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Green marketing or greenwashing? How airlines communicate their sustainability efforts

In May 2022, environmental groups launched legal action against KLM, saying the Dutch aviation giant is misleading the public over the sustainability of flying. While most airlines put a lot of effort in communicating their sustainability initiatives, in some cases it’s hard to say whether what they are doing qualifies as green marketing or greenwashing.
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Written by Joanna Kocik
Content Strategist at Oncarbon
June 24, 2022

Gone are the days when airlines used the slogan “Mix business with pleasure – free drinks on weekday flights” or “Extra hands assure extra luxury.”  We are past the time when dirt-cheap fares were a novelty, and loyalty programs no longer make an impression on most passengers. Moreover, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines are turning to a new marketing focus: sustainability.

Many airlines have recognized the trend of growing environmental awareness among their passengers. People are becoming more concerned about the carbon footprint of flying, dependence on fossil fuels, and transparency in communicating emissions. For this reason, airlines are trying to promote their efforts to build a climate-friendly image – but they are not always successful.

KLM sued over greenwashing

The “green marketing” strategies assume turning the traditional marketing mix of price, product, place and promotion into green product, green pricing, green place and green promotion. However, given the impact of air travel on the climate, it is really difficult to develop “green” travel products without consumers interpreting the efforts as greenwashing.

A recent example is the lawsuit against KLM, which has been challenged over “greenwashing”. According to the Netherlands-based campaigners Fossielvrij NL, supported by Reclame Fossielvrij and environmental lawyers from ClientEarth, KLM’s advertising campaigns and “compensation” schemes violate European consumer law by giving a false impression about the sustainability of its flights and its plans to tackle climate breakdown.

The greenwashing case against KLM is thought to be the first corporate lawsuit about airlines and net zero – and one of the first cases about carbon offsets.

We decided to take a look at the marketing communication of KLM and seven other European arilines to see what “green efforts” they announce to the public.

In our analysis, we used information that is publicly available on the internet and doesn’t require downloading files or digging deep into documentation. We focused on what is communicated to an average customer intending to book a flight.

Sustainability marketing – examples

1. Finnair

Some of the sustainability efforts communicated by Finnair:


  • In 2022, Finnair was voted the most sustainable brand among airlines in Finland among the 8 airlines included in the Sustainable Brand Index 2022 survey.

  • Commitment to emissions reduction: carbon neutrality by 2045 (partly through offsets), reducing emissions by 50% by 2025 compared to 2019 levels.

  • Improving fuel efficiency – optimal fleet utilization and fuel-efficient flying.

  • Possibility of emissions offsets for passengers who can choose a mix of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and certified offset projects.

  • Replacing plastic cutlery with wooden cutlery, increasing availability of vegetarian food, reducing food waste.

  • Sustainable aviation fuels: delivery of SAF blend planned for 2025.

  • Recycling of old aircraft.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at point of sale: no.
Finnair_plane
Finnair treats sustainability seriously.

“Push for change” and “inexplicable police ruling”

In 2019, Finnair released a marketing campaign called Push For Change. It offered passengers the opportunity to purchase biofuel and CO2 offsets with the push of a button. However, in 2020, the airline decided to discontinue the service due to “the legal interpretation of the Finnish National Police Agency.” The interpretation revolved around the definition of compensation, as the law stipulates that a permit is required for any attempt to collect money without delivering a good or a service in return.

The decision of the Police Agency generated much debate and was seen by many as unfair – or even absurd. Ville Niinistö (Greens), a member of the European Parliament, argued, “It’s inexplicable that you can buy all sorts of rubbish as compensation under the money collection act, but you can’t offset the climate impact to the Earth. Talk about a conspicuous consumption economy.” “You are clearly paying for compensation when you offset emissions – for carbon sinks and emissions reductions to offset the damage. Not for a good feeling. Protecting the future of the world is a damn important offset,” he said 1.

