KLM sues over misleading sustainability claims

As concerns about climate change grow, so does greenwashing as a marketing tactic. And often the most environmentally destructive companies trumpet the most outrageous claims – just look at some of the ads fossil fuel companies have released in recent years.

But luckily, it’s getting harder and harder for companies to make unsubstantiated green claims without being called out. Environmental groups filed the first lawsuit against an airline this week. KLM, the Dutch subsidiary of Air France KLM, is often touted as a sustainable choice compared to other airlines. But now the company has been accused of overselling its sustainability in advertising – to the point of potentially misleading consumers.

The case, led by advocacy groups Fossielvrij NL, ClientEarth and Reclame Fossielvrij, centers around KLM’s “Fly Responsibly” ads launched in 2019. This campaign obliges consumers to buy carbon credits to offset the footprint of their flights, a “package take it easy” or avoid flying altogether. But mitigating the environmental impact of flight is much more complicated than that.

Carbon offsets, generally speaking, are bleak to begin with. Although planting trees can theoretically remove carbon from the air, there is no clear data on how successful such projects are. Also, offsets that simply protect forests don’t remove carbon from the atmosphere at all—they just prevent more carbon from being released. None of these types of credits can significantly reduce the footprint of regular air travel.

“Trying to convince clients that a small payment for planting trees or ‘sustainable’ fuel offsets emissions from flying, undermines urgent climate action, is seriously misleading and, as the claim alleges, illegal,” said ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White in a press release.

Airline emissions alone account for over two percent of all human carbon dioxide emissions and have doubled since the 1980s, and just one percent of the population accounts for 50 percent of those emissions. Just one flight often measures up to as much carbon dioxide as some people in the Global South use in an entire year.

In other words, flying is objectively terrible for the planet—and a little consumer choice isn’t going to change that.

[Related: All your burning questions about sustainable aviation fuel, answered.]

But unlike some industries where systemic solutions are clear — such as electricity providers that could invest in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels — airlines don’t have many options for protection. High-tech solutions such as sustainable fuels, more efficient engines and carbon removal technologies are often mentioned when it comes to greener air travel. But these technologies are still very early and won’t be ready on a large enough scale to make a difference for years to come, adds Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. Sustainable and alternative fuels are still very expensive and rare – KLM used only 0.18 percent alternative fuels in 2019.

“There’s very little they can do right away,” she says.

And greenhouse gases aren’t the only pollution we have to worry about. Particulate matter from jet fuel puts human health at risk, says Jennifer Rushlow, associate dean for environmental programs at the Vermont School of Law and Graduate School. Switching fuels does not necessarily reduce these emissions.

Of course, KLM is not the only party to blame. A recent study commissioned by Greenpeace analyzed the commitments of Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, IAG, Ryanair, easyJet, SAS and TAP Air Portugal and found that almost all of them were quite disastrous. Ryanair even had to pull an ad that used misleading information to claim the airline produced “low emissions”. United Airlines also falsely claimed on Twitter in 2021 that they “will be the first in aviation history to operate a passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel,” when in reality only one of the two engines uses renewable fuel.

Currently, the only thing that can be done for sure to reduce the impact of flying on the environment is to reduce the number of flights. Although KLM’s advertising urges its customers to fly sparingly, the company’s recent statements criticizing the Dutch government for reducing traffic at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of Europe’s busiest, contradict that stance.

“I think the only way airlines have less life is if there’s less demand for them,” Rushlow says. “Why will they return the money? So it will have to be demand driven. And if users are under the false impression that they can continue to fly as much as they have been without having an impact, it’s not going to achieve that.”

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