Taking Accountability in Sustainable Travel
As the topic of sustainability gains traction, more and more people are contemplating the environmental impacts of traveling. Many current traveling practices are considered unsustainable, yet Northwestern alum Katherine LaGrave explores accountability in travel and what it looks like to make sustainable decisions when visiting new destinations.
LaGrave is currently the deputy editor for AFAR magazine, which is one of the platforms at AFAR, the world’s leading travel media brand that values cultural immersion and exploration in global diversity. At AFAR, LaGrave manages digital features, helps set print issues themes, and works on long-term planning for the website and magazine. Her work prioritizes providing information for readers on how to make sustainable decisions to help the environment in the locations and people they visit as they travel and discussing taking accountability for the planet.
LaGrave earned her master of science in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications in 2011, where she focused on magazine writing and editing with a concentration on health and science writing. Here, she refined her skills and explored different methods of storytelling and communicating a message to people beyond solely written word and expanded her understanding of what it means to interact with a story.
LaGrave especially found a source of inspiration from man-on-the-street reporting, a technique that she honed during her time at Medill, which involves researching a subject by asking impromptu questions to the public by initiating conversations around the neighborhood. “I think that’s where a lot of my story ideas have come from… just talking to people and building a network. Northwestern definitely helped give me tools for that,” she says.
“I think there’s a tendency, especially coming out of journalism school, to be like a Swiss Army knife and… just do everything. That’s good, certainly to have that skill. But it’s harder to distinguish yourself if you don’t focus on something specific.”— Katherine LaGrave (Medill '11)
For people longing to pursue a similar career path, LaGrave suggests focusing on specific interests and actively pursuing them. “If you find something interesting, chances are other people will,” she says. “I think there’s a tendency, especially coming out of journalism school, to be like a Swiss Army knife and… just do everything. That’s good, certainly to have that skill. But it’s harder to distinguish yourself if you don’t focus on something specific.”
During her time at AFAR, the company reorganized as a public benefit company responsible to all stakeholders for how its operations benefit the public good. LaGrave has also worked on the publication’s Travel Vanguard, which celebrates people working to make the travel industry more sustainable. It celebrates people working in sustainability in an effort to make the travel industry more sustainable. AFAR has also joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification, Impact Travel Alliance, a global nonprofit, and is a signatory for the Future of Tourism coalition.
To maximize the impact of AFAR’s efforts in sustainability, LaGrave knows her audience well and keeps audience analytics in mind when addressing readers. “Our readers have an average household income of more than $350,000, and 90% of them make a decision after reading a story,” she says. “We know that our readers are fine to spend more on things that are sustainable, so it’s in our benefit to communicate that and show them how to make better decisions.” In the travel industry, people tend to spend thousands of dollars on trips, and LaGrave recognizes the significance of guiding this money towards more sustainable travel choices.
LaGrave is optimistic about the future of sustainable travel. She believes that even the pandemic, which has restricted traveling around the world, has provided an opportunity for reflection and reckoning both on the roles of travel companies and travelers alike. As more travelers recognize the impacts of topics such as carbon offsets and air travel, they can reflect these values in the travel experiences they want to have, and companies can strive to meet these demands.
LaGrave finds encouragement in this change, and states that working at AFAR has helped her reconsider what travel journalism is and its expanding potential. “A travel story is about sustainability, politics, and economics. It’s really upending the belief of what a travel story and travel experiences can be. I think that’s exciting.”