6 Ways To Reduce The Ecological Footprint Of Your Next Retreat

Jen Corley (she/her)
5 min read

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year amid COVID-19, it’s heartening to see that the world is getting a moment to breathe.

Skies have emptied, factories have slowed production, motorways have cleared, and people are staying at home, all to see stories of reduced pollution levels and nature reclaiming some of its own while the world is at a near standstill.

Not to be disillusioned though. While this is a glimpse of what our planet could look like, experts warn that it is only temporary until the virus abates. The reality is that there are long-term political decisions that need to be made about what follows once the pandemic passes.

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The theme to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year was climate action. “Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.”

Unfortunately, travel (especially flying) is not renowned for a low carbon impact. In some parts of the world, it’s also not sustainable, with overtourism having negative impacts on hosting communities and the environment. However, as individuals, as families, as communities, as cities, as countries – we can all play a part in being more mindful of our actions and the impact they have.

In the spirit of supporting this captivating planet we call home and our own eco-conscious community, see our tips below detailing some of the ways to reduce the ecological footprint of your next retreat.

First though, let’s explore what ecological footprint means, as this is our basis for improvement.

Meaning Of Ecological Footprint

Retreat Ecological Footprint

Ecological Footprint measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use.

We have ecological assets that absorb our waste and generate new resources. The productivity of these assets is known as biocapacity.

We use productive surface areas which produce the natural resources we consume. Any given population has specific space requirements to produce these resources and to absorb the waste it produces. This is the Ecological Footprint.

A simpler way to think of it is how fast we consume resources and generate waste. Then compare this with how fast nature can absorb our waste and generate new resources.

The point of looking at this in a bit more detail is to pinpoint what sort of measures reduce ecological footprint. For the most part, they’re very locally-driven changes; sourcing local and being mindful of waste disposal. However, they’re also about off-setting carbon emissions and giving back to the destinations we visit.

6 Ways To Reduce The Ecological Footprint Of Your Next Retreat

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1. Select A Location Closer To Home

While staycations are currently leaning toward mandatory rather than optional, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that these have low carbon and ecological impact. As the retreat takes place at home with no travel involved, your retreat and attendees are not creating any footprint outside of their regular behavior.

In the future, as movement becomes less restricted, you might start by organizing retreats that are closer to home and don’t require flights to be booked. In this case, you can encourage attendees to travel sustainably via road or rail.

Ultimately, this decision is out of your hands as transportation arrangements are typically left up to individual participants. However, you can provide recommendations to carpool or hire an electric or hybrid vehicle that uses clean energy to get to the venue.

Alternatively, you could gauge interest to see whether participants would be willing to travel as a group and hire a bus or large van for transport. The point is to avoid a situation where each person takes a vehicle to the retreat.

2. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Flying

Reduce Wellness Retreat Carbon Footprint

For international retreats, your biggest footprint will be the CO2 emissions flying to and from the venue. Aircraft account for 3% of the U.S.’ total CO2 output, and in turn, the country is responsible for nearly half of global CO2 emissions from aircraft.

There are several ways to offset emissions. You can book attendees on direct flights or reduce the number of stopovers – every takeoff and landing guzzles fuel. Also, ask them to pack light and travel economy class.

Most international airlines offer to offset emissions for a fee. It works by calculating the CO2 from a passenger's trip and then donating the corresponding amount to an organization of the airline's choice.

If the airline doesn’t offer this, Sustainable Travel International has a carbon calculator where you can purchase offsets. The organization will then invest the amount into certified carbon reduction projects.

FlyGRN is an example of a flight comparison site which includes carbon offsetting in the quoted price. The fee you pay will go to their forestry or solar projects to offset flight emissions.

If you are interested in off-setting your entire trip emissions, then organizations like Carbon Fund and Carbon Neutral will help with the calculation and selecting a program to support.

3. Choose Eco-Friendly Accommodation

Sustainable Retreat Eco Accommodation

Where possible, support local, eco-friendly accommodation providers for your retreat. Those who are actively doing their bit to be ecologically friendly will be proud of this commitment and advertise the fact with the accommodation, helping you to source it more easily.

Hotels or larger establishments might hold some of the formal green certifications (Green Key, Global Sustainable Tourism Council, U.S. Green Building Council), which might help you select this type of accommodation.

However, a good rule of thumb is to decide on the issues that matter to you most, and then have a conversation with the relevant accommodation provider to see what they are doing with respect to each. This way you can select an establishment that matches your ethos for ecological sustainability.

4. Encourage Guests To Be Mindful Of Their Impact

Mindful Of Impact

As a wellness retreat leader, you likely have an army of mindful eco-warriors in tow for the adventure. That said, it never hurts to provide gentle reminders, before and during the retreat, of how each person can tread softly while away from home. Ideas include:

  • Pack lightly and be mindful of the destination climate and beliefs
  • Bring a refillable water bottle to avoid wasteful plastic
  • Be mindful of turning out the lights or switching off the cooling when leaving rooms
  • Reuse towels and linen if possible
  • Take your own shampoos, soaps, toothbrushes, products, etc.

Then have a talk with the hosts at the establishment to let them know:

  • There’s no need to do laundry every day
  • Place chilled water coolers where attendees can easily refill
  • Ensure that there are recycling bins within reach of rooms and common spaces

5. Reflect Sustainability In Your Retreat Choices

Sustainable Wellness Retreat Choices

Your retreat's eco-footprint is reflected in the menu and activities choices you make. When negotiating with a retreat venue, check to see if they can accommodate a specific meal plan of your choice.

Sustainable options include sourcing produce from local farmers and suppliers while reducing meat and dairy options as much as possible. Livestock has a high ecological footprint as animals require large areas of farmland to graze and produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Besides being sustainable, local, plant-based ingredients will make your guests’ dining experience more authentic and affordable.

When it comes to activities, again, support local businesses in the vicinity of the retreat center. Dine in local restaurants, visit artisans in their workplace, meet with local tour guides, or arrange a beach or street clean up to collect trash. Avoid any exploitative human attractions or animal petting or riding activities.

In general, be mindful of whether your chosen activity has a disruptive or empowering effect on the destination.

6. Give Back To Your Host Community

Give Back To Community

Beyond retreat activities, if you are regularly hosting retreats at a particular location, you could consider getting more permanently involved in sustainable projects in the area.

There may be a local humanitarian or animal organization that requires contributions of man-hours or funding which you can get involved in. As you spend time in this location and regularly take guests there, you become part of the community and more deeply invested in its sustainability for current and future generations.

Final Thoughts

Retreats are enriching experiences that have a meaningful impact on the lives of your guests. Managing the ecological footprint while you lead these experiences adds even more to the value you impart.

When marketing your retreat, make your eco ethos known, and you will attract like-minded travelers. If everyone is more conscious of their actions and impact, our planet will have a better chance of remaining the beautiful and wondrous place we love to explore.

For a more accurate understanding and perspective of the influence your actions can have on carbon emissions, you can use this tool.