How can airlines avoid green­washing?

If you work for an airline that’s trying to be “the greenest” and outperform others on climate-friendly initiatives, think twice about what you are really communicating, because you may have already fallen into the trap of greenwashing.
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Written by Team Oncarbon
Carbon management platform for air travel, API-first
September 27, 2022

Last May, KLM was sued by environmentalists for greenwashing. They accused the airline of misleadingly advertising air travel as sustainable. The activists’ lawyers claim that KLM’s advertising campaigns give a false impression of the sustainability of its flights and that the promise of zero net carbon emissions by 2050 cannot be met without limiting the total number of flights.

KLM’s case will be heard in court, but it is neither the first nor the last example of greenwashing allegations. In December 2021, United Airlines falsely tweeted that it would be “the first airline in aviation history to operate a passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel”. In reality, only one of the plane’s two engines was powered by SAF – this fact was detailed in the press release 1, but not in the tweet. And in September 2019, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority found that a Ryanair campaign urging customers to fly on “Europe’s Lowest Fares, Lowest Emissions Airline” was misleading and should therefore no longer be run 2.

United Airlines tweet: Today, United will be the first in aviation history to fly a passenger flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). This Flight will serve as a turning point in the industry's effort to combat climate change.

This shows that the measures airlines take to reduce emissions must be communicated very clearly – otherwise they will continue to mislead consumers and expose themselves to further lawsuits and criticism.

What is greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. It was inspired by the “save towel" hotel movement, which promoted the reuse of towels to reduce the impact of washing on the planet, but in reality it mainly helped hotels save money on laundry. Today, the term “greenwashing is used when an organization claims to be environmentally conscious and markets itself as such, but in reality does not make sustainability efforts or those efforts do not match its marketing slogans.

To be clear, there can be good intentions behind greenwashing. Most of us now realize that we are on the brink of climate catastrophe, and companies know they need to appeal to environmentally conscious customers: 63% of Generation Z consumers would spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable brand, and that number rises to 75% among Millennials 3.

At the same time, greenwashing can cause much harm to a company, damaging its trust and image, and ultimately leading to drop in sales. And most brands already have reputational issues: more than half (53%) of American consumers have doubts when companies claim to be green, and 45% of them say they need a third-party validating source to trust a company claim4. In addition, greenwashing gives people a false picture of the impact of their purchasing decisions and perpetuates the myth that they can continue to do so without harming the planet.

“Offensive” level of greenwashing

Things look even worse for the aviation industry. A recent study commissioned by Greenpeace analyzed climate change comments, initiatives and commitments by KLM, IAG Group, Ryanair, EasyJet, Lufthansa, SAS and Air Portugal and found that the level of greenwashing by almost all of them is “quite offensive” 5.

“European airlines are putting up a smokescreen of false solutions that sound great, but in effect keep transport hooked on oil,” said Herwig Schuster, spokesman for Greenpeace’s European Mobility For All campaign. “Even in the face of a climate emergency, airlines carry on polluting the air and hide their dirty business behind a wall of greenwashing.”

The report’s conclusions state that Europe’s seven largest airlines would need to cut at least 2% of their flights annually by 2040 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. However, none of those airlines has committed to to reduce flights, or presented other plans to fully decarbonise by 2040.

Airlines far from meeting their climate targets

Another study by the climate charity Possible found that only one in 50 airlines had met their climate targets and that virtually every target set by the airline industry since 2000 had been missed, revised or overlooked 6.

For example, the report found that Virgin Atlantic set a goal in 2007 to reduce its CO2 emissions per revenue ton kilometer (CO2/RTK) by 30 percent by 2020. In a 2014 sustainability report, the airline said it had achieved an 8 percent reduction, stating, “We are almost halfway to our target period and know we need to pick up the pace.”

But when Virgin’s 2020 annual report was published, there was no mention of the previous target of reducing CO2 emissions/RTK by 30 percent. Instead, the airline published a press release in 2021, announcing a new goal of “15 percent gross CO2/RTK reduction by 2026.” It’s therefore unknown what happened to the 30 percent goal, and whether Virgin is anywhere close to achieving it.

In 2021, researchers from the University of Queensland and University of Surrey studied 37 airlines’ communications on carbon offsets. They concluded that more than 44% of airlines’ green claims mislead consumers – with some airlines, such as Air Canada and Swiss Airlines, making as many as 100% of their claims misleading 7.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that consumers have hard time viewing airlines’ sustainability claims as credible?

