In July 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures pulled off the ultimate travel experience: the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure, a week-long excursion through Yellowstone National Park that diverted 99% of all on-trip waste from the landfill through recycling, composting, reusing, reducing and refusing. Basically, all the waste that they produced fit snugly inside a quart-sized mason jar.
From the park’s scenic Lamar Valley to its gurgling and bubbling Upper Geyser Basin, the group’s 12 participants worked together to produce as minimal waste as possible while enjoying Yellowstone’s vast offerings. They shared meals at restaurants to reduce food waste, opted for bulk snacks rather than individual bags of chips and pretzels to cut down on packaging, and utilized reusable cutlery and containers for their to-go meals. It was a groundbreaking journey, and a successful one, too. It’s also just more than one of a dozen conservation travel milestones highlighted in Nat Hab’s 2023 Sustainability Report, an inaugural publication bringing together nearly 40 years of Nat Hab conservation work into one cohesive study.
“Frankly, we’re probably a little overdue,” says Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer, “but it kind of had to be the right time for the company in terms of our collection of stories, the momentum of information, and the impact.”
Nat Hab’s 2023 Sustainability Report Findings
Founded in 1985, Nat Hab has always been a conservation company first in many ways, as well as a travel company. “Both this report and our tours prove that you can be both,” says Whelan.
Partnership with World Wildlife Fund
In fact, the 40-page compilation showcases a multitude of positive and life-changing projects, milestones, and partnerships that are a direct result of Nat Hab’s “Conservation through Exploration” ethos. These include the company’s 20-year partnership with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which initially began in 2003 as an affinity group, or a coming together around common interests. “Like how an alumni group or museum may book out a trip and then sell it to their members,” says Whelan. As the two organizations continued working with one another, however, they realized they shared many of the same values and viewpoints. So in 2013, Nat Hab and WWF formed a strategic partnership in which the former would run 100% of the latter’s member trips. “In this way, we each get to do what we’re best at and support each other along the way.”
For instance, Nat Hab’s many adventures help showcase areas around the globe that WWF has deemed “priority places” and are in need of added support. One example is leading expeditions to the Arctic, where WWF supports renewable energy options for local communities. Or bringing travelers to Baja, California, home to the highly endangered vaquita—to see firsthand the extraordinary diversity of marine life that requires protection. This, in addition to the 45 million dollars that Nat Hab travelers have donated to WWF over the years, and the 1% of gross sales from all Nat Hat trips (as well as $174,000 annually) that goes toward supporting WWF’s conservation efforts worldwide.
Nat Hab’s In-House Philanthropy
Then there’s Nat Hab’s own in-house philanthropy, which is currently providing funds for 14 different projects across four continents. “These are small-scale projects that may not even be on the radar of many conservation groups,” says Whelan, “but where a little bit of money goes a long way.” Local enterprises like Uganda’s Ride4aWoman, an NGO empowering women in Buhoma, Uganda, who are struggling with things like poverty and domestic violence.
“We provided two commercial sewing machines to the co-op there, and they’re crushing it,” says Whelan. “They’re making amazing things for their village, as well as to sell to tourists. It’s just fantastic seeing them generate income for the local economy.” Another is the Oncafari jaguar program in Brazil’s Pantanal, which promotes ecotourism while increasing the tolerance of jaguars to the presence of safari vehicles. “Say, one of their camera traps might have been ripped down by a jaguar in the middle of the night and they need a new one,” says Whelan. “We’re there to deliver.”
Along with successfully pulling off the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure, Nab Hab has garnered a bevy of conservation travel milestones. In 2007, it became the world’s first 100% carbon-neutral travel company, offsetting our carbon footprint by investing in a variety of programs that align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). These include supplying energy-efficient cookstoves in rural Ethiopia, which helps reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention pressure on surrounding forests) that come with cooking over open fires, and contributing to Tomorrow’s Air – Direct Air Capture, a process that extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere and stores it away permanently. The following year, Nat Hab built the world’s first hybrid safari vehicle, SafariOne, for use on U.S. national park trips.
Setting the Bar High
Not only are these types of industry-firsts like the above a great way to turn heads, says Whelan, but they also get people to pay attention to next-level sustainability ways of thinking. “They’re a fantastic podium,” he says, “the idea that if you do something really difficult—you know, aim for the stars and land on the mountain sort of thing—you can still have a really meaningful impact.”
For example, going zero waste may not be in the cards for everyone (“It’s actually pretty difficult to do,” says Whelan), but knowing that it can be done might help other organizations go into their next projects or adventures with a more discerning eye. “You start thinking, maybe we can’t be zero waste, but what about 80 or 90% waste-free?” he says. “Before asking, ‘What are some of the biggest waste offenders out there? What steps can we take that will be most effective?’”
Nat Hab 2023 Sustainability Report Takeaways
In addition to an opportunity to highlight just how far Nat Hab has come since the company’s inception, the report is also a way to inspire travelers—both armchair and on-the-ground—to continue perpetrating conservation culture wherever they happen to be. “Not every single person has to be 100% behind every conservation or sustainability cause,” says Whelan, “but just thinking about it, paying attention to it, and learning what’s possible.” Maybe it begins with composting and recycling regularly or using package-free shampoo and conditioner rather than single-use bottles when you travel. Once we incorporate manageable things like these into our daily lives, he says, then it’s about taking the next right step or learning the next right thing “to move forward.”
While Whelan believes that sustainability reports should be industry standard, he also realizes that Nat Hab has a superpower in its ability to provide larger-scale success stories that inspire, which in turn can help create or further propagate a larger conservation culture. In fact, that’s Nat Hab’s modus operandi: finding ways to propel both the travel industry and society further when it comes to conservation. “It only takes one more Jane Goodall or revolutionary idea to really change the paradigm on things,” he says.
And travel is one of the best ways to stir these kinds of ideas. Whether it’s tracking Namibia’s endangered black rhinos in the company of experts from Save the Rhino Trust or witnessing millions of monarch butterflies in Mexico’s forested highlands, “Our trips are having crazy impacts on peoples’ lives,” says Whelan, “changing their viewpoints and their worldviews, often forever.”