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What really matters – thoughts from our CEO for 2023

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Despite being the CEO of a fast-growing international company, the quiet time ‘between the years’ still affords a moment to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. For me, this regularly results in all the impressions of the past twelve months transforming into a plan for the coming year. With this in mind, I wanted to take a moment to share a few of my thoughts and insights with you.

After finally being able to fully travel again in 2022, I immediately took the opportunity to attend some international conferences and what struck me most this year was that practically all of the topics focused on sustainability. That’s hardly surprising when you’re attending the GSTC conference in Seville or the Green Destinations in Athens, but when even the NOAH Conference in Zurich – the biggest digital and investor event in the calendar – is now all about sustainability, you know something is happening. It was as recently as December when Marco Rodzynec, the founder of NOAH, said “Sustainable is the new digital“.

I wouldn’t say I’m a Green- at least not politically. However, my background means I’m innately rooted in my home region of Allgäu where I grew up with the values and traditions of a mountain people who make their living in harmony with nature. For us, the resources we consume have always been used very carefully to ensure the land remains fully able to sustain future generations.

This is a lifestyle I have also chosen to carry into the modern world. We have been heating our positive-energy house for many years with a heat pump powered by solar electricity that we produce ourselves on our roof. We have also been driving electric vehicles since they arrived on the scene – even if politicians and the car industry don’t always make it easy. We avoid plastic and creating waste wherever possible. We buy local products and look for quality, even if it costs a bit extra. I hardly ever even print documents any more.

Our entire company fleet has been powered by electricity for years and we always opt to take the train as far as it makes sense. The German car manufacturers – protected by the government – have slept through this necessity (no, it’s not a trend). Nevertheless, we have always bought German cars so as not to make ourselves even more dependent on other world powers. Even if Tesla produced in Germany, the money would still go to America. The heating in my new high-tech electric car failed before Christmas and even though, as a mountain person, I’m fine driving while wearing a jacket, the windows still froze over. In the past, the dealership would have been able to obtain replacement parts the next day, but with my car it now takes three weeks. I think there needs to be a rethink in Germany’s flagship industry, from grandfathering to innovation, and from short-term share prices to a model of longer-term sustainability. What Tesla is now could have actually been the role of German carmakers.
Even Deutsche Bahn seems to be doing everything it can to make people avoid using public transport. It makes me wonder why such important infrastructure (which also extends to ports, airports, internet services, the electricity grid, etc.) isn’t in the hands of the state, as is the case with roads, and why the government can’t act in the interests of the people based on their priorities?

At the NOAH Conference I represented Outdooractive as a speaker and focused on the topic of “Sustainability through Digitization“. I was the third to last out of more than 300 speakers and so I had a lot of time to listen to the other presentations.

 When it comes to energy, there are several companies that offer a holistic solution. If a solar system were installed on every roof, it would be enough to cover the world’s energy needs. To store the electricity temporarily, a unit is needed in each house so that the electricity produced on sunny days remains available at night or in bad weather. There also needs to be a charging station for electric vehicles in every house. These houses are in turn heated with electrically powered heat pumps while intelligent electricity management systems ensure that the energy is distributed evenly. By including the batteries of the e-cars, a large, decentralized energy storage system is created- effectively making it a miniaturized power plant with its own network. This mitigates the need for actual power plants for energy generation, allowing politicians more of an opportunity to drive other sustainable solutions instead of having to negotiate energy supplies from questionable states and extending the lifespans of power plants. There are even companies that offer such solutions as a package. Their services even extend to supporting investing homeowners financially by the use of monthly subscription models in which the fee no longer pays for the provision of energy, but instead for the use of hardware and software. The bottleneck to any sort of nationwide rollout of such technology is, on the one hand, manufacturers, who unfortunately cannot produce the technology quickly enough, and, on the other, the manpower needed to install and maintain so many units. Unfortunately, the European economy has relied too much on the fact that non-European supply chains are not only cheap but also work pretty well. Local manufacturing has also been undervalued and poorly remunerated for too long. Countering all these factors will be a fundamental challenge.

