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Dutch court rules KLM misled customers in ‘landmark’ greenwashing case



Dutch national airline KLM made misleading claims about its sustainability actions in past advertising campaigns, an Amsterdam court ruled today following a ‘greenwashing’ complaint filed by environmental organisations Fossielvrij and ClientEarth.

The court ruled that KLM’s suggestions that flying can be or is becoming sustainable, as well as statements suggesting that the purchase of offsetting products reduces or compensates for part of the climate impact of flying are “misleading and unlawful and that KLM thereby contravenes the Unfair Commercial Practices Act”.

In addition, the court said the term ‘sustainable’ to describe alternative aviation fuels – commonly referred to as SAF – was also misleading. “Although SAF can contribute to reducing the harmful environmental aspects of flying, the term ‘sustainable’ here is too absolute and not concrete enough,” ruled the court.

“The statement that it is a ‘promising solution’ also paints too rosy a picture. At the moment, SAF’s share in total fuel consumption is still very limited. A more substantial share can only be expected in the distant future, and thus is uncertain. The expression is therefore misleading.”

KLM had already ceased using the 19 adverts at the centre of the lawsuit and the court therefore took no further action other than ordering the company to pay the claimants’ costs. The court also found that a ban on future similar claims was not feasible.

Hiske Arts, campaigner for Fossielvrij, which filed the claim in July 2022, said: “Today’s judgment is a landmark victory in the fight against greenwashing. The significance of the court’s decision is clear: companies are not allowed to claim they are tackling dangerous climate change when in reality they are fuelling the crisis.

“KLM’s ‘green’ marketing creates a misplaced trust that even if you are worried about the climate crisis, you can board a plane reassured you are not harming the planet. The judges have put an end to this harmful strategy to lull the public and politicians to sleep.”

A poll within an article published by BTN Europe in January, Supplier greenwashing spells trouble for travel managers, found that 71 per cent of respondents said they had concerns about the veracity of travel suppliers’ sustainability claims.

Johnny White, lawyer at ClientEarth, added: “Companies that publicly advertise commitments to the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate must now ensure that those claims are feasible and concrete, or risk losing in court. This judgment is nothing short of a wake-up call for highly polluting industries and companies that try to sell the image of commitment to the Paris climate goals without having the plans to get there. It leaves the airline industry’s climate PR strategy dead in the water.”

White added: “The truth has always been that ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ or ‘offsetting’ products risk justifying more emissions than they can ever save. All airlines and other companies making claims about their products’ environmental impacts that are based on offsetting should take heed from this ruling.”

Responding to the court’s ruling, KLM said in a statement provided to BTN Europe that it was ‘studying the ruling and will return to it substantively at a later date’.

It continued: “Our communication about sustainability must be honest and transparent. We have already taken important steps in this regard and have not used the 19 communications that were central to this case for some time now. We are pleased that the court has ruled that we can continue to communicate with our customers and partners about our approach to making aviation more sustainable. We are continuously learning how best to include them in this.

“We consider awareness and communication about sustainability goals, activities and dilemmas essential. In this way we reach governments, fuel suppliers, knowledge institutions, NGOs, aircraft manufacturers and customers, all parties who are needed to make flying less polluting. It is good that the court gives us more clarity about what is possible and how we can continue to communicate transparently and honestly about our approach and activities.”

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