The flight towards sustainability: Behind the scenes at KLM

Annika Rautiola

7 September 2023

“I think it is especially important that people that care for the environment, that care for this planet, are working in an industry like this, because this is the place where you can make a change.”

Hedwig Sietsma of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines


The skies, once a symbol of freedom and adventure for travellers, now represent a pressing dilemma. Flying is convenient and ever-popular, but it’s also a big producer of greenhouse gases. As the airline industry continues to expand, the world needs to reduce emissions. Balancing growth and planet preservation is a pivotal challenge for the aviation industry.

In this episode, we sit down with Hedwig Sietsma, the Director of Climate Policy at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, to talk about the airline’s holistic approach to sustainability and the intricate web of challenges and triumphs that accompany it.

Hedwig sheds light on how KLM is rewriting the aviation playbook, weaving environmental consciousness and social responsibility into its very fabric. We also discuss the complexities that lie beneath the surface of the airline industry as we learn how exactly KLM finds a balance between responsible travel and flight operations. 

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The challenges Amsterdam faced in finding the right balance in tourism and flights.
  • The heartening influence of employee leadership, creativity, and activism within KLM.
  • Communication advice from KLM’s Director of Climate Policy.
  • How KLM’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions is linked to financial agreements.
  • Why KLM believes in addressing social aspects alongside environmental concerns. 

Join us as we share the story behind KLM’s flight towards sustainability and gain valuable insights into the pivotal role airlines play in shaping the future of responsible travel and environmentally conscious aviation. 


Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast player to join us on this journey.

Show notes

  • EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) – EU rules require large companies and listed companies to publish regular reports on the social and environmental risks they face, and on how their activities impact people and the environment.
  • ICAO Assembly – The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a United Nations agency, established to help countries share their skies to their mutual benefit.
  • KLM Royal Dutch Airlines –The flag carrier of the Netherlands.
  • Science-Based Targets Initiative – A collaboration between the CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature.
  • Shame Plane – a website that aims to calculate how much Arctic sea ice melt a traveller’s flight causes.
  • Sustainable flight challenge – Originally the brainchild of a group of KLM employees on a quest for ambitious new ways to make flying more sustainable. Now part of the SkyTeam Alliance working to make sustainable air travel a reality.


Episode transcript

Hedwig Sietsma: 

Sometimes it’s hard talking to friends and family about the job that I do. So you’re pro sustainability, you’re trying to live the best way you can, but you also work for an airline. 

It is especially important that people that care for the environment are working in an industry like this because this is the place where you can make a change. 

Really committing to a target that’s based on science, I’m really proud we did that as a company.

David Archer: Hello, and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet, surfacing their most inspiring solutions. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think. And as always, I’m recording from the village of Daajing Giids, British Columbia, which is in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, Associate Creative Director at Destination Think. I’m recording from Seattle, Washington on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish and Muckleshoot people. On this podcast, we look at the role of travel and choose to highlight destinations that are global leaders.

David Archer: We talk to the change makers who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities and often from the bottom up.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And we’re always actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So be sure to reach out if you have a story to share with us. 

So in the last two episodes, we heard from Jos Vranken and Ewout Versloot at the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. In both those episodes, aviation and long-haul markets came up as a topic that has shaped the new tourism ambition. So on that note, David, I have a few trivia questions for you. If you’re game.

David Archer: I’m game. I’m not really prepared for this, but I guess that’s what trivia questions are. So let’s go.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Surprise! All right. At any given time, how many people in the world are airborne on a plane?

David Archer: Let me think about this. So let’s say there are, I don’t know, 5,000 planes in the air at any time. And if there were, like, a hundred people on each plane, that would be 500,000, 500,000. How’s that?

Sara Raymond de Booy: I scoured the internet for this, but the fact, the number, so it must be true. The number that a lot of sources land on is somewhere around a million people at any given time are in the air, and perhaps 6 million people flying around the world each day. It’s like a city.

David Archer: That’s enormous. That’s much bigger than I would have guessed.

Sara Raymond de Booy: There are some that would put it at closer to what you say, 500,000, but this is a trivia for discussion, not trivia set in stone.

David Archer: Fair enough.

