6 July 2022
We're supporting campaigners Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij in a lawsuit in the Netherlands against major Dutch airline KLM, over misleading marketing that promotes the sustainability of flying.
Along with Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij, we signed a letter of demand launching legal action against KLM in May 2022. Our argument was 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.
Since the letter was delivered at the airline's Annual General Meeting, the NGOs have met with KLM's team twice to discuss our demands.
After the first, KLM refused to stop advertising its misleading claims, and Fossielvrij filed the case in the Amsterdam Court with our support. Then in the second, KLM proposed some changes to its climate advertising and its website in an effort to stop the case going ahead. Its website changes emphasised the acknowledgment that aviation is far from sustainable today.
But the company continued to preserve the same images and videos about a more sustainable future, and is sticking by the core ‘Fly Responsibly’ message that it is on the path to more sustainable travel and on track to be a net zero business by 2050.
There is no feasible way it can do this while planning highly polluting air traffic growth.
KLM is now having to defend its green climate publicity before a judge. The company filed its first round arguments on the admissibility of the claim on 18 January 2023 and a hearing is now scheduled for 20 April.
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 – particularly its ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign – attempts to convince consumers otherwise. It presents the airline – and the industry - as 'creating a more sustainable future' and on track to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050, which simply doesn’t square with aviation growth plans.
The lawsuit argues that these ads are therefore misleading and violate European consumer law. It also takes issue with KLM’s offers for customers to buy carbon offset products to reduce the impact of their flight by funding reforestation projects or the airline’s costs when it buys small amounts of biofuels.
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.
These offset promotions do not limit the damage the airline industry causes to the climate, and marketing them risks undermining the urgent action needed to minimise climate catastrophe.
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
Since the lawsuit was filed, KLM also changed how it markets its offset promotions. It now advertises offsets products under the label of ‘CO2 Impact’. But the change did not remove the same flawed offset claims that gives customers the false impression that they can ‘reduce your CO2 emissions'.
Worse still, KLM is offering frequent flier points to customers that buy these products, incentivising more frequent flying along with ‘compensation’ for the climate impact of the flights.
In its response to the legal action, KLM argued that the airline needs to keep its ‘licence to grow’. It claims that Fossielvrij – as a climate campaigning organisation – has no place bringing a legal challenge against misleading advertising.
But Fossielvrij maintains that climate organisations have an interest in stopping KLM’s false promises of a more sustainable future when it is clear the company is trying to enable the unsustainable growth of aviation.
We urgently need to reduce air traffic to safe levels to keep a just and liveable world within reach. The law should not allow airlines 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 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 aviation is on the path to net zero by 2050. Whilst doing so, they are also lobbying intensively to water down 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 preserve the space for plans to burn increasing volumes of damaging fossil fuels.
Prioritising aviation’s climate damage is not a fair 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 globally 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
We want to enforce the law, and to ensure that people are not misled.
Ultimately, we are calling for a policy solution fit for urgent decarbonisation - 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.
The Court will consider whether the claim has standing to proceed. If it does 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.