On a single afternoon recently, Rob Bernard had a meeting in Kenya, one in Ireland and one in Finland — three countries and two continents in less than 24 hours.

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On a single afternoon recently, Rob Bernard had a meeting in Kenya, one in Ireland and one in Finland — three countries and two continents in less than 24 hours.

But he never left his desk in the United States. “I’m able to do that digitally now, instead of physically, and that saves massive amounts of time, massive amounts of carbon emissions and makes me far more productive because I’m not trying to figure out all these time zones with my body clock,” says Bernard, the chief environmental strategist at Microsoft.

By using digital conferencing technologies like Skype, Lync and Polycom’s telepresence solutions, Microsoft says it has been able to reduce travel in its field offices by 59 million miles in the last fiscal year alone.

Such virtual meetings are the ultimate in green travel. “After all, the greenest business trip is the one you don’t take,” says Joel Makower, founder and executive editor of GreenBiz Group Inc., a media company focusing on the business of sustainability. “Most companies understand that. But it’s hard to pull off. Despite the great technology advances, there’s still no substitute for face to face and sharing a meal and a handshake.”

Given the necessity of some trips, business travel is not going to be fully replaced by its virtual equivalent. But as more companies try to understand where their activities hurt the environment, they are finding that travel is far and away the biggest part of the equation.

That fact, combined with the ever-pressing need to control costs, has made business travel in recent years the focus of sustained attention by corporations looking to reduce expenses and their carbon footprint. Companies also hope that putting greener travel policies in place will appeal to a younger generation of environmentally knowledgeable employees — and perhaps more important, prospective recruits — and burnish their brands as good corporate citizens.

“It’s one of these things that is embedded in corporate travel departments and facility management these days,” says Makower. “Environmental responsibility is part of how you do business.”

Sustainable travel

What are some of the ways to diminish the environmental impact of a trip that can’t be avoided? The reality is the options are limited, says Makower.

Airlines are taking the basic steps. “There’s recycling being done on flights, but one would be hard-pressed to compare United to Virgin America to Delta in terms of their environmental commitment and achievements,” Makower says. “There is no green standard for airlines, and since that is the most impactful part of many business trips, one could make the case that we are just nibbling at the edges of the problem.”

Corporations, for their part, are taking a number of steps to make their travel programs more sustainable, whether their travelers are in the air, behind the wheel or bedding down for the night.

Marsh & McLennan, a professional services firm and one of the largest companies in the insurance industry, has negotiated deals on hybrid and high-efficiency economy car rentals for its employees. And on its travel booking website, it broadcasts the message that employees should consider alternatives to air travel, such as taking the train whenever possible, to help cut carbon emissions.

Employees who must be on the road are encouraged to book direct flights instead of ones with multiple stops, to combine trips and to patronize certified green hotels that have preferred provider status. Videoconferencing is suggested as an option, if it is feasible.

This approach to travel has produced benefits that go beyond the purely environmental.

“We are seeing it as a selling point all over at recruiting events,” says Elizabeth Barry, Marsh & McLennan’s chief sustainability officer. “Hiring managers tell us the prospective employees are even willing to take a little pay cut to work for a company with those types of programs.”

For many millennials, the efforts a company makes to have environmentally friendly policies in travel and other areas are rapidly becoming a critical component in their job selection process, not just a nice-to-have extra benefit. For some, “being able to substitute technology for travel is a prerequisite for screening potential employers,” says Makower.

Microsoft’s offsets

To encourage its employees to travel responsibly, Microsoft has a carbon fee program that charges internal departments for emissions related to their business travel. The fees collected by this model go into a general fund used to make green energy purchases.

“If I travel to New York, I would have a plane trip, and I would have a carbon indicator and a carbon fee associated with that trip – and Microsoft would offset that carbon I used,” Bernard says. “That’s all visible to me when I book the trip, and the fee my group pays is based on that.”

Microsoft also invests in carbon offset projects through the Carbon Neutral Co., to offset unavoidable emissions and support conservation. Four of the forestry projects that the fees have been invested in have planted more than 6 million trees in areas classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, according to the company.

These kinds of initiatives are not novel, but they are gaining momentum. More than half the international array of companies surveyed by the Global Business Travel Association said they were paying more attention to their green business travel efforts, according to Joseph Bates, the group’s vice president of research.

And these green travel policies are not limited to commercial companies. Many public agencies have green business travel programs as well, either mandating certain practices or simply making options more widely available.