Sara Raymond de Booy: So my next question, do you know what percentage of people on earth have ever been on a plane?

David Archer: Oh, okay. Not everyone, but quite a few people, especially in the last couple of decades. I’ll guess 40%?

Sara Raymond de Booy: So this is a range. Because again, multiple sources. We hear some numbers as high as 20% of the world has been on a plane. And sometimes that is actually as low as 5%. I’ve sometimes seen 3% in places. I believe it’s closer to 5% is the number that was being discussed with some of the other people we spoke with at CityDNA.

So somewhere between 5 and 20%. So not a lot, not as many as you would think.  

David Archer: Way less than I thought.

Sara Raymond de Booy: especially from our perspective where plane travel has become such a normal thing.

David Archer: Yeah.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And last question, I promise. Do you know the oldest airline still operating?

David Archer: Not for a fact, but I’m going to guess it’s KLM given our topic of conversation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yes. You’re right. It’s KLM with its first flight in 1920, which is more than a hundred years ago. 

David Archer: Great. Actually, I remember a few years back seeing a very sweet Instagram video from KLM, where it might have been their 100th anniversary or 90-something, but they interviewed someone who was also that old. Born the same year that KLM was founded. It has quite a history. Almost as long as aviation itself.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah. So it’s obviously fascinating to think about how quickly aviation, technology, and global connectivity has really changed between then and now. 

But now we also know a little bit more about the impacts emissions from aviation have on the planet. It’s thought that nearly 4% of all of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions come from aviation, for example. Globally, it’s said that half of the emissions from aviation are caused by 1% of the population, which goes back into that small population of people who’ve ever been on a plane.

Technology for lower impact long haul flights won’t really be where it needs to be for a while. But that doesn’t mean that airlines aren’t also grappling with this issue like we are. KLM has often been praised for its sustainability efforts, and they’ve actually been on the Dow Jones sustainability index for about 15 years.

So let’s sit down with someone who’s working on the inside to make a difference and learn about the conversations, actions, and policies that are shaping aviation from KLM’s side.

David Archer: Okay, let’s go over now to our conversation with Hedwig Sietsma, Director of Climate Policy at KLM.

Hedwig Sietsma: My name is Hedwig Sietsma, and I work for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. 

Rodney Payne: Where are your favourite places to travel to in the Netherlands?

Hedwig Sietsma: Oh, I love our islands. We have these islands in the north of the Netherlands, and the one I love the most is Terschelling. When I was young, we never went by plane. I only flew once, when I was 12, to Malta, but we always used to sail in the Netherlands.

And we always, every holiday, we used to go to Terschelling. It’s a beautiful place where you can ride your bike everywhere. There’s a beach, of course, because it’s an island. But especially the dunes. Those are amazing. That landscape is really nice. You can see sea lions there. It’s beautiful.

Rodney Payne: And what do you do for KLM?

Hedwig Sietsma: So I work in the Sustainability Office. I’m responsible for climate policy. That means that I make the policy in climate for KLM. And that I’m talking to policymakers about the climate policy in aviation.

Rodney Payne: Has it become quite normal for airlines to have a department that thinks about sustainability and a role like yours? 

Hedwig Sietsma: Yes, I think so. I think it has become more normal for airlines. For KLM, it has been normal for quite a while already. Before we called it the Sustainability Office, we had this CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility – Department which has already been here since before I ever worked at KLM.

So it has been important for us, but the role is definitely changing.

Rodney Payne: We were talking a little bit about your own travel experiences and how impactful they can be. Can you tell me about your time in Myanmar?

Hedwig Sietsma: Yeah, sure. After I went to university, I started working for an NGO, and they sent me to Myanmar. I was part of the team who did finance, HR, logistics, and was in charge of security.

I was working there on projects for example, with the Rohingya, or the refugees that are in Myanmar. And it was, for me, a life-changing to be in a country that was so different from my own, to live there, experience life there, but also see what is really happening in the world. And that we have a very privileged life here in the Netherlands, or I have a very privileged life here in the Netherlands, and that life could be a lot different if I would have been born somewhere else. And it changed my view on the world and the responsibility that I feel to also do something in this world makes a bit of a difference. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, it’s really special how the travel experience can rip you out of what you know and give you that experience. Do you think a lot of the people that you work with, and the people in our industry, joined the industry because of what you’re describing?

