Innovation That Matters

Christian Møller-Holst of Goodwings on Sustainable Travel Post-COVID

Wise Words

We spoke to the CEO of Goodwings, a travel booking platform that offsets carbon, on where the idea came from, the many challenges facing the sector, and much more.

The travel sector continues to be one of the most disrupted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As if this were not a big enough challenge, the industry — and all of us who travel — must also come to terms with its negative impact on the environment.

The good news is that some travel companies with a sustainable focus are having success amidst the global health crisis. The Danish startup Goodwings, for example, was able to raise $3 million over the summer despite widespread travel bans. The booking platform allows users to offset the CO2 emissions from their entire trip, at no extra cost to them.

Its business model is built on partnerships, with a global network of 100 nonprofit partners in over 40 countries acting as their ambassadors and marketing channels. The money saved on advertising then gets redirected towards projects and people who are actively working towards the SDGs.

“We want to fully compensate for the travel industry’s climate footprint — greenifying travel if you want,” says Goodwings CEO Christian Møller-Holst.

We spoke to Møller-Holst about the origins of his business, the many challenges facing the travel sector, and much more.

1. Where did the idea for Goodwings come from? 

It came from a sense of urgency and a profound need to do something about the travel industry’s social and environmental footprint. Having worked with nonprofits for several years, I had seen the transition that they had undergone, becoming more open to public-private partnerships and needing to go new ways to secure fundraising for their work. I knew (or at least I thought I knew) that they would want to work with us, promoting us to their corporate and private followers, and ultimately enabling us to allocate the money we normally would have spent on advertising to them, supporting them and fueling their work for a sustainable future.

2. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work with Goodwings? 

My background is quite diverse. I was an officer in the Danish Armed Forces before I went and studied philosophy and business. I graduated with a Masters in ‘05 and two days after I started my first company.

During my studies, I was very active on what at that time was labelled CSR and I was fundamentally interested in understanding the “new” role of business in society. I got to work on human rights, public-private partnerships, anti-corruption and bribery and it all led to starting Healthy Company, a consulting firm focusing on keeping workforces safe and healthy. We grew it to some 15 FTEs from ‘06 to ‘08 where the financial, and later economic, crises hit us hard.

You can say that I learned how to navigate in troubled water. The B2B health promotion market was somewhat a nice-to-have market and as a result, our turnover fell 80 per cent month by month. Together with my two partners, and an amazing team, we stayed in business, grew it slightly, before ending up selling the company to a large local (Danish) consulting company.

What we’re experiencing today with Goodwings, and global travel restrictions, is of course even tougher but I feel prepared for the ride. Other than that, I learned how to build teams, how to nurture a startup culture and pivot your company to unlock new business opportunities. Today I am happy that the ‘08 recession prepared me for this. Today’s fight is a much more important one. It will define the future of the next generations.

3. What change does Goodwings want to facilitate? 

Travel is needed. Not only does the hospitality industry employ around 10 per cent of the global workforce, but travelling is wonderful and needed. In these times with increasing isolationism, COVID-19 fueling it in its own way, economic and cultural exchange is more important than ever.

But, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. Therefore we need to travel in a way that is climate-friendly. Our business model facilitates that. Without paying more, you can book your hotel on Goodwings, choosing between 1 million hotel properties around the world, and as part of the price you get to offset the CO2 emissions from your entire trip – that includes your transportation whether that is by plane, bus, car or train – and your hotel. We want to fully compensate for the travel industry’s climate footprint — greenifying travel if you want.

4. Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how people approach sustainable travel?

I see increasing demand, both among leisure travellers and businesses of all sizes and shapes, however, I do still experience that most, if not almost all, are unwilling to pay more. Online travel booking with transparency and price comparisons has made a monster where it is only price that counts.

That is just a brutal fact, and I don’t believe that we will get far by trying to educate travellers and persuade them to pay more. It’s counterintuitive. You don’t spend 2 hours getting that plane ticket and hotel room as cheap as possible and then say “yes, I want to add £40 to offset my trip”. Some will, but in no way enough to mitigate the climate damages of travelling.

We, therefore, need to innovate and find ways of including full-trip carbon offsetting in the price, and that’s what we are doing.

5. What keeps you motivated during times of frustration?

People. My wife and three sons. My team and amazing investors who continue to show support to me and the company, and ultimately our clients. The travellers who use our service are, with every booking, showing me that we’re on the right track and that they share our vision for a climate-friendly travel future.

That goes for the businesses who use us too. Behind the brands and corporate offices are too people who genuinely care about climate change and want to take action. That interconnectedness keeps me fully motivated every day.

6. What has been your proudest moment thus far? 

Our B Corp Certification. When reaching certain milestones. When doing payouts to the organisations that we work closely with. When raising $3M this Summer — in July — despite COVID-19 and global travel bans.

7. What are your thoughts on being a B Corp-certified company? Have you found that it has made a difference and would you recommend other purpose-driven companies consider the certification process?

Yes, I would definitely recommend other companies, purpose-driven or not, to consider becoming certified. It’s a very fruitful process as it takes you through all elements of being in business. What are you here for? What value are you adding to the world?

Remember, “a business” is just something we invented. The notion of a legal entity with limited liability came to life because large investments were needed to fund infrastructural projects such as railroads. Today it’s a given. You can study a Masters in finance without reflecting on this or on your role in society. It’s still first and foremost a question of how to make the most money and to do so you generate wealth by pushing externalities, such as damaging the climate, away.

Carbon taxing is one way of forcing companies to internalize the climate aspect of the business, product or service. I believe that the B Corp movement is leading this change and I encourage anyone to participate in creating a better version of capitalism.

8. What is one book you’ve recently read that you might recommend? 

I would recommend Anders Dunker’s The Rediscovery of the Earth.

9. Who inspires you personally? 

My grandfather. I never met him, but my dad told me his life story. He was a businessman travelling to and from Russia around the time of the first World War. On his journeys, he learned that hundreds of Scandinavians were kept prisoners of war in awful camps far into Russia. Today I have his memoirs and the letters we wrote to the Danish king. Ultimately he spent all his own money on getting as many of them safely back to Scandinavia. That for me is self-sacrifice and truly inspiring. 

10. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring environmental advocates, or purpose-driven entrepreneurs? 

If you already know that you want to dedicate yourself to doing purpose-driven business, then just do it. You will make mistakes — I know I have made my fair share of them — but you can get there and succeed. If you’re already convinced, ask yourself why you shouldn’t. It’s not like you (at least most of us) can afford it. You already have your flatscreen TV, your smartphone and so on. What I mean is, we have so little to lose today, so why not do something meaningful.