Finnair called the whole affair “unfortunate for customers.” “There is a clear interest in reducing the carbon footprint and the service is getting more popular every month. Our customers have offset nearly 6,900 tons of carbon dioxide emissions through Push for Change, and we have used biofuel on three long-haul flights from San Francisco to Helsinki,” said Anne Larilahti, Finnair’s then VP of Sustainability.

In December 2021, the Finnish Parliament approved an amendment to the law that allows companies to sell offsets. In March 2022, Finnair started offering offsets for CO2 emissions again.

2. KLM

Some sustainability efforts communicated by KLM:


  • Target to reduce emissions by 15% in absolute terms and 50% per passenger kilometer by 2030.

  • More fuel-efficient aircraft with lower noise emissions.

  • Option to offset carbon emissions for passengers (51,053 tons of CO2 were offset in this way in 2020).

  • Sustainable aviation fuels: commitment to use 14% of SAF of the total fuel use in the Netherlands by 2030.

  • ESG reporting: KLM reports 100% of Scope 1 and Scope 2 CO2 emissions, as well as Scope 3 emissions generated in the upstream phase of jet fuel production.

  • Fleet modernization: in 2020, the average age of aircraft in the group’s fleet was 12.1 years.

  • Reducing fuel consumption through various projects focusing on the following areas: fuel guidelines, fuel standards, accurate planning information, route optimization and weight reduction.

  • Investments in the electrification of ground equipment.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
KLM emissions and traffic.
KLM emissions and traffic.

Legal action against KLM

As mentioned above, KLM faces a lawsuit concering the alledged greenwashing tactics. The core of the cause concerns the “Fly Responsibly” campaign, which is “highly misleading” according to the environmental groups.

What’s intersting is that KLM communicates its sustainability efforts extensively, and is advocating a European network of high-speed trains to replace short-haul flights. The airline has promised to replace one of its five daily flights to Brussels with a train trip on Thalys, and is working with the Dutch railroad company (NS), Schiphol Airport and the Dutch government to explore how more short-haul flights can be replaced by trains.

KLM emissions have decreased in recent years.
KLM emissions have decreased in recent years.

3. easyJet

Some sustainability efforts communicated by easyJet:


  • Commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 (partly through offsets).

  • Modern and fuel-efficient aircraft operating at full capacity (2019 load factor was 92.9%).

  • Investment in Airbus neo aircrafts.

  • Offsetting carbon emissions from fuel used for all flights from 2019 – “at no additional cost to the passenger.”

  • Plans to fly with aircraft powered by hydrogen combustion, hydrogen-electric propulsion or a mix of both from the mid- to late 2030s.

  • Reducing the amount of plastic on board.

  • Crew uniforms made from recycled plastic bottles.

  • Reducing weight by introducing lightweight passenger seats and using electronic devices instead of paper documents.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
EasyJet’s sustainability policy.
EasyJet’s sustainability policy.

Comment

As early as 2007, easyJet highlighted its commitment to sustainability by stating that “easyJet already sets the environmental standard in the aviation industry.” That same year, the airline’s CEO, Andy Harrison, published an article in the Financial Times titled “Airlines must play their part in saving the planet,” in which he pointed out that “airlines have an obligation to maximize their environmental efficiency.”

In recent years, however, attitudes toward communicating sustainability efforts seem to have changed. Environmental concerns now seem far less important to easyJet, which may be related to the departure of Andy Harrison as CEO, who was a strong advocate for green marketing communications.

4. Wizzair

Some sustainability efforts communicated by Wizzair:


  • Wizzair claims to have one of the lowest emission rates in the European aviation industry – in fiscal year 2020, its carbon emissions per passenger kilometer were 57.28 grams, which is nearly half the industry average. Wizzair claims that “if every airline was as efficient as we are, European aviation CO2 emissions would fall by 34% overnight.”

  • Full planes fly to avoid unnecessary pollution. Prior to COVID, 94% of Wizzair seats were full.

  • Commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (partly by offsets).

  • No business class seats.

  • Use of Airbus A320 neo family.