Hedwig Sietsma: Yes, I do. I think, at least when I look at my own colleagues, there’s something magic about travelling, and in KLM’s case, there’s something magic about travelling and then getting into a plane that feels like home.

And I think that experience brought most of the employees at KLM to KLM, because we’re able to create that kind of that magic experience. 

Rodney Payne: We’ve been spending the week travelling around the Netherlands and talking to different people in the travel sector about how travel can make places better and how travel can make the world better. And the tension between the impact that travel has and the benefits that it brings. And it feels like, in the Netherlands, there’s a collective consciousness here that is maybe a little further ahead than other countries in terms of that tension and trying to reconcile it and trying to grapple with it. How do you see the tension between the amazing positive benefits that travellers bring to people and society, with the impact that travel has?

Hedwig Sietsma: So if we go back in history for a little bit, in 1944 the ICAO Assembly, that was an assembly back then that went about aviation. They said, we never want to have a war, like we had the Second World War, ever again. And we think that aviation can bring peace. So we’re going to put aviation aside. We’re not, globally, going to tax it. We’re not taking measures to hold aviation back. We want people to see the world and we want them to travel so we can keep peace. 

I think this is a very important background for us, because this gave aviation a special place, and it is still very beautiful to travel. You see another country, you get respect for the culture, it really brings something. On the other hand, I think it’s very good that we have this societal debate about the impact that aviation has on this world, because it has a negative side effect on our environment. And we should fully acknowledge that.

And that dilemma between, on the one side wanting to travel for this cultural experience, for keeping peace in the world, and on the other hand, not make it too much, because it’s really harming the environment, I think that debate is very strong at this moment in the Netherlands, and rightfully so.

Rodney Payne: Do you think a lot of airlines are grappling with that? I know that you at KLM are very conscious of it, and it’s coming more under scrutiny. A lot of us have had time to pause and reflect about the way life is during the last few years. Do you think that’s something that people are more widely starting to grapple with?

Hedwig Sietsma: I think more and more. So I see more airlines seeing the importance of becoming more sustainable as an industry. But it’s not something that is already spread through the whole world. We see still airlines putting all of their focus and effort into creating short-term revenues, only wanting to grow. And I think that they haven’t grappled with that yet.

Rodney Payne: It’s not surprising to me to see a European airline leading the way in grappling with that. I think that’s very typical and it’s one of the reasons I love, when I get to come to Europe, and see a different way of thinking about things in a more balanced way.

How do you see the future of aviation? When you think about the technological challenges that we have to overcome and the current balance that we have, how do you think about the coming decades?

Hedwig Sietsma: I think travelling will become more valuable again. For some people in the world, certainly not for everybody, it’s really easy to get onto a plane, fly somewhere for a weekend, have a party, and go back. I think that in the future, every trip that you make will be a trip that you really remember, and a trip that you will have saved for, and a trip that you will therefore value much more. So I think maybe the frequency will go down, but once you take the step to get into an airplane and to visit a place, it will be of more value.

Rodney Payne: I’ve seen Amsterdam and Schiphol in the news a lot, recently. What is your perspective on some of the developments? I think this is bubbling up from Dutch values and, the climate legislation here in Holland, that Amsterdam’s residents are putting a lot of pressure on the tourism sector to find the right balance, right? And including the right tourists. And partly caused by the labour challenges that the world is experiencing. That Schiphol is starting to look at, what’s the right balance of flights. How do you think about that in the broader context of the challenges we’re facing? 

Hedwig Sietsma: I think indeed that we should find this right balance and that we should diminish the impact that we have, that we should minimize our CO2 impact, that we should really look into the noise that we make for our environment here, for people living around Schiphol, and listen to them and take measures accordingly.

However, sometimes in a hot debate, it can go either one side or the other side, and it can get rough. And in this case, I think we have to make really deliberate decisions that can, for a long time, help us to really diminish the impact and not only focus on, for example, the movements that we have now. It really should have long-term effects. And I think sometimes in this debate, we lose sight of the longer term and of the things that we should do in the longer term.