California’s Green Lodging program, for instance, which was set up with the help of the nonprofit group Green Seal, encourages state and local government travelers to give preference to one of the more than 200 certified green hotels in the state.

Hotel accommodations that are environmentally friendly are now available in most cities across the country and in major business travel destinations around the world. These lodgings typically have recycling programs, use high-efficiency LED lights and conserve water by asking guests to reuse towels. Some hotel operators buy only environmentally friendly supplies like laundry detergent and other cleaning products.

Other hotels have gone all out in their green efforts. The Las Vegas Sands Corp., for example, built a solar thermal system on the roof of its Palazzo resort to deliver hot water for its swimming pools and spas.

One caveat: While many corporate and government travel programs highlight green-certified hotels on their travel websites, the benchmarks for what constitutes “green” can be debatable. Some programs rely on third-party audits conducted by groups like Green Seal, while others fall back on a hotel management’s self-assessment.

Employees take initiative

As some companies are doing what they can to promote more sustainable travel practices, many employees are asking about green travel alternatives without being prompted.

When Megan Zanella-Litke accepted her post as sustainability manager at the University of Richmond in 2010, she knew she would be working with faculty, staff and students on a wide variety of sustainability projects, including green buildings, renewable energy plans, a community garden, recycling and composting. But what has surprised her is that her office has become the go-to place for faculty and staff who are heading out of town for work to explore their travel options from an environmental perspective.

“It is astounding how many people stop by to ask how they can limit their footprint going to a conference and learn about public transportation systems where they’re headed,” says Zanella-Litke.

As a result, the university now offers carbon emission comparisons on its website, showing, for example, how much carbon is used if someone is traveling from, say, Richmond to New York City by plane, train, bus or car. “Employees can see side-by-side what the environmental impact of that travel is and make decisions with that information in hand,” she says.

Commuting, which after all is a kind of business travel, is getting similar attention at many organizations.

For the last three years, 26-year-old Bennet Huber has pedaled his bike to work at the software development firm Azavea based in Philadelphia. Time allotted for his roughly 4-mile commute: around 20 minutes on a 12-speed Raleigh Technium, built circa 1990.

The amenities for bike commuters at the firm of about three dozen employees include bike racks inside the office with space for 12 to 15 bikes (depending on how much they are squeezed together), lockers for stashing sweaty cycling clothes, a changing room and a shower.

And much to the delight of Huber, a software developer, anyone who bikes to work receives a $20 a month stipend to use toward bike-related expenses. After he accrued around $400, he bought a new wheel set. “That was really nice,” he says. “I know someone who bought most of a bike by saving up for two years.”

Huber adds, “Even the CEO rides his bike to work.”

Commuting options at a growing number of companies include a bike-friendly office like at Azavea, ride-sharing programs that provide preferred on-site parking, free bus rides to and from the office and a more favorable stance on telecommuting.

“We encourage our people to work from home or find alternatives when it makes sense, such as car-pooling,” says Shannon Schuyler, corporate responsibility leader at the auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. “When done well, offering travel flexibility results in better job satisfaction and increased productivity, all while helping manage our overall footprint.”

Wheeling around Microsoft

At Microsoft’s Redmond campus, two-wheeled commuters have access to on-site bicycle shops with subsidized tuneups and repair tools, locker rooms with showers and covered parking for 3,443 bicycles.

For employees who choose to commute by bike, the company offers a reimbursement program, similar to the one offered by Huber’s employer, that allows them to receive money for bike-related purchases and discounts at local bicycle shops.

Microsoft’s shuttle service for Puget Sound area Microsoft employees has 22 routes throughout metropolitan Seattle. Of the roughly 20,000 employees who have used the service since its beginning, 60 percent drove by themselves before riding it.

Since the first 13 buses ran their routes in 2007, the service has grown to include 74 buses and is on pace to surpass 700,000 annual employee rides to and from work this year.

That has helped Microsoft eliminate 46.3 million miles of travel and more than 19,936 metric tons of carbon, according to Bernard.

For all the efforts around greening business travel and commuting, however, the immense carbon footprint of air travel can erase many of these gains.

“At my 16-person firm here in Oakland, California, almost no one drives to work,” says Makower. “We have huge windows, so the lights are out. It takes us a month to go through a ream of paper. But the minute I jump on a plane to go someplace, all of that is meaningless.”