Press release: 20 March 2024

Historic win against greenwashing as KLM’s advertising ruled illegal

  • Dutch court says KLM’s sustainability advertising breached EU consumer law
  • Judgment sets international precedent for aviation industry, Paris Agreement commitment claims and ‘offsetting’ claims
  • Claimants Fossielvrij and Reclame Fossielvrij call for fossil fuel ad ban

The District Court of Amsterdam has found KLM’s greenwashing in its advertising illegal, setting a major legal precedent with ramifications across the international aviation sector and for all companies advertising their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

The judge ruled that KLM’s claims suggesting that flying can be or is becoming sustainable, as well as advertising suggesting that its "offsetting" products reduce or compensate for the climate impact of flying are misleading and therefore unlawful.

KLM’s claims that it was ‘committed to the Paris Agreement climate goals’ were also found to fall foul of the law, as claims about the feasibility of KLM’s targets paint “too rosy a picture” given the limited measures the airline is deploying. This ruling will set a precedent for all companies promoting net zero commitments, and their public relations firms and advertising agencies should also take note. 

Hiske Arts, campaigner for Fossielvrij, one of the campaign groups that brought the lawsuit, said: “Today’s judgment is a landmark victory in the fight against greenwashing. The significance of the Court’s decision is clear: companies are not allowed to claim they are tackling dangerous climate change when in reality they are fuelling the crisis. KLM’s “green” marketing creates a misplaced trust that even if you are worried about the climate crisis, you can board a plane reassured you are not harming the planet. The judges have put an end to this harmful strategy to lull the public and politicians to sleep.”

Dutch campaigners Fossielvrij and Reclame Fossielvrij – with support from environmental law charity ClientEarth – filed the claim in July 2022, marking the first lawsuit worldwide to tackle aviation industry greenwashing. It alleged the airline’s marketing breached the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.

Johnny White, lawyer at ClientEarth, said: "Companies that publicly advertise commitments to the climate goals of the Paris Agreement must now ensure that those claims are feasible and concrete, or risk losing in Court. This judgment is nothing short of a wake-up call for highly polluting industries and companies that try to sell the image of commitment to the Paris climate goals without having the plans to get there. It leaves the airline industry’s climate PR strategy dead in the water."  

Sustainable aviation fuels & ‘offsets’  

The Court said that the term “sustainable” to describe alternative aviation fuels (called SAF by the industry) is not concrete enough to be promoted as a promising solution to aviation’s emissions. Specifically, it found: “At the moment, SAF's share in total fuel consumption (and hence CO2 emissions reduction) is still very limited due to various reasons. A more substantial share can only be expected in the distant future, and thus uncertain. The expression is therefore misleading.”

Ruling on KLM’s promotions for customers to ‘offset’ the climate impact of their flights by paying towards reforestation schemes, the Court also considered that “there is no direct link between customers’ tangible contribution and the impact of CO2 emissions from its flight”. 

White added: “The truth has always been that ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ or ‘offsetting’ products risk justifying more emissions than they can ever save. All airlines and other companies making claims about their products’ environmental impacts that are based on offsetting should take heed from this ruling.”

KLM had eventually retracted the advertising claims challenged in response to the lawsuit. Therefore, the Court did not see the need to issue further orders sought by the claimants, and it found that a ban on future similar claims was too uncertain. The decision implies that public judgement itself should be enough. However, because the Court found mainly against KLM, it ordered the company to pay the claimants’ costs.

Fossil fuel ad ban

The organisations are calling for a tobacco-style ad ban on fossil-fuel based goods, citing the significant harm these products cause to people’s health and livelihoods through fuelling dangerous climate change.

Rosanne Rootert, campaigner at Fossielvrij Reclame, said: “Tackling greenwashing is currently a cat-and-mouse game. Just when one misleading campaign is stopped, ten more pop up. You can only react when the harm is already done: people have already seen the ads. A complete ban on fossil advertising, such as for air travel, is the only way to truly eliminate greenwashing by these companies. Lawsuits like this would then be unnecessary."  

The District Court of Amsterdam’s ruling is also likely to inform future cases. The issues within the lawsuit have already been taken up by the European umbrella consumer organisation BEUC in an EU-wide regulatory complaint denouncing misleading sustainability claims made by 17 European airlines.

Dimitri Vergne, Head of Energy and Sustainability at BEUC, said: “Technological solutions to decarbonise aviation won’t become a massive-scale reality any time soon, so airlines depicting flying as a sustainable mode of transport are simply fooling consumers. 

“The Court’s decision recognises that green flying is a myth and marks a turning point for consumer protection against misleading aviation advertising. The rest of the airline industry should see the Court’s decision as a strong warning sign. They must stop greenwashing their activities right away, as we denounced to the EU authorities last year.”

Notes to editors:

Press contacts

Hiske Arts, campaigner Fossielvrij NL, via Liset Meddens +31 (0) 641277905,

Rosanne Rootert, campaigner Reclame Fossielvrij, +31 (0) 641316519,

Fran Warburton, Senior Communications Officer, ClientEarth, +44 (0)303 050 5959

Images from the hearing and campaign can be found here. At 2:00 PM CET, Fossielvrij will be on the panoramic terrace of Schiphol to celebrate the victory. Photos of this will appear around 3:30 PM CET. Credits: Laura Ponchel, Fossielvrij NL.

The District Court of Amsterdam’s judgment can be accessed here.

A non-official translation of the judgment can be accessed here.

A full explainer on the case can be accessed here.

More than 14,000 people also indicated their support for the lawsuit by signing a petition.

KLM’s growth plans

Studies by CE Delft and NLR show that by 2030, Dutch aviation emissions need to be reduced by 30 to 77 percent to align with the Paris climate agreement. However, KLM's absolute reduction target is only 12 percent. Researchers conclude that technological solutions are insufficient in rapidly reducing aviation’s emissions, thus demanding a necessity for reduction in demand. Ex-Schiphol airport boss Ruud Sondag recently became one of the first industry executives to warn that the aviation sector is likely to miss its net zero target, and support a standstill to air traffic growth in the Netherlands. Despite this, KLM remains steadfastly committed to air traffic growth, lobbies against climate policy, and opposes measures to reduce its footprint in court, while at the same time asserting its contribution to a more sustainable world.

‘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.

Fossil fuel 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 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.