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Tackling Greenwashing in the Aviation Industry

17th November, 2022

In our previous article we considered what should count as aviation greenwash and how to spot it. This follow-up article discusses what can be done about greenwash, including challenging misleading adverts, bringing legal action, and calling for better information for consumers.

How can campaigners, the public and policy makers go about identifying what is greenwashing and what are genuine attempts to decarbonise the industry? 

Many of the green initiatives that are marketed by airlines offer uncertain and unrealistic solutions. Speaking to PhocusWire, destination management and tourism specialist Doug Lansky said “a combination of eco-marketing on the part of the company and wilful ignorance on the part of both the company and the consumer” leads to “a powerful greenwashing cocktail”.

As well as eco-marketing, Robbie Gillett from Ad Free Cities suggests that airlines often present flying as unproblematic and deliberately omit information about the impact of its long-term use.

So how can we see through the greenwash? Challenging the eco-marketing of ‘sustainable’ flying, demanding transparency on the part of airlines and airports, and educating consumers on offsetting schemes can all help.

Tackling misleading advertising

Tackling misleading advertising has become the focus of several campaign groups. In September 2022, the Subvertivisers International network and Brandalism began an international week of action against airline advertising. This was part of a wider campaign against fossil fuel ads.

Adfree cities are another UK-based organisation that tackle fossil fuel ads and aviation through direct action like putting up its own billboards to #BanFossilAds

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Some groups are taking the case one step further. In July 2022, environmental group Fossielvrij NL, supported by ClientEarth, filed the first greenwashing lawsuit against the Dutch subsidiary of Air France KLM.

Their aim is to stop the airlines using their ‘Fly Responsibly’ adverts on the grounds that it gives the impression that their flights will not exacerbate the climate crisis. They argue that these adverts are in violation of the Dutch implementation of the EU’s Unfair Consumer Practices Directive.

They also argue that the technology to decarbonise aviation does not exist yet and flying cannot be made sustainable today without reducing flights.

The Dutch court is now deciding whether the case can proceed. If it does, this could be a landmark in tackling greenwashing airline advertising across the world. 

Transparency and educating consumers

Many airlines steer clear from talking about the climate in their marketing. The difficulty of decarbonising aviation and the uncertainty of emerging technologies makes it hard for them to market themselves as green. 

It may also be the case that airlines don’t believe that decarbonisation is a priority for consumers. While public awareness of climate change is at an all-time high, there is a general lack of awareness about the carbon intensity of flying.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising as airlines are not required to provide consumers with CO2 data. This needs to change. Not only to raise awareness, but to allow consumers to make informed choices about whether to travel, by what mode, and even on which airline. 

Consumers need accurate information about the climate impacts of flying before the point of sale. The Department for Transport has said that it will explore options around this, and the Civil Aviation Authority will be consulting on proposals later this year.

Read our 2019 report for the Foundation of Integrated Transport estimating the emissions from flying and comparing the results with the emissions associated with common, everyday activities.

The CCC has made recommendations along similar lines. In a report commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change, Richard Carmichael recommended that all flight marketing should be mandated to show emissions information in a format that would be meaningful to consumers, for example as a proportion of a household’s annual emissions.

The report likened this transparency around the negative impacts of flying to similar warnings on tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

Tobacco has long had to present warnings on potential health impacts.

Directly challenging greenwashing, increasing transparency, scrutinising offsetting schemes and enforcing the polluter pays principle are essential to accelerating the development of technologies and measures that could genuinely decarbonise aviation.

In the meantime, net-zero aviation by 2050 will be a distant fantasy unless demand reduction measures are also put in place. Better informed consumers can advocate for all of this effectively by joining subvertisement campaigns, directly questioning airlines and advocating for policy change.

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