Rodney Payne: One of the things that I think we do ourselves a disservice is oversimplifying very complicated issues. And I often think about this issue as the most complicated issue that I know of. And it’s so nuanced and it’s so simple, in a world driven by social media and quick media headlines, to try to want to simplify it. 

How do you feel personally as a human being who is aware and trying to reconcile a complicated issue?

Hedwig Sietsma: Sometimes it’s hard talking to friends and family about the job that I do. So you’re pro sustainability, you’re trying to live the best way you can, but you also work for an airline, and you love travelling, and sometimes that doesn’t go hand-in-hand.

 I think it is especially important that people that care for the environment, that care for this planet, are working in an industry like this, because this is the place where you can make a change. This is the place where you can lead the industry in a different way. This is the place where this change needs to happen. For me personally, as a human being, it feels sometimes like being discredited or put in a box. Like, you’re wrong. You’re in the wrong industry. I think that everyone has its role to play. And this is mine.

Rodney Payne:  We’ve talked a little bit about the human element and that we often forget that, in companies, you have a lot of people in different roles with fancy titles, but at the end of the day, we’re all just people with a lot of the same values. 

What do you wish people knew? If there was something that you could help people to know or understand, what would it be?

Hedwig Sietsma: It is the impact that we have, as human beings on other human beings in this world. So that the way that we live here is directly impacting the food security, the way someone lives in another country, it’s directly impacting them.

Rodney Payne: One of the things that KLM focuses on is being net positive. Can you describe to me how you see all of the different positive things that aviation can bring?

Hedwig Sietsma: Yeah. So first of all, I want to say that we’re really not there yet. This negative climate effect that we have, like, we recognize that, and we see that as one of our biggest challenges.

However, aviation also brings positive effects. Like, we just talked about the value of travelling culturally. It bringing cultures more together, but it also has economic effects for certain places. If we open a destination, this destination will get economic value. There are, of course, also side effects, like overtourism.

But it also brings economic value, and finding that balance, is sometimes hard, but also important for us.

Rodney Payne: I really like the idea of leadership from within. And I think if we become binary, and see things as only bad or only good, you lose the chance for dialogue, and you lose the chance to make really positive changes from within.

I think one of the best examples for me is watching what happened in Amazon within the corporate headquarters. Where a lot of the people working in corporate were very frustrated that Amazon wasn’t doing more in regards to its climate footprint. And there were protests and agitation from within the company.

I think this is a huge risk for corporations that aren’t taking things seriously. But that resulted in, a 2 billion investment fund to, help accelerate a lot of early-stage technology that could help Amazon to decarbonize and their 10 billion dollar climate pledge that they’ve attracted other people to as well.

And I think that’s a really good example of what people can do from within. Do you think everyone is thinking this way in Holland, within KLM? Do you think everyone has realized that we have a very complex issue to work through?

Hedwig Sietsma: No, not everyone is looking at it this way. It’s, at KLM, there were so many people here, it’s like a mirror of society, we always say. So no, but on the other hand, what we saw, what was our employee activism, just to say it like this, which came not from irritation, but more seeking of opportunities in COVID, we saw this movement coming up started by a few employees of top management to young employees who wanted to make an impact in our company.

We all sat at home, and we wanted to start initiatives, and we called it  Bold Moves. We were sitting there thinking of bold moves in which we could make the aviation industry more sustainable, and our company more sustainable.

And actually, what came out of that was the Sustainable Flight Challenge. And this is a challenge now adopted by a broader umbrella, by SkyTeam. But we initiated this challenge to get employees to think about, how can we just for one flight make this flight the most sustainable one we’ve ever flown.

And put employees in charge. To create new innovations or different things they’ve always wanted to try on board to make this the most sustainable flight. And we actually executed this. So for us, it was a great example of how employees can stand up, convince top management and say, we’re going to do things differently and then create in a more fun, challenging way. Get people together to talk about sustainability. And now 22 airlines are joining. So we’re actually having a ripple effect, which is really great to see.

Rodney Payne: What sort of experience or changes happened?

Hedwig Sietsma: It was from big to small. So first, our pilots flew a much more economical route and saved fuel by that. It’s also in the cockpit, it’s behaviour, it’s the same as in a car. How you fly can make a difference, because you can save fuel in the cockpit. 

