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Graphic Element, Right Gutter

A Travel Club with a Conscience
By Ralph Nader, Washington, DC

The Voice News, July 19 2002

For decades, the American Automobile Association—better known as Triple A—has grown up with the American automobile. Millions of travelers have joined to ensure themselves roadside service in emergencies and to gain access to maps, travelers checks, insurance and other travel offerings.

Beneath its benign image as a "travel club," AAA has become a big-time lobbyist that mimics the agenda of the nation's giant automobile manufacturers. Travelers who pay dues to AAA find themselves supporting lobbyists who fight against the Clean Air Act, public transportation, stronger safety standards, and even bike paths. "What they [AAA members] don't know is that AAA is a lobbyist for more roads, more pollution and more gas guzzling," says Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club's Global Warming/ Energy program.

Now, a couple of entrepreneurs from Portland, Oregon are challenging Triple A's comfortable perch at the top of the travel club business. Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman have formed the Better World Travelers Club, which not only competes head-to-head on basic travel services, but actively supports programs for a clean environment.

Rofsky was a consumer activist in Washington who later became president of Working Assets Capital Management, where he managed a widely-acclaimed socially responsible mutual fund and was the first chairman of Business for Social Responsibility. Silberman headed Lifeco, which became the nation's third largest travel company before its sale to American Express in 1993.

The Rofsky-Silberman team is donating 1% of its annual travel agency and club revenues to environmental cleanup efforts. They are also promoting big discounts on what they have dubbed as "eco-travel services," including such things as green lodging and eco-tours. The club also offers a 20% discount on electric and hybrid car rentals and discounts on bicycles and electric car purchases.

In its promotional material, the Better World Travelers Club reminds its customers that each time a passenger takes a domestic airline flight that more than a ton of harmful greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere. Rofsky and Silberman trumpet the fact that their club is the only U.S. travel agency to offer a "clean air" program, "Travel Cool," which is certified by the Climate Neutral Network for its efforts to offset greenhouse gasses generated by air travel. A portion of each airline ticket purchased through the Better World Travel Club will be earmarked for programs to save energy and reduce CO2 pollution. The club also offers "Travel Cool" automobile insurance that supports programs to help offset carbon produced by automobiles.

The pro-environmental stance of this new travel club is throwing down the gauntlet to other travel services, not only AAA, but to the multitude of other travel clubs promoted through new car warranties and credit card companies. It is a highly competitive field, but consumers and the environment can only gain if the competition turns into a battle for cleaner air.

The news about healthy new competition in the travel business is welcome in the overall business community, which has been clearly stung by the sleaze revealed by the investigations of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and other corporations. Lawyers and public relations operatives are working overtime in efforts to restore badly tattered corporate images.

But it is going to take tangible action—not just slick public relations campaigns—to convince the American public that real change and real reform are being undertaken. The newspaper headlines and the television news programs are leaving the public the impression that con artists have invaded boardrooms and executive suites en masse.

The Rofsky-Silberman effort in blazing a new trail in the travel business should be a reminder to American business that profit-making enterprises can operate with a conscience and with an authentic concern about the environment and health. The Better World Travelers Club’s business plan is based on the concept that profit and the public interest can be compatible goals in our enterprise system.