, and so the investment in developing green travel systems and
strategy can pay off not only in public image but also employee satisfaction
and retention. Still, it’s arguably a bit of a luxury, and one that small
companies might not be so quick to embrace. 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 be high
on the list of spending priorities for companies with only a few million
dollars in air spending.

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, Wash.-based provider of life insurance,
retirement plans and other related products to U.S.-based companies and which
has a small, strictly domestic travel program.

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. It’s on
everybody’s tongue,” Beauchamp said.

More than Talk

The initiative at Symetra has manifested in several areas of
the company, she said. More than half of Symetra’s 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
program, as well as a paper-avoidance strategy.

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 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.”

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