Walking the Talk
KLM Called Out for Misleading Claim That Travelers Can ‘Fly CO2 Zero’

A Dutch advertising watchdog has ruled that a recent ad telling the airline’s customers they could fly carbon-emission free is misleading.

The Dutch Advertising Code Committee has chastised KLM Royal Dutch Airlines for what it’s calling a misleading sustainability claim in a recent ad.

According to Bloomberg, the watchdog group concluded the ad tagline — “Be a hero, fly CO2 zero” — is an absolute claim that the airline cannot prove.

In 2019, KLM launched its “Fly Responsibly” campaign — which challenged individual travelers and the aviation industry as a whole to work together to create a more sustainable future for aviation. As part of the effort, KLM offered its fellow airlines free use of its CO2Zero carbon-offset program — which contributes to reforestation efforts in Panama. The new ad’s tagline seems to play on the name of the program; but without further explanation, it does imply that flying with KLM can be free of carbon emissions — according to Bloomberg, the watchdog group said KLM’s approach results in a certain “level of offsetting” of emissions but is not “adequate” to claim absolute carbon neutrality.

While the ruling is limited to KLM, it touches on industrywide pressure for airlines to lower their carbon footprint and ‘flight-shaming’ campaigns to get people to fly less. Commercially viable alternatives such as sustainable aviation fuels and electric and hydrogen-powered planes are at least a decade away; so, carriers are relying on measures such as carbon offsetting to reduce their impact — and while validation efforts for offsets are improving, Bloomberg points out they’re still widely criticized as insufficient to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere to the extent needed to avert climate catastrophe.

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Other European carriers appealing to travelers’ growing interest in more sustainable travel options include Lufthansa, which has been touting a “fly CO2 neutral” program that “enables passengers to keep an eye on their travel activities and to compensate for the CO2 emissions inevitably caused by their flight;” and EasyJet, which says it has been offsetting carbon emissions from fuel used on all flights across its network since November 2019. Here in the US, Alaska, Delta and JetBlue are leading industrywide sustainability efforts.

According to Bloomberg, the case was brought by an individual under the Stichting Reclame Code — a self-regulatory system for advertisers in the Netherlands that also has consumer representation. KLM has two weeks to decide whether it wants to appeal.

With the added pressure on companies from a variety of stakeholders to rein in their environmental impacts is a decreased tolerance for empty or inflated brand claims on that front (especially in the UK) — as sustainable beverage darlings including Oatly and Innocent drinks have both recently been reminded. And this isn’t the first time KLM has been called out for greenwashing — in 2020, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee confronted the airline for inflated claims regarding its use of biofuels.

We’re seeing more ambitious corporate climate commitments than ever; and, since climate action is now largely considered a business imperative, the deluge isn’t likely to let up soon. With that is an ever-growing cache of jargon and buzz speak, much of which is being thrown around without substantive language and action to back it up. We at SB and our global community are working to make sure that companies making these pledges have the knowledge and resources they need to ensure they’re proceeding with integrity and not biting off more than they can feasibly chew — but there is still a huge learning curve, even for companies that have led in the sustainability space; and the devil is always in the details.

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