When I was choosing options for my car almost two years ago, I had the choice of “vegan leather” seat covers. I pretty quickly dismissed the idea on the basis that it would be ‘just another one of those plastic things’; and then ordered real leather, thinking that at least it’s a natural product (if the tanning process doesn’t involve too many heavy metals) and that the animals’ skin would have otherwise ended up in the rubbish. It seems I was wrong and I say that now that I have learned what the future of food production looks like. We all know by now that current agricultural practices are ruining our planet. We are already living on borrowed time and that if the global population continues to grow we are going to have huge problems unless we are willing to make some dramatic changes. This dilemma can no longer be solved in a conventional way, not even if we were all to switch to a vegetarian diet. But there is a solution: in the future, our food will be produced in large steel tanks in which nutrient solutions, fungi, algae and fermentation processes will produce proteins. I hate industrially produced food. I’m put off if the ingredient list of any food item is longer than one – and if it also contains cryptic chemical terms, my dislike for it increases exponentially. Fortunately, these processes don’t require any unnatural chemicals. They can even be compared in a way to the re-growing of body parts using human DNA. By using the DNA of our main foods, a replica of what we know, like, and need is created, with the benefit that the production no longer harms the planet, because it can be decentralized, negating the requirement to transport food long distances. Production takes place in large stainless steel containers (in the dark) the energy for which can be supplied directly using solar panels installed on the roof. Without the need to harm any animals, fitting vegan leather in my car now makes sense.

In my view, the so-called climate activists who go around destroying paintings and holding up traffic are criminals who should be punished and given no media attention. Politicians, who for decades have rejected the science and either make no commitments at the climate conferences they attend – or simply keep putting them off – should also be held accountable. By not taking action and through selfishness, they are simply transferring the problem to their successors and to the future generations of the global population. Unfortunately, it is only the electorate who can regulate these politicians at the ballot box – assuming the country is a democracy in the first place. This means that access to information and education is key to helping a population change a country’s direction.
On that note, I am convinced that only a radical change of direction is capable of delivering what is so desperately needed. I have heard many lectures that began with “We are out of time” as well as quite a few that state “It is actually already too late“. These were talks given by companies, NGOs and investors involved in planting trees in Africa. I’ll freely admit that I used to smile at tree planters. I always viewed greenhouse gas offsetting as some sort of indulgence and believed that only a radical reversal in the production of CO2 was the solution. I no longer believe this to be the case.  Yes, we have to reduce all emissions dramatically – and completely to zero in many areas – but in cases where doing so quickly proves especially difficult, the remaining amount of carbon needs to be captured in plants – both existing and those that have to be added to account for all our emissions. I believe I now understand how a viable industry with CO2 trading can emerge from this, and why investors would be willing to put money into companies that improve the soil, provide irrigation, plant trees and use sensors to monitor the environment, alongside other data. Those creating a mess are the ones who should also pay to have it cleaned up, such as is the case with those emitting carbon funding tree planting in Africa.

When it comes to sustainability, there are literally hundreds of certifications, labels, and seals of approval and to be honest, I always roll my eyes when our tourism clients keep coming up with such initiatives. As an end user, they are hard to make sense of, let alone commit any meaningful action to.  In most cases, I view them as little more than marketing-driven exercise in green-washing rather than an honest attempt to make any true difference.
Professionally, however, I can’t escape the topic. And I don’t want to either, because my ambition to digitize the world of tourism also encompasses the issue of sustainability.
At Outdooractive, we have been focused on the topic of sustainability since the very beginning, from managing visitor flows to protecting nature and guiding the outdoor tourist. It therefore seems natural that we should also be taking a deeper look at wider topics such as energy, waste reduction, regional supply chains, and the benefits of a circular economy.
We are a partner of Green Destinations, a member of the GSTC, and work with many other organizations dealing with certification and labelling. Since my visit to GSTC 2022 in Seville, where I was involved in panel and roundtable discussions, I have made the following observations:

  1. There needs to be a superordinate and fully independent organization like the GSTC to define criteria and ensure that certificates are comparable and comprehensible for the consumer. This was also the finding of our ESKINAT project.
  2. The GSTC has set out to establish an internationally recognized certification standard.
  3. There is currently wild proliferation in the industry and a total gold rush atmosphere among so-called Certification Bodies, i.e. the companies that carry out certifications. The GSTC can put an end to this.
  4. These bodies certify to a degree using GSTC criteria, because the GSTC also allows “recognized certifiers” who have different standards. In this respect,  ‘GSTC’ loses validity.
  5. There is also a widening range of additional certifications and seals of approval.
  6. Individual countries are starting to take certification into their own hands and define their own criteria based on the GSTC. Examples include Norway, Mauritius and Turkey.

I have now resolved (in my typically megalomaniacal way) to harmonize the data of the certifications and to bring them into a uniform and coherent scale (score). Seals of approval from individual organizations should play no role, and the data should be transparent and available for all to see. Let’s see how far I get with this.

Hartmut Wimmer, Founder & CEO of Outdooractive

I hope I was able to inspire a few of you with my thoughts. Perhaps I can rally a few more comrades-in-arms, or stir an opinion or some feedback. I am always up for a lively discussion, new partnerships, and connecting with others who care about our future and that of the planet.

I wish you all the best and a great start to 2023

Hartmut Wimmer