In the competition for the height of absurdity, Frontier Airlines is certainly among the top contenders: the airline decided to raise awareness of its sustainability efforts by putting more people on planes – especially those named Green or Greene – and flying them around the country for free. The flights featured compostable cups and recyclable napkins, and the airline claimed it had “planted enough trees to offset the carbon footprint” of the flight.

We are not entirely sure if Frontier was being serious or if this stunt was meant as a joke – if meant as a joke, it wasn’t a very good one.

Drifting away from the core of the matter

The truth is that no airline can (yet) talk about climate neutral flights and many can’t make serious claims about emission reductions. At Oncarbon, we keep saying that travel, including flying, has done us a lot of good — but unfortunately, it also comes wit some negatives, and we need to be outspoken about it.

Another tactic that diverts attention away from the core of the problem is placing communicative focus on details which have, relative to the emissions from fuel burn, a tiny impact. For example, some airlines brag about using reusable cups and cutlery on board or making the crew uniforms from recycled plastic. Don’t get us wrong: these are all necessary changes, but they do not touch the core of the problem. Flying causes emissions, and we need to reduce them.

One more point worth mentioning is also the communication style of most airlines. When confronted with critical reports about their sustainability efforts, most industry leaders respond with lofty goals and cries of how much they are already doing.

IATA’s response to Greenpeace’s findings: “The need for environmental action is fully accepted by the industry, as shown by the airline industry’s commitment to achieving net zero in 2050.” A Ryanair representative stated that “Ryanair is the top ESG-rated airline in Europe according to Morningstar’s Sustainanalytics, and the company has an ambitious decarbonization strategy that includes a $22 billion investment in a new, more fuel-efficient fleet and funding for sustainable fuels research.”

What does this mean? Where are the facts and figures on emissions reductions right now?

Consumers’ awareness is growing

The proportion of climate-conscious consumers is growing, and more and more people don’t believe just any “green” communication. As we found in our Sustainable Travel Report, there is growing pressure for more transparency: 78% of travelers want to travel in a sustainable way, and 67% of travelers want environmental information about the travel products they buy.

In Europe, the “flight shame” movement has led to a decline in air travel, and more and more people are pledging to stop flying or switch to trains instead. In the UK, over 10,000 people have signed up to Flight Free UK to cut down on their air travel, and there are an increasing number of travel agents who only travel by train. We recognize that paying an extra $5 to offset a flight will not solve the problem – especially as criticism of the voluntary offset market grows. A May report by investment bank Credit Suisse called the voluntary market a “wild west” with “little transparency” and “little (if any) correlation between price and credit quality” 8.

So what should you do to avoid being accused of greenwashing, and not end up in climate activists’ spotlight? There are several actions you can take – and that will add value for your customers.

How to avoid greenwashing?

  1. 1.
    Rely on data. Show numbers when you talk about reducing emissions, and be honest about it. Refrain from spreading the truth about your environmental performance, and be honest. Show facts and figures, not just promises.
  2. 2.
    Don’t use fluffy language. Smart consumers watch out for words and terms that have no meaning, such as “environmentally friendly.” Call things what they are.
  3. 3.
    Don’t drift away from the core of the matter. Distinguish between small things and big things. The core of the matter is emissions, not paper straws.
  4. 4.
    Use credible third-party certifications. If you calculate your own flight emissions, there’s no way for a consumer to verify that data. This is where you can turn to solutions like the Oncarbon Flight Emissions Calculator, which guarantees the fairness of the data.
  5. 5.
    Make fair comparisons. When comparing your emissions figures to a competitor’s, make sure you use the same calculation methodology so you don’t mislead consumers.
  6. 6.
    Don’t use misleading images. Green planes over trees and flowers suggest that flying is good for the environment - but it’s not.
  7. 7.
    Admit the truth. Flying causes emissions, and people have a right to know the numbers. Nothing destroys trust in a company more than when consumers discover it’s lied to them about something they care deeply about.

We understand that you may not like these recommendations and that they may seem counterintuitive. Why would you tell passengers about the harmful effects of flying when that’s your core business? How can you disclose the data that might make people think twice before buying a ticket?

The answer is: because we all have a common goal – to stop heating up the planet because we’ve nowhere else to go. If we continue to release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere (and the aviation industry is responsible for 3.5% of those emissions), we’ll hit planetary limits sooner than we think. An inconvenient truth may be hard to convey, but any forward-thinking airline knows we must do so. Be a pioneer in the industry – and make a difference for your customers.

Sign up for our demo if you want to learn more details.

Original cover picture: Chongdong Zhu/Unsplash.

Team Oncarbon
We’re on the mission to show you that we need – and we can – travel more consciously. We bring closer to you the topics of carbon footprint, sustainable travel and aviation, and transparency in emissions reporting.