Aviation’s First Greenwashing Lawsuit Takes Off Against Dutch Airline KLM

Environmental advocates have accused the airline of misleading the public about the environmental impact of flying.

Fleet of KLM airplanes on a grassy field in an airport

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The Netherlands is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world, according to the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, whose annual Environmental Performance Index (EPI) uses 40 performance indicators to rank countries on climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. In its 2022 EPI, it ranked the Netherlands No. 11 out of 180 nations.

With a score like that, it’s safe to say the Dutch people are role models for sustainability. But the same can’t necessarily be said for Dutch companies, suggests Fossielvrij NL, a Dutch environmental group whose mission is to tackle the climate crisis by “organizing a strong, locally anchored citizen movement that breaks the power of coal, oil, and gas companies.” Earlier this month, it filed a lawsuit against Dutch airline KLM accusing it of making false claims about the sustainability of its flights.

The lawsuit is the first-ever lawsuit alleging greenwashing in the airline industry, Reuters reported.

At issue is KLM’s “Fly Responsibly” ad campaign, which includes a television advertisement in which the airline proclaims, “The way we travel here on Earth is changing, and together we can pioneer a sustainable future for aviation and our planet.” Launched in 2019, the campaign is an effort by KLM to emphasize its plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by investing in technologies like sustainable aviation fuel. This year, for example, the airline began fueling its flights from Amsterdam in part with synthetic kerosene, which it claims can reduce carbon emissions by up to 75% compared to traditional fossil fuels.

But KLM’s advertisements are misleading, according to Fossielvrij NL, which says the ads are a violation of the European Union’s Unfair Consumer Practices Directive. Passed in 2005, the directive “prohibits any commercial practices, including advertising, that can materially distort the economic behavior of the average consumer in relation to products—i.e., make them purchase products that they would not have otherwise purchased,” multinational law firm Mayer Brown explained on its website.

Fossielvrij NL argues that no airline can claim to be sustainable because sustainable aviation is an oxymoron. The only legitimate way for airlines to practice sustainability, it contends, is to fly fewer airplanes.

“We know that we must intervene now to maintain a livable world. If there’s one thing we can’t use, it’s getting sand in our eyes right now. That we hear in advertisements that aviation is on its way to a sustainable future, while the solutions for sustainable flying are not even there,” Hiske Arts, a campaigner at Fossielvrij NL, said in a statement. “Deception by companies like KLM stands in the way of a livable world. Not only because this allows consumers to board the plane with confidence, but also because this message reaches politicians and investors. They, too, fall for the illusion of sustainability and fail to come up with climate policy that does work.”

KLM, which met with Fossielvrij NL before the lawsuit was filed but failed to reach an agreement, stands by its ads.

“It would certainly not be in our interests to misinform our customers. It’s our responsibility to make future travel as sustainable as possible,” the airline said in a statement sent to Reuters. “We believe that our communications comply with the applicable legislation and regulations.”

Joining Fossielvrij NL in its action against KLM are Dutch environmental group Reclame Fossielvrij and environmental law charity ClientEarth.

“We urgently need to reduce air traffic to keep a just and livable 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 fueling it,” ClientEarth lawyer Johnny White said in a statement. “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 … is unlawful.”

According to ClientEarth, a Dutch court will now consider whether the lawsuit has the standing to proceed. If the judge decides that it does, KLM will then have an opportunity to provide its defense. Once written filings are completed, a hearing will take place, after which the court will issue its judgment.

In the meantime, Fossielvrij NL is circulating a petition in support of its action. So far, it has more than 8,500 signatories.

Concluded Arts, “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.”

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  1. "Environmental Performance Index." Yale University, 2022.