Press release: 19 December 2023

Dutch Court scrutinises sustainable flying ‘solutions’ in world-first greenwashing hearing

  • Claimants argue KLM's marketing breaches EU consumer law 
  • Judges raise critical questions about KLM’s ‘offsetting’ marketing

Dutch airline KLM appeared before the District Court of Amsterdam today to defend its climate-related advertising, in response to allegations of unlawful greenwashing.

The lawsuit, brought by campaign groups Fossielvrij and Reclame Fossielvrij, with the support of environmental law charity ClientEarth, is the first worldwide to challenge the aviation industry’s climate PR strategy.

The Court's decision on the legality of KLM’s advertising could have global implications for airlines and the claims they are allowed to make about the sustainability of air travel.

The lawsuit initially challenged KLM’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, which the company has since pulled. The claimants are seeking an order from the court preventing the airline from making similar statements in future. This includes claims regarding the limited alternative fuels and unproven technological solutions the aviation industry is relying on to meet climate targets instead of putting limits on air traffic growth.

Hiske Arts, campaigner at Fossielvrij, said: "KLM dropped the 'Fly Responsibly’ ad campaign, yet continues to push the misleading messages regarding its sustainability while opposing government measures tackling aviation’s increasing emissions. The Court must scrutinise KLM's misleading claims. The airline’s 'green marketing' is a guise, distracting the public and government from the reality that its plans for growth will throw us further into climate catastrophe.”

In Court today, Fossielvrij argued that KLM’s claims of ‘creating a more sustainable future’ and having a ‘net zero by 2050’ goal are misleading and at odds with its plans for ongoing business growth.

Recent research from Breda University reveals a misalignment between KLM's sustainability goals and the Paris Agreement, whilst leading scientific analysis indicates the aviation industry cannot achieve climate goals without limits on air traffic growth.

The claimants also scrutinised KLM’s carbon ‘offsetting’ products, marketed alongside its flights. Lawyers told the judge that language used to promote these products created a false impression, suggesting that climate damage from flying can be reduced or compensated by customer contributions towards ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ or tree replanting projects.

The airline responded that consumers should know flying is not sustainable, that KLM is taking steps to make it more sustainable, and that it should be allowed to promote its climate actions in advertising.

The judges raised several critical questions about KLM’s offsetting marketing, and asked Fossielvrij how a ban on KLM making similar claims in the future would work in practice.

Johnny White, a ClientEarth lawyer, said: "This case cuts to the heart of the airline industry’s greenwashing strategy: advertise climate action while chasing unsustainable growth. Disinformation around the ‘solutions’ to aviation’s worsening climate impact is dangerous and needs to be urgently tackled. Nascent technologies and alternative fuels are currently way off the mark. They should not be promoted as the golden ticket to sustainable flying.”

In June, the Amsterdam District Court recognised the scope for environmental and human risks from greenwashing and granted Fossielvrij standing to pursue the case.

The lawsuit could set a precedent for the growing number of lawsuits against greenwashing, including others against airlines that have followed. Almost 14,000 people signed a petition supporting the case.

Rosanne Rootert, campaigner at Reclame Fossielvrij, said: "The ongoing fight against greenwashing by aviation and other polluters underlines the need to ban fossil fuel advertising. Only then can we permanently protect people from the greenwashing deception that undermines real climate action. Governments can do this by banning fossil advertisements by law, just as we have seen with tobacco advertisements. But until such a ban is in place, going to court is necessary to fight climate-damaging advertisements."

The court will deliver its verdict on February 21st.


Notes to editors:
  • Images from the hearing and campaign can be found here. Credits: Laura Ponchel, Fossielvrij NL.

  • A translation of Fossielvrij NL’s claim against KLM filed on 6th July 2022 can be found here and an FAQ on the case can be found here.

  • The organisations argue that KLM’s marketing is in breach of the European Unfair Consumer Practices Directive (UCPD), as implemented in the Netherlands. The directive is an EU law that prohibits misleading and unfair commercial practices directed at consumers.

KLM’s lobbying:

European airlines remain leading opponents of European climate legislation according to research by InfluenceMap, and Air France-KLM is one of the most negatively engaged companies of all the airlines.

KLM and other airlines recently challenged the Dutch Government’s proposed flight cap at Schiphol airport. Though the Court initially ruled in favour of the airlines, the government appealed and subsequently won.

‘Sustainable aviation fuels’ are not sustainable

The airline industry relies on promoting false technological solutions to retain its licence to grow, including ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel’ (SAF). But SAFs are made of biofuels, which are in very short supply and come with risks of deforestation, land grabbing and fraud.

Although KLM and the industry advertise the plan to have 10% alternative fuels by 2030, KLM needs even more than this for its emissions targets, and experts say the maximum possible is slightly over 5% by 2030 (before even considering costs and logistics). This will have limited impact on CO2 reductions. Biofuels are also not a solution for the non-CO2 warming effects, which are larger than the impact of CO2 emissions.

Climate impact of flying:

Aviation causes CO2 emissions from the oil industry extracting and refining oil and then from burning kerosene in jet engines. The aviation sector’s overall CO2 emissions have grown faster than every other sector in the last couple of decades, because aviation has grown continuously. This growth will further increase aviation's share of global CO2 emissions in the coming decades, potentially reaching a 20% share by 2050 under a scenario with weak climate policies.

CO2 emissions are not aviation’s biggest climate problem. Aviation also causes ‘non-CO2 warming effects’ through emissions of nitrogen oxides and condensation streaks from water vapour and the formation of high clouds.

Only 1% of the world’s global population cause 50% of commercial aviation emissions, whilst the overwhelming majority of people globally have never taken a flight.

Why are you calling for an ad ban?:

Strong European public support for climate action is driving consumers to consider climate impact in their purchases, especially in travel. However, greenwashing by carbon-intensive companies distorts perceptions of sustainability.

Similar to tobacco manufacturers misleading about health risks, these companies use advertising to divert attention from their harmful impacts, delaying climate action.

Courts can address greenwashing on a case-by-case basis, but a systemic solution is urgently needed.

The Dutch government recently asked behavioural scientists for advice on the measures necessary to deliver climate targets. The response included a recommendation to introduce a fossil fuel ad ban alongside other measures like product health warnings.

About Fossielvrij NL

Fossielvrij NL is a Dutch foundation that builds and supports the people-powered fossil free movement in the Netherlands. Their mission is to break the power of the fossil fuel industry to create space for a fast, just transition toward 100% renewable energy for all. Fossielvrij NL works in close partnership with campaign group Reclame Fossielvrij (Fossil Free Advertising). 

Reclame Fossielvrij is a Dutch campaign group that wants a tobacco-style ban on fossil advertising and sponsorships. 

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.