But it’s also in the smaller things like we served seaweed meatballs on board. So half seaweed, half meat, so we could really reduce the footprint of our meals this year. We might actually go again a bit further. Our cabin attendants, they didn’t wear the heels, the higher heels, but they wore flat shoes just for the health benefits. So we looked at everything on the spectrum. 

At cargo, they looked into how they could replace beams, which they’re packaging with lightweight beams, so we could save fuel again. So there were very diverse measures that we took. But resulting in everyone to have the chance to be innovative and think in their own job in their own work, how can we do this more sustainably?

Rodney Payne: One of the challenges that happens in organizations is commitments without follow through. And recently there was a financial bond that KLM tied to ESG goals. Can you speak to that and talk about how that perhaps is a model for corporations going forward, that our commitments in environmental sustainability are actually linked to the financial goals of the organization?

Hedwig Sietsma: Yes, especially the aviation industry has a history of having commitments, but sometimes it’s hard following up on them. We recently made a new commitment. We said that we would use our CO2 emissions by relatively by 30% in 2030 compared to 2019. It’s a validated goal by an independent institute called the Science-Based Targets Initiative, and what it does, that gives investors and banks in this case, it gives them the trust that you’re also following a certain path, and that you’re diminishing your CO2 emissions, linking, financial agreements to ESG. I think it’s a very good way forward. It’s a way, from the banks, on putting pressure on their value chain, putting pressure on us to really decarbonize and to incentivize decarbonization. 

 So it is not only a burden, but it also becomes, again, an opportunity because you can actually have a discount when you decarbonize. I think it’s a great road that we’re taking now to also link our own goals to the financial commitments that we make.

Rodney Payne: There’s a lot of focus on airlines at the moment, and it’s always difficult to communicate and choose the right words. And I think there are a lot of people like you in organizations like this, and in the travel industry generally, who are very well-intentioned, and it’s easy to misinterpret words and headlines.

How are you communicating about the work that you are doing to explore sustainability and find the right balance? And what have you learned about communication?

Hedwig Sietsma: So I think we went wrong in the past. We made a couple of mistakes, and that’s for example, in the terminology that you use. We, for example, had our CO2 zero program. Which was, you could invest money in reforestation programs, and we were told, and rightfully so, that we couldn’t use the term CO2 zero anymore, because that indicates that you don’t emit any CO2 in the air.

So we changed the name to CO2 Impact Program. This is a small example that shows you should be very careful in the way that you communicate, and we learn constantly. We want to be very transparent, correct, but also understandable. And the latter is very difficult in sustainability because it’s a very complex topic.

If I talk about the CO2 equivalent that you emit into the air and is contributing to the densification of CO2, you won’t understand it as a customer. I want you to understand what your impact is when you take a flight. So that’s a really thin line we have to balance, and we’re constantly searching for the right way. What I recently learned in a conversation with an NGO, they’re helping us quite a bit in figuring out what we should do and what we should focus on. They said to us, you should talk much more in dilemmas. 

It’s amazing that someone from our cabin staff found a way to recycle our coffee pads. That’s amazing. So you can communicate about it. However, it’s not solving the problem. Of course not. It’s great that someone is so engaged that they’re solving how we should recycle coffee pads. However, we have this whole other big problem that we encounter, which is the CO2 emission and the climate impact that we have. So always talk in dilemmas. And I think that’s the way we should also as an industry focus on more and more being absolutely transparent about our impact. And when we communicate, make sure the dilemma is very clear also for our customers. 

Rodney Payne: Do you think that our industry can actually put positive pressure on suppliers? Because the problem isn’t flying per se. The problem is that the way we’re flying at the moment, it has an impact. And so if you think about the aircraft manufacturers and the energy companies that currently supply us, do you think there are ways that we can positively ask them to be innovating?

Hedwig Sietsma: We are asking manufacturers, at this moment, to come up with solutions for air travel. I think this pressure is needed in our industry to make change happen. On the other hand, it’s not an easy job for them as well, because the technology is just not there yet, which means, indeed, more money should go into R&D. We should work together with knowledge institutions as well as our government, as well as the industry.

As a whole industry, I think we have the responsibility to make technological advancement happen and pressure on them that works. It’s not only a responsibility, it’s a must-do. 

