In the wake of several environmental groups suing the Netherlands’ national carrier KLM, claiming that adverts promoting the airline’s sustainability initiative are misleading and a form of “greenwashing”, therefore in breach of European consumer law, I’ll be having a quick dive into the issue of greenwashing within the aviation industry. 

The first of its kind

Last week saw several environmental groups sue Dutch carrier KLM for “greenwashing”. It is the first lawsuit to challenge greenwashing within the airline industry. 

Greenwashing is a form of misleading marketing in which environmentally conscious wording and/or imagery is used to make the company come across as actively working towards such goals when in reality, they are not making any notable or impactful sustainability efforts. 

As the airline industry becomes more aware of the importance of caring for the environment and becoming more conscious of how damaging air travel is on our planet, greenwashing as a marketing tactic has become ever more prevalent within the industry. 

The groups – Netherlands-based Fossielvrij NL (supported by London-based Client Earth and Reclame.NL) – have claimed that KLM’s adverts and their carbon-offsetting scheme create a false impression that its flights won’t damage our climate. The groups are specifically targeting the carrier’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, which launched in 2019. 

KLM’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign declared the airline’s intentions of creating “a more sustainable future” and implored that it is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. 

KLM 'Fly responsibly' campaign
According to its website, the Fly Responsibly campaign is KLM’s effort to maintain its Top 3 position in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. | © KLM

It includes a carbon offset product called CO2Zero where passengers can buy carbon credits to offset the footprints of their flights, “pack lightly”, or avoid flying at all. KLM states that the money raised from this product funds either reforestation projects or the purchase of biofuels. 

However the environmental groups both argue that the claims made by KLM are highly misleading. The groups consider KLM’s adverts and claims as a typical case of greenwashing – and the evidence seems to back that conclusion up. 

They say that the carrier’s environmentally conscious plans are at odds with its plans to return to pre-pandemic levels of flights – which is also at odds with the latest report from the UN’s environmental body (IPCC) which called for a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. 

KLM aircraft
KLM is in hot water after being accused of running greenwashed marketing campaigns. | © KLM

And CO2Zero does almost nothing to limit damage to the environment – carbon offsets are tricky and take a lot of work to execute correctly. Even then, while planting trees may theoretically reduce the amount of carbon in the air, there is no clear data on how successful it is, let alone whether it will be able to offset the intense amount of carbon an aircraft releases each flight. 

By promoting it to customers, the Amstelveen-based airline is undermining other’s real actions to combat harmful emissions and minimise climate change.  

ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White said:

“Trying to reassure customers that a small payment for tree planting or ‘sustainable’ fuel compensates for flight emissions undermines urgent climate action, is gravely misleading, and, the claim argues, is unlawful.”

When one singular flight measures up to the same amount of carbon dioxide some people use over an entire year, and airline emissions alone account for over 2% of all human carbon dioxide emissions (according to Our World in Data), it becomes increasingly hard to imagine how much of an impact carbon offsetting will have.  

However, climate scientists state that in order for offsetting to work or be more impactful, the planted trees should be maintained over their lifespan – and this is the most difficult part. 

KLM has commented since and stated that it has had discussions with the groups to see if there was any room for an alternative solution other than a court case, but any negotiations proved “impossible.”

Yet the Dutch carrier has argued that its ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign focuses on “flying being a conscious choice” and only encourages individuals to “think twice before boarding an aircraft.” 

KLM sustainability stats
As of 2018, this is what KLM claimed to have achieved in becoming more climate-conscious. | © KLM

The groups are bringing the case under the EU’s Unfair Consumer Practices Directive. If successful, KLM will have to withdraw the advertising in question and stop any similar messages and imagery from being put out. 

Easier said than done…

Greenwashing and actual impactful climate change conscious initiatives can be a fine line within the aviation industry. 

Some argue that in sectors like air travel, where “green” alternatives aren’t so straightforward, carbon offsetting and goals set for far in the future that can manage its negative effect should be encouraged. Only expensive, lengthy and high-tech options like sustainable fuels, more efficient engines, and more are options within the aviation industry to cut emissions. Yet the most impactful solutions are in such early stages that we wouldn’t be able to see a difference for years to come. And readily available solutions, like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), are still relatively in their infancy, very expensive, and rare.

Malaysia Airlines and SAF
Sustainable aviation fuel being delivered to Malaysia this year. | © Martijn Gijsbertsen

Joana Setzer is an assistant professor of climate law at the London School of Economics. She says that companies are in a difficult position when it comes to the fine line between partaking in greenwashing and not:

“They’re forced to show they’re doing something and announce commitments, but it’s not only insufficient but dangerous for them to do so, as they might find themselves sued for misleading information.”

Professor Setzer continued:

“With greenwashing, it’s a relatively easy and cheap case to bring, but it’s also a case where you can address the advertising as well as the communications around net-zero commitments.” 

Elsewhere, advertising regulators have recently targeted misleading marketing in order to protect the consumer. 

In April this year, the Dutch advertising watchdog ruled that a KLM promotion telling customers that they could fly carbon-emission free is misleading. The ad’s tag – “Be a hero, fly CO2 zero” is a claim that could not be proved and therefore was misleading information. 

In December 2021, United Airlines falsely Tweeted that they would be the first in “aviation history to fly a passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel” when, in reality, only one of two of the aircraft’s engines used SAF. 

In September 2019, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority found that a Ryanair campaign that implored customers to fly with “Europe’s Lowest Fares, Lowest Emissions Airline” was misleading and therefore should not appear again. 

A recent study commissioned by Greenpeace analysed climate change comments, initiatives and commitments from KLM, IAG Group, Ryanair, EasyJet, Lufthansa, SAS and Air Portugal and found nearly all of them as pretty offensive when it came to their levels of greenwashing. 

 

As the world becomes more conscious and proactive, there will always be cases upon cases of greenwashing. Because, unfortunately, some companies see the lucrative benefits of pushing environmentally conscious policy and imagery. 

So yes, greenwashing is a problem within the aviation industry, but airlines can be considered to be easy victims. You can argue that they are able to fall into the trap more often because of the lack of quick solutions to how damaging aviation is on our planet. 

But that does not mean that the act of greenwashing is not harmful in itself – it can encourage complacency and false reassurance if airlines continue to chastise customers with the false impression that flying does not damage our environment as much as it really does. 

Overall, transparency and honesty are key across all advertising and marketing. Building genuine connections with your customer base is surely the way to go across all areas – including climate change. 

What do you make of this story? Have you experienced greenwashing from an airline? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below.  

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  • Hi Jasmine, thanks for this very nice article! One correction though: one of the plaintiffs is not but Reclame Fossielvrij (which translates as fossil free advertising). They are @fvreclame on Twitter.

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