  • Modern fleet – the average age of an aircraft is currently five years.

  • Paperless flights.

  • Lightweight seats.

  • Washing aircraft twice a year, which reportedly contributes to 0.2-0.5% emissions and fuel savings.

  • Airline magazine made of recycled paper.

  • None of Wizzair’s routes has a direct train connection under four hours.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: to some extent.
Wizzair’s carbon emissions.
Wizzair’s carbon emissions per passenger kilometer.

“Fly the greenest” campaign

Wizzair appears to be putting a lot of effort into “green marketing”. In 2022, the airline launched its “Fly the greenest” campaign with a brand new interactive sustainability website and the tagline, “Dear customer, if you do not have to fly, please do not. But if you do, fly the greenest.”

The airline says it has “never been more important for a company to take responsibility for the environment” and talks at length about its environmental initiatives. Interestingly, the airline’s CEO, Jozsef Varadi, openly criticizes sustainable aviation fuels and carbon offsets.


“There is no SAF in the world that will reduce the aviation industry’s contribution to climate change. In my opinion, SAF and carbon offsets are more greenwashing than reality at the moment.” Josef Varadi, CEO of Wizzair, in September 2021.

5. Norwegian

Some sustainability efforts communicated by Norwegian:


  • Commitment to reduce customer CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 (partly through offsets).

  • Direct routes resulting in fewer takeoffs and landings.

  • Statement to use up to 28% of sustainable aviation fuels of their total fuel use by the end of the decade.

  • Modern aircraft fleet.

  • Elimination of non-recyclable plastic by 2023 and 100% recycling of single-use plastic in Scandinavia.

  • Sky Breathe application that teaches pilots to fly more fuel-efficiently, reducing overall CO2 emissions by 2%. Using the weather system to make smarter route choices, saving thousands of tons of CO2 emissions annually.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
Norwegian pilots use an application that teaches pilots to fly more fuel-efficiently.
Norwegian pilots use an application that teaches pilots to fly more fuel-efficiently.

In its 2020-2023 environmental sustainability strategy, Norwegian informs that its sustainability priorities include:


  • Launching an environmental roadmap and sustainability strategy with new targets and initiatives.

  • Continuing to review the entire supply chain.

  • Continuing to reduce waste and plastics and recycle uniforms and other textiles.

  • Offering CO2 offsets to customers.

6. British Airways

Some sustainability efforts communicated by British Airways:


  • A roadmap to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (partly through offsets).

  • Investment in new, modern aircraft that are up to 40% more efficient than the aircraft they replace.

  • Partnerships and investments to support the development of sustainable aviation fuels, zero-emission hydrogen-powered aircraft, and carbon capture technologies.

  • Declaration to be “the first airline in the world” to use SAF products on a commercial scale in the UK and commitment to operate 10% of all flights on sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

  • Offsetting all flights within the UK.

  • Carbon footprint calculator and offsetting option for passengers.

  • Option to buy sustainable aviation fuels.

  • Commitment to reduce single-use plastic and food waste.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
British Airways sustainability policy.
British Airways sustainability policy.

British Airlines has partnered with Velocys and LanzaJet to support the development of sustainable aviation fuels, and has invested in ZeroAvia – a company working to develop aircraft with more than 50 seats that can run on zero-emission hydrogen electric power.

7. airBaltic

Some sustainability efforts communicated by airBaltic:


  • Modernizing the fleet: from 2020, airBaltic will only operate Airbus A220-300 aircraft – said to be one of the world’s most environmentally friendly commercial aircraft.

  • Optimization of landing procedures, which, along with the fleet modernization, allowed to reduce carbon emissions released per passenger km flown by 33% compared to 2008.

  • Emissions calculator for the Airbus A220-300 on the website.

  • Increase in the use of SAFs by 20% in 2021 compared to 2020.

  • Guide for passengers on greener travel.

  • Communication of the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
AirBaltic on Airbus A220-300 emissions.
AirBaltic on Airbus A220-300 emissions.