So when we look into our emissions, it’s not only our own emissions that come out of the airplane that we should think about. It’s also the emissions in our value chain. So we should push the oil manufacturers to go beyond kerosene, to invest in sustainable aviation fuel, to also give us other levers to turn on to be able to fly.

They’re in charge of the demand of, for example, sustainable aviation fuel. Yes, it’s a must-do for them. We should put pressure also on our whole value chain to make sustainability the core of their strategic values.

Rodney Payne: A lot of the most exciting innovation that’s coming brings us to, slower and more local travel, right? Electric, vertical take-off and landing aircraft are going to change the way we think about mobility. And it’s probably going to happen quicker than people realize. A lot of that technology exists. And short-haul aviation, whether it’s battery electric or hydrogen aviation is coming. Do you think there’s exciting opportunities for our industry?

Hedwig Sietsma: Yeah, very much. I think, for example, electrical flying, it is not solving the problem of our long-haul flights, but for our short-haul flights, it is definitely going to be a replacement for some destinations that we fly to now on kerosene.

But also, for example, KLM Flight Academy is now wanting to fly on electrical planes only. So it’s, again, a very small step. If you look at the greater scheme, however, it is already happening that we’re investing in flights that don’t have CO2 or other climate emissions.

Rodney Payne: When do you think the moral obligation to cut our CO2 and greenhouse emissions more broadly trumps the bottom line?

Hedwig Sietsma: I think there is a big shift going on for companies to focus much more on societal value instead of only focusing on margins, on revenue.

I think it’s our moral responsibility to focus on societal impact as well as making sure that we’re still a vital company that can live through the current days as well. So I think it’s both. We should have a positive impact overall. So that means including the responsibility to reduce your CO2 emissions.

And I’m very happy to see that shift, that we’re really going from being successful as a business by making a lot of revenue to being successful as a business by creating a lot of value for society, including the revenue aspect. And I think that shift is very necessary because we see that the way of the way we did business is not contributing to our Earth, to our planet and is actually damaging to the place that we live in. So we should see the shift. 

And the regulator always comes later. We see the shift now of companies doing this in their own way, in their own time. And now we see the regulator also coming in, focusing on this as well. In Europe, we have something called CSRD. It’s the framework in which you have to report on all of your ESG factors. And I think this is also a way for regulators to say, more and more, this is not only your responsibility, but this is just the law. You should instead of you may. So it’s not only a question of responsibility, but also of making this into our laws and making sure that companies have to abide by this. So as it often is, it is both.

Rodney Payne: If I gave you a magic wand and a blank checkbook and made you in charge of the world, what would you do?

Hedwig Sietsma: If you gave me a magic wand, I would make sure that we put policies in place and measures in place to cut the emissions of the global north, to say it like that. And make sure that the climate impact that we see happening right now in countries like Pakistan hit by the climate crisis, but did not have or had a very small part in the factors that are contributing to the climate crisis, that we would really help them be more climate resilient. I think that is our responsibility. That is why I think that we should indeed reduce our own emissions, and that is why I do the work that I do. But unfortunately, that does not exist at that moment. 

Rodney Payne: Are you hopeful or frightened for the future?

Hedwig Sietsma: I think I’m both.

I think that I’m frightened for the period in which we’re not seeing the full picture yet, and therefore not acting. But I think that in the end, when catastrophes will hit, humankind will be able to turn this around. But I’m afraid for the period that comes before that.

Rodney Payne: What gives you hope? 

Hedwig Sietsma: We’ve shown through the past that we’re very resilient. We’re a very resilient species. I think that if we have to, you saw this during COVID, like suddenly things were able that we didn’t think were able at all. And we came off okay. So that gives me hope. We’re very resilient and very, very innovative.

But only if we have to. And I think a time will come when we will have to be much more innovative and much more resilient than at this moment.

Rodney Payne: I often think about it and I totally agree. And I often think about it in terms of us being very good at doing our homework at the last minute. 

Hedwig Sietsma: Yeah. 

Rodney Payne: And we definitely left it for the last minute. It can be quite overwhelming to work in our space and understand climate and the impacts that we’re having.

