Innovation That Matters

Joseph Sharp of Sustayn on How to Book Planet-Friendly Travel

Wise Words

The founder of Sustayn on how he is creating a booking platform for short term rentals that aims to promote greater sustainability within the industry and more.

During my time travelling across New Zealand, I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Joseph Sharp, a digital nomad in the process of launching one of the world’s first sustainable booking platforms for short term rentals. 

Sharp hopes the platform will help educate property owners and people travelling, as well as support community-led projects and the individuals at the forefront of that. As he said, “I am open to connecting with anyone who resonates with the intention of this project and feels like they could offer support in some way”.

After meeting Sharp, I was inspired by his openness to explore and share ideas that will holistically promote sustainability within the industry. Thus, I wanted to learn more about his background and his approach to creating a sustainable community both online and on land. 

— Katrina Lane

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

Sustainability and a connection with nature is something I’ve only become closer to in the last couple of years. Before starting Sustayn, I was running another company that facilitated remote working communities for people interested in surfing. We would do the odd beach clean up and encourage small elements of sustainability, but the core focus was bringing people together — and that was the real part I enjoyed. 

2. Tell us more about the conservation/sustainability projects on the site at the moment.

At the moment, the causes on the platform are peer-reviewed causes supported via ecology around climate impact. These are a way to show what’s possible. What I really want to get across, however, is that any cause can be added by anyone. As soon as a property is linked to it and booked, funding will go towards supporting that cause.

However, I would like to fund not only direct conservation work (addressing the symptom). I also want to support the causes that make the work required in the first place, which is most often the way we are living. My personal feeling is that changing our narrative on subjects can be the most powerful way of creating change and impact in the world. I’m a big fan of the people out there doing exactly that and would also like to support those at the grassroots in communities and those with creative or seemingly outlandish visions. 

3. How has being on the road affected the process of creating an organisation and how has it shaped the way you work?

It allows for a huge amount of flexibility and inspiration, but also uncertainty. Fortunately, I’ve learnt to use the uncertainty to strip back, let go and only step towards what feels true. I’m also grateful that I’ve been in a conducive environment close to nature, as it serves as a constant and beautiful reminder to stay on the path.

4. Sustainability is complex and includes a multitude of criteria. Despite the complexity, there is an urgent need to get sustainable stays “on the shelf”, and simply it for consumers. What criteria will Sustayn focus on initially, and why?

Sustayn will focus on the reason behind sustainability, encouraging people to relate in a way that is not typically allowed time or space in a busy modern lifestyle. Building community, whilst encouraging small and simple behavioural changes around the home and with travel will be next. 

We aspire to have some properties and individuals that are exceptionally sustainable and willing to share their learning with other property owners so that we can all take small steps together. However, any property or individual is welcome to join the platform, even if they currently have no particularly sustainable features. We hope that simply being on the platform will serve as a prompt to engage in sustainable changes.

A sustainable stay is not just the moment you check into a place, it’s the choices in how to get there, the servers that are hosting the websites you’re using to book it (something we still need to look into), the bank or owners of the property and what investments they might have or support. 

5. Some elements of sustainability are easier to quantify than others. For example, environmental performance is often easier to report than social performance. Do you have any thoughts as to how booking platforms can approach this? 

This is a really great question because those elements that are quantifiable and easier to report often lead to incomplete solutions. An example is monoculture pine forests to offset carbon. They don’t factor in biodiversity or consider things holistically. They are just ticking a carbon box. 

That being said, I believe that at this stage, progress or steps in any direction is something that can be celebrated. Even if they lead to little road bumps, those things can then become learnings.

6. There is no universally accepted scorecard that ranks hotels on environmental measures. Do you have any ideas that could help people evaluate the environmental performance of their accommodation?

The SDG’s by the UN are a great overarching start, but a more niche scorecard in the travel sector is a great idea. This should be something that is done not just within the walls of one platform but more universally as an open-source project. If anyone knows of this already existing or is working on anything like this, I’d be keen to discuss or read up on. 

One idea we’ve been shown by Alicia Storie, a sustainable interior architect, was using natural comparisons. For instance, if you’re just getting started in sustainability you’re at the seed stage, this evolves to sapling, young tree and old oak. That sort of thing works visually quite well but might need some tweaking to internationalize.

Within the search functionality, we plan to list properties by how sustainable they are. So those more sustainable will show up first within a certain area. It’s like a gamified version of sustainable SEO. We hope this can serve as a motivator without discouraging new properties or individuals.

7. Since sustainability has become a selling point for hotels, there is lots of noise and plenty of ‘green’ claims. How do you think booking platforms can make it easier for consumers to cut through greenwashing? And how will you ensure that hotels and accommodation owners don’t just use Sustayn as a marketing tool?

I don’t mind if they do. If they’re accepting bookings through the platform, they will be funding causes that make an impact. They would also be opening themselves up to feedback on how to incorporate more genuine sustainable changes into their offerings. 

The very fact greenwashing exists as a term is awesome. It shows there is a consumer demand to make more considered choices. The fact it exists also allows for a level of accountability that wasn’t previously there. So even though it feels like a step back and semi-deceptive, it’s not. 

8. What is something you’ve read recently that has inspired you and that you recommend?

The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. The more I’ve managed to let go of, the more capacity, purpose and direction has been offered to me. I also really enjoyed the lecture called “Beyond Success” by Ram Dass. 

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I have a few which are largely borrowed from the wisdom of others but I’m experiencing the benefit of following them myself already.

The best investment you can ever make is in yourself. Allow space for those uncomfortable situations and what they trigger within you. There’s usually a lesson in there. 

Trust. Forgive often, especially yourself. Be your kindest support and trust that others want to support you too, even if they don’t always outwardly express it or realise it themselves yet.