Comment

In 2022, airBaltic received the highest score among Latvian brands in the European Sustainable Brand Index in the transport and travel sector. The study was conducted from December 2021 to February 2022 and analyzed how society’s attitude towards sustainability affects branding, communication and business development.

In its communications, airBaltic places great emphasis on the fact that it operates only the Airbus A220-300 aircraft, which it says is “one of the world’s most environmentally friendly commercial aircraft in the sky.” Compared to previous generation aircraft of a similar size, the new aircraft have 20% lower CO2 emissions, 50% lower NOx emissions and four times less noise pollution.

The airline has also published a comprehensive and detailed 2021 Sustainability and Annual Report, which includes information about Air Baltic’s sustainability efforts. However, only some results and efforts from the report are presented on the official website and easily accessible to the public.

8. SAS

Some sustainability efforts communicated by SAS:


  • Investing in new, modern and more energy-efficient aircraft.

  • Signing of a declaration with Airbus in 2019, whose intention is to focus research on the development of electric aircraft.

  • Commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% by 2025 (compared to 2005) and by 50% by 2050 (partly through offsets).

  • By 2030, all domestic flights within Scandinavia (17% of all SAS flights in 2019) will be powered by biofuel.

  • By 2030, noise will be reduced by 50% compared to 2010.

  • Aim to have 100% sustainable materials in onboard packaging by 2030.

  • Passengers will be able to purchase biofuel quotas when booking travel.

  • Eliminating tax-free sales on board to reduce weight and fuel consumption.

  • Communicating the carbon footprint of a flight at the point of sale: no.
SAS works with Airbus on development of electric aircraft.
SAS works with Airbus on development of electric aircraft.

Comment

SAS major investments include new, modern aircraft and entering into a partnership with aircraft manufacturer Airbus to pave the way for large-scale use of electric and hybrid technology in commercial aircraft. SAS has also partnered with Preem and AirBP to access more biofuel. Currently, SAS uses about 100 tons of biofuel annually. The goal is for all SAS domestic flights within Scandinavia to run on biofuel by 2030.

Critical conclusion

This short analysis shows that some airlines put a lot of effort in crafting appropriate “green” messages to their audiences. Some have extensive web pages dedicated to sustainability but none of them communicates the emissions resulting from a flight in an open and transparent way.

Some of the information published by airlines raises questions - for example, about replacing old aircraft with new ones. On the one hand, it is good that airlines are modernizing their fleet, but on the other hand, there is no information (apart from the Finnair example) about what happens to the old aircraft, nor is there any mention of the carbon footprint of manufacturing new aircraft.

Most airlines offer ways to offset the carbon emissions. At Oncarbon, we don’t see offsets as completely unproblematic: if an airline achieves “carbon neutrality” through offset mechanisms, we don’t regard that as true carbon neutrality. More about this in another article.

Last but not least, we note that no airline provides consumers with detailed information of a flight’s carbon footprint. Wizzair comes closest, but relies only on communicating passenger-kilometer averages in a hard-to-verify manner.

Greenwashing rather than green marketing

Communicating sustainability efforts without disclosing the emissions caused by flights will always seem like an attempt to look “greener” – and can lead to accusations similar to that now faced by KLM. Lightweight passenger seats and recycled plastic on board might be important factors – but what truly matter are the fuel consumption and the warming effect of the emissions that happen.

We appreciate the airlines’ efforts to answer their customers’ needs and we are happy to see more and more passengers expecting clear and honest sustainability policies from airlines. At the same time, we cannot accept that achieving a 50% net emissions reduction through carbon offsets is a plausible way to stop global warming. We need more transparency and a fewer smoke-and-mirrors tactics.

If you are in the aviation industry and interested in what you can do to not be accused of greenwashing – contact us.

Cover photo: USGS/Unsplash


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Joanna Kocik
Passionate about startups and sustainability. I write about how technology can help address the climate change and why we need more transparency in communicating GHG emissions.