Press release: 24 May 2022

KLM airlines to face legal action over greenwashing

AMSTERDAM – Environmental groups have started legal action against Dutch aviation giant KLM for misleading adverts that promote the sustainability of flying, in the first lawsuit to challenge airline industry greenwashing.

Netherlands based campaigners Fossielvrij NL, supported by Reclame Fossielvrij and environmental lawyers from ClientEarth, have notified the airline of the claim at the company’s annual general meeting today.

The lawsuit will argue that KLM’s ad campaigns and ‘compensation’ schemes violate European consumer law as they give a false impression over the sustainability of its flights and plans to address its climate harm.

Hiske Arts, campaigner at Fossielvrij NL, said: “KLM’s marketing misleads consumers into believing that its flights won’t worsen the climate emergency. But this is a myth.

“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.”

Misleading net zero promises

The legal action centres on KLM’s Fly Responsibly campaign, which presents the airline as “creating a more sustainable future” and on track to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050.

The lawsuit will argue that these claims are highly misleading, since KLM’s plan for continual increases in flying is at odds with the rapid and deep emissions reductions across all sectors which the IPCC says is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

The latest expert studies warn that the aviation sector cannot align with net zero and minimise its climate impact without limiting the overall number of flights.

Johnny White, ClientEarth lawyer, said: “While climate experts warn we need to reduce air traffic to keep a just and liveable world within reach, KLM and the airline industry are continuing to focus on growth at any cost and lobbying intensively against climate regulation.

“It’s now or never for climate action. 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.”

Airline industry growth will have vastly unfair consequences on people globally. Just one percent of the world’s population cause 50% of commercial aviation emissions, whilst the overwhelming majority of people have never taken a flight.

Arts said: “Flying is not only one of the most climate-damaging products people can buy, it’s also uniquely unequal.

“It is unjust that a small group of frequent fliers continue to fuel climate breakdown, when it is the people with less money, people in the Global South and future generations that stand to suffer the most as the world gets dangerously hotter.”

The offsetting illusion

KLM’s Fly Responsibly campaign also includes offers for customers to buy a carbon offset product – labelled ‘CO2ZERO’ – in order to “reduce your impact” by paying towards reforestation projects or KLM’s purchase of biofuels.

However, the environmental groups argue that these products will do nothing to limit the damage the airline industry causes to the climate, and that by promoting them to customers, KLM’s marketing undermines urgent action to minimise climate catastrophe.

“Flight emissions cannot be ‘compensated’ if customers just pay extra to plant trees or give money towards the cost of false solutions like what the industry calls ‘sustainable aviation fuels’. With these messages KLM continues to throw sand in our eyes,” Arts added.

An EU ban on greenwashing

Last month, the Dutch advertising watchdog ruled that KLM advertisements telling customers they could fly carbon-emission free is misleading. But KLM still continues to call its offsetting program CO2ZERO.

The environmental groups say there needs to be systemic change to stop the spread of this kind of harmful disinformation. Together with over 30 civil society groups, they are calling for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising in the EU to stop companies like KLM from continuing to distort public perception on what is needed to reduce the aviation industry’s impact on the planet and people.

White said: “Just as the fossil fuel industry is using greenwashing to protect their licence to operate, the aviation sector is using misleading advertising to protect its licence to grow. We need legislation to finally put an end to these delaying tactics for good.”


Notes to editors:
  • Fossielvrij NL submitted the pre-action letter to KLM during the company’s AGM and will file the claim with the District Court of Amsterdam following the airline’s response.  The lawsuit will be supported by ClientEarth, which will be intervening in support of the claim.
  • An explainer about the case can be found here.
  • Counsel in the case is Bureau Brandeis of Amsterdam.
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.