April 18, 2024

How Sustainable Can Global Mobility Actually Be?

That provocative question was the topic of conversation during an early 2024 webcast featuring Michael Weiss, Director Global Employer Services/Global Mobility with Deloitte, Cornelia Haiwen Renis-Konig, Manager Global Employer Services/Global Mobility at Deloitte and Daniel Halfpap, Sterling Lexicon’s Chief Commercial Officer. The primary goals were to:

    • Explore the readiness of organizations to embrace and measure sustainability initiatives within their talent mobility programs, in both theory and practice
    • Offer practical tips for taking small but meaningful steps to make a difference

Setting the Stage

The question of what sustainability impact global talent mobility has on an organization’s overall ESG goals has been debated for some time. There is no doubt, however, that the need for a reliable answer has grown and will continue to grow in both focus and urgency. In Germany, for example, a phased-in timeline to require all publicly listed companies – not just those enterprises with 3,000 or more employees – to comply with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) is fast approaching. It will significantly increase the number of companies that must meet stringent reporting requirements by early 2025. Recognizing that many smaller companies do not have the same resources to dedicate to this endeavor as their larger counterparts, now is the time to put serious focus on what we can do together to help.

Where Do Things Stand Today?

To gauge where many companies are right now and where they are planning to be in the near future, Weiss and Haiwen Renis-Konig reviewed some results from AIRINC’s Sustainability and Global Mobility Pulse Survey and their own research from another Deloitte webcast held late last year. Within the AIRINC research, when asked how focused on environmental sustainability their global mobility programs are today, respondents mostly indicated they stand in isolation:


Deloitte’s 2023 webcast polling confirmed similar sentiments about the current state. Participants responded to the validity of the statement “In our company, sustainability is an important part of the global mobility strategy” as follows:

Yes, completely true


Yes, somewhat true


No, not entirely true


No, but we are planning to make sustainability changes in the near future


No, not true at all



Where Are We Going Next?

When asked the same question about what they see the picture looking like in the next 1-3 years, however, AIRINC’s survey respondents reported that change and further integration are likely on the horizon:


Before we can really know what that alignment looks like, though, it’s important to have collective agreement on a definition of a sustainable global mobility program. Weiss and Haiwen Renis-Konig offered one from an in-depth 2023 article, Sustainable Expatriate Management: Rethinking International Assignments which describes it as “any employee-related cross-border (work) activity, which, by its design, considers planetary and societal boundaries and acknowledges the embeddedness of economic impacts within this larger framework.” In other words, it’s important to consider sustainable global mobility within the context of much larger environmental, societal and economic developments and trends that are shaping global business awareness and responses as a whole.

Weiss and Haiwen Renis-Konig indicated that there are generally four phases of organizational awareness they currently see in their compliance work:

01/ Sustainability is currently not a priority in global mobility.

02/ Sustainability is only given attention when policies are under review.

03/ Sustainability within global mobility comes into the conversation in the context of wider benefit reviews, particularly around existing travel policies, company cars, etc.

04/ Sustainability is very much on the agenda, and companies are bringing together all parties who can design practical measures the company can take to build more meaningful initiatives into their global mobility practices.

Relocation Management Company Perspectives

From the relocation management company perspective, Halfpap acknowledged that while there is undoubtedly an important and growing prioritization of the topic of sustainability, it tends to be concentrated at the RFP or vendor/quality management levels and then lose focus as a priority farther down the line, when it comes to investing in pragmatic solutions.

“We see increasing numbers of and heightened sophistication levels in the questions regarding sustainability goals and CO2 output tracking data in our RFP invitations, but there is still a large disconnect between the prioritization of the information collected at that exploratory stage, vs. what we see happening in practice at the policy level.”

Daniel Halfpap, Sterling Lexicon COO

That may be because two of the biggest challenges today are an absence of standardization in the industry and overcoming misconceptions. For example, there is no doubt that large, diesel-powered cargo ships hauling massive containers of household goods are not exactly readily associated with environmental protection. The reality, however, is that the true extent to which household goods shipping by sea is ‘anti-sustainability’ hasn’t been fully measured, particularly against alternatives like furniture rental and long-term storage in climate-controlled warehouses.

Halfpap also noted the importance of looking at the significant carbon impact of travel by air, whether for relocation specifically or business travel in general. A Sterling Lexicon blog post cites statistics verified by Freightos, a reputable industry source to illustrate the point:

    • A 20-foot container moving from London to New York generates 543.82 kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e)
    • Flying from London to New York and back generates around 2,863 kg CO2e

The carbon impact of the shipment is effectively 38% of the assignee flying to New York and back.

Where possible, policies that promote travel by nuclear- or hybrid-powered trains can help reduce emissions as well. The CO2e output of travelling on a train in France powered by nuclear electricity is 22 g per mile compared with 80 g for a standard class intercity in the UK. Travelling from London to Paris by train therefore has an impact of around 9 kg. The key point here is that most forms of mobility carry some carbon cost to them, and policy decisions should be made based on data.

Next Steps

Like so many choices associated with talent mobility support, there is no “one size fits all” approach around which actions will have the greatest impact on sustainability. Business leaders need to come together to look at the issue in the greater context of wider operations and travel, and industry groups like The Coalition for Greener Mobility must continue to collaborate on establishing attainable measurement metrics and goals.

Some options to consider include:

    • The use of fully furnished accommodations or rental furniture in markets where available/practical
    • Allowances for excess baggage in lieu of shipping belongings separately by air
    • Greater use of collective containers/group shipments
    • Eliminating the “look/see” visit altogether in favor of a virtual experience, or combining it with housing searches if air travel is a must
    • Encouraging the use of discard and donate programs to reduce shipment size and repurpose certain items
    • Embedding an eco-incentive into a Core-Flex approach, giving employees additional choice and control over the carbon footprints of their moves

In addition to having good data around the carbon impact of various mobility transport initiatives, every organization needs to look at its overall strategy and employee demographics to make informed choices that are right for them. It’s essential to consider the availability and practicality of alternatives to traditional mobility support in each operating region and how those choices will affect the employee and family experience. The global movement of people for work can be made more sustainable. Even small steps can have an impact. With the right investments of time, focus and a commitment to change – backed by the right data – global mobility professionals have an opportunity to help make a difference.

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Kristin White

Kristin White

Kristin brings nearly 30 years of experience in global workforce mobility, PR, marketing, editorial planning and communications to her role as a member of the thought leadership and content development teams. Before joining the company in 2020, she worked for many years at Worldwide ERC® in collaboration with cross-departmental teams and industry stakeholders to develop in-person and virtual event programming, digital and print content, and served as editor of Mobility magazine. Contact Kristin at kristin.white@sterlinglexicon.com.

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