And it can be even harder when you experience the tension that you described, right? Where you’re working in an industry in travel or aviation. And it’s becoming more widely known and collective consciousness is rising around impact versus benefits. What are the things in your life that bring you joy?

Hedwig Sietsma: I’m actually counting the tons of CO2 that I save here. So all the measures that we implement that, that save CO2, that is something that brings me joy in my work, let me put it like that. What brings me joy in life? As my friends, my family, the people that surround me, the community that I have around me in this very small space in a small city in the Netherlands. You don’t have to go far to find community, to find cohesion, to find friends around you. They’re actually really close by. So it’s not, I think in the end, it’s not about going far or making those trips. It’s the company that you have with you, or the mindset that you have with you, that makes travelling worthwhile. That makes living worthwhile and the cohesion in the community that you feel. So that gives me joy in life. 

Rodney Payne: It’s amazing how similar answers are to that question. 

What advice do you have for other people working in travel around the world, as they go on their journey of understanding environmental impacts and have to reconcile that with the jobs they do?

Hedwig Sietsma: See sustainability as a potential, and see it as a need to have for the future. If you still want to exist as a travel company in the future, sustainability has to be part of the product that you offer. You won’t have a choice anymore. And if you change now, that will be of very much value in the future.

Rodney Payne: Earlier on in our conversation, you mentioned leadership and the chance for companies to lead. What does leadership mean to you?

Hedwig Sietsma: For me, leadership is not only seeing what we have to do, but take the responsibility to drive this company to make hard choices. To influence people inside the company, to take them along on the right to make sure that we do not only exist for the next few years but that we can exist also in the coming 100 years in a sustainable manner. And I think it is leadership to talk about certain topics that we often shy away from and to challenge people on the topics that we often shy away from. 

Rodney Payne: What do you think that KLM can teach the world?

Hedwig Sietsma: That it is awesome to be a frontrunner in the industry. We were, back in the 1900s, and we want to become a front-runner again, but then in sustainability and pioneering sustainability. And that’s not a risk that we take, that’s an opportunity that we grab. But so we need people and airlines to join us, and I want to tell other airlines it’s great to be in that place and to join us for the ride or the flight. 

Rodney Payne: What are you most proud of in your work? What accomplishments are you really really proud of? 

Hedwig Sietsma: I’ve been working a lot on the CO2 targets I talked about. For me, committing to a target that’s not something that we thought of, but really committing to a target that’s based on science, for me, I’m really proud we did that as a company.

Rodney Payne: When you look back in 10 years, on your impact, what do you hope you see?

Hedwig Sietsma: I hope I see a company, KLM, that has been able to follow up on its strategic goals to really become a front-runner in sustainable aviation. I hope that we see small steps because it’s gonna be small steps in 10 years, but that we took those steps to make sure that in the future we’re ready to really transform.

I hope that the company, maybe that’s not concrete enough, but I hope that the company will be at a point where deliberate choices were made to become more sustainable. 

Rodney Payne: I know it’s not easy to talk about these topics. I really appreciate you sitting down and taking time to do that. It’s uncomfortable and I think that’s why we really need to talk about it.

So thank you.

Hedwig Sietsma: Thank you. I love to talk about it. And for me, I talk about this all day. So it’s not uncomfortable anymore.

Rodney Payne: Yeah.

Hedwig Sietsma: I’m really glad that we had this conversation. And that you’re able to open up the debate on this and not only show one side or the other, but combine maybe two views that are not often combined.

Rodney Payne: It’s almost therapeutic. 

Hedwig Sietsma: It’s almost therapeutic!

Rodney Payne: Awesome.

Sara Raymond de Booy: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. And you just heard from Hedvig Sietsema, Director of Climate Policy, KLM. We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at 

My co-host and co-producer is David Archer. He also composed the Travel Beyond theme music. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. We would like to thank NBTC for their support in creating this podcast season with us and for their willingness to be bold. 

You can help more people find this show by subscribing and leaving a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Next time we’ll speak with Geerte Udo of Amsterdam & Partners about how and why they’re redefining what it means to be a visitor of value.

Geerte Udo: But if we do not invest in a more sustainable future, you will be out of business in five to 10 years.

And then it’s not out of business from tourism. Then it’s out of business of being an attractive city to live, and to work and to recreate. 


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