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ClientEarth Communications

6 July 2022

Climate accountability
Europe
Greenwashing

Greenwashing lawsuit against KLM airline has been filed in court

We're supporting campaigners Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij in filing a lawsuit in the Netherlands against major Dutch airline KLM, over misleading marketing that promotes the sustainability of flying.

What's the story so far?

We joined Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij in launching legal action against KLM in May 2022, with a pre-action letter being delivered at the airline’s Annual General Meeting. We claim that KLM’s advertising misleads customers by telling them that it is making flying sustainable, when really its plans for the future will keep wrecking the climate. 

KLM's team offered to hear our demands. In a meeting with executives on June 24th, Fossielvrij set out our argument to its bosses.

“We warned that if KLM did not stop misleading advertising, we would see the company in court.

KLM has instead stuck by the false message that it is on the path to more sustainable flying. There is no way it can do this while planning continuous air traffic growth. KLM will now have to defend its misleading claims before a judge.” - Hiske Arts, campaigner at Fossielvrij

KLM refused to stop advertising its misleading claims. So we filed a lawsuit. 

Following the lawsuit, KLM has quietly changed how it markets its offset promotions. It now advertises products under the label of ‘CO2 Impact’. Despite this change, the airline is still pushing the same flawed offset claims that give customers false hope that they can ‘reduce their CO2’.

And now KLM is even offering frequent flier points to customers that buy these products. While the company has made this change in the name of sustainability, this has the effect of encouraging people to take more flights, which means more global warming emissions in our skies.

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Why do we think KLM’s actions are unlawful?

The airline industry has a climate problem. Aviation relies on highly polluting fossil fuels, and expert studies warn that the airline industry cannot reach net zero by 2050 and align with climate goals without lowering air traffic. One transatlantic return flight is about the same emissions as an EU person uses to heat their home for a year.

However, KLM’s marketing campaign attempts to convince consumers otherwise, giving a false impression of the sustainability of aviation and its plans to address its climate harm.

The lawsuit argues that KLM’s campaigns and carbon ‘compensation’ schemes are misleading, and violate European consumer law.

Additionally, an expert evidence report submitted with the court filing found that KLM cannot validly claim that donating toward reforestation compensates for the climate impact of flying, and that a donation toward KLM’s biofuel costs wouldn‘t be ‘compensation’ either.

We’re going to court to demand KLM tells the truth about its fossil-fuel dependent product. Unchecked flying is one of the fastest ways to heat up the planet. Customers need to be informed and protected from claims that suggest it is not.

Hiske Arts, campaigner at Fossielvrij

How does KLM claim that sustainable flying is possible?

The lawsuit focuses on KLM’s Fly Responsibly ad campaign and its offers for customers to buy carbon offset products to reduce the impact of their flight by funding reforestation projects or KLM’s purchase of biofuels.

Although KLM has changed how it markets its offset promotions, advertising them under the label of ‘CO2 Impact’, it is still pushing the same flawed offset claims that give customers the false promise they can ‘reduce their CO2’.

We’re arguing that such promotions will do little to limit the damage the airline industry causes to the climate, and that by offering them to customers, KLM’s marketing undermines the urgent action needed to minimise climate catastrophe.

The Fly Responsibly ads also present the airline as 'creating a more sustainable future' and on track to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050.

But this promise doesn’t square with its plans to grow its business and increase flight sales.

We urgently need to reduce air traffic to keep a just and liveable world within reach. Airlines cannot be allowed to compete for business on claims that they are tackling the climate crisis, when the reality is they are fuelling it.

Johnny White, ClientEarth lawyer

KLM's marketing misleadingly suggests it's possible for flying to be 'sustainable'
What are the wider impacts of greenwashing in the airline industry?

KLM and the airline industry continue to pursue growth year after year, relying on a package of speculative future technologies, limited alternative fuels and other flawed ‘solutions’ to reassure people that flying will be sustainable. Whilst doing so, they are also lobbying intensively against aviation climate regulation.

Flying is one of the fastest ways to heat up the planet. The coming years in the climate fight are crucial, significant reductions in emissions and regulation to limit air traffic are needed to keep a liveable planet for all. Greenwashing delays this critical action and allows airlines to continue to burn increasing volumes of damaging fossil fuels.

Prioritising aviation’s climate damage is particularly unjust, unequal and therefore an unworkable and unfair net zero transition plan. The airline industry’s impact is primarily from a small group of frequent flyers, when it is people with less money, people in the Global South and future generations that are already suffering the most as the world gets dangerously hotter. Just one percent of the world’s global population cause 50% of commercial aviation emissions, whilst the overwhelming majority of people have never taken a flight.

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

Johnny White, ClientEarth lawyer 

What do we want to happen as a result of this case?

Ultimately, we are calling for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising in the EU to stop companies like KLM from continuing to mislead the public over what is needed reduce the airline industry’s impact on the planet and people. We need to clean up advertising in order to clean up the climate.

What happens next?

Following the legal letter sent to KLM on 24th May 2022, KLM has refused to comply with the demands of ourselves and Fossielvrij, so we’ve filed a lawsuit. The Court will first consider whether the claim has standing to proceed, and then KLM will give its defence. Once the written filings are completed, a hearing will be held, and after that the court will issue its judgment.

A translation of the legal letter dated 24th May 2022 sent by Fossielvrij NL and ClientEarth can be found here.

A translation of Fossielvrij NL’s claim against KLM filed on 6th July 2022 can be found here.

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