EU accuses 20 airlines of misleading greenwashing practices

May 1st '24

On 30th April 2024, the European Commission (“EC”), alongside a network of EU consumer protection authorities (“CPC”) announced that is taking action against twenty airlines over potentially misleading green claims. The CPC is particularly concerned about claims made by airlines that CO² emissions caused by flights can be offset by consumers paying extra fees to support climate projects or through the use of sustainable fuels. Whilst the airlines remain unnamed for now, the EU consumer authorities include national regulators from Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain.


The EC and CPC allege that the following practices carried out by the airlines may potentially be misleading:


  • Suggesting that consumers can reduce or fully counterbalance CO² emissions by paying extra fees to finance climate projects designed to minimise environmental impact;
  • Using the term “sustainable aviation fuels” but failing to justify their environmental impact;
  • Using terms “green”, “sustainable” or “responsible” in an absolute way;
  • Making claims about the airline’s future environmental performance, such as progress toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but without sufficient targets and independent monitoring systems in place;
  • Presenting consumers with CO² emission flight “calculators” without providing scientific proof about their reliability, and;
  • Presenting consumers with flight CO² emission comparisons without sufficient information about the basis for those comparisons.


All twenty airlines have 30 days to issue a response, setting out their proposed corrective measures to make their marketing complaint with EU consumer law for green claims. The EC will then liaise with the CPC to consider these proposals. Going forward, they will monitor the implementation of the agreed changes. Further enforcement action, including sanctions, remain on the table if concerns are not alleviated.


Airlines brought back down to earth.


The announcement of this investigation underlines continued focus of regulators on environmental advertising and the aviation industry. These developments are crucial for UK-based businesses too, regardless of whether they advertise directly to EU consumers. This is because, on one hand, EU laws apply to advertisers marketing to EU consumers, and on the other, EU’s actions are often a precursor to what will happen domestically.


On the European level, we recently reported on the forthcoming “Green Claims” Directive, which is set to drastically change green claims that rely on offsetting. In line with this focus, offsetting claims are top of the list of concerns raised by the EC and CPC. And although there are no similar legislative changes in the horizon, the UK isn’t staying still.  Misleading green claims, sustainability and the travel sector, including airlines, were all named by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority as focus areas in its annual plan published last month, which we reported on here.  Just last week, the UK Advertising Standards Authority announced that since 2023, their AI-based Active Ad Monitoring tool has scanned over 140,000 ads by air travel companies. Of those 140,000 ads, we commented on rulings against Etihad and Lufthansa and their green claims, which indicate that position themselves as anything other than bad for the environment remains a significant challenge.


Postscript: Lufthansa recently found an ingenious way to cut the CO² emissions on my flight to Dresden by 100%. This was achieved by confirming my booking, but not issuing the tickets, which meant I couldn’t fly. This wasn’t quite what I’d understood from their claim, “Connecting the world. Protecting its future.” 


“If we want responsible consumers, we need to provide them with accurate information. More and more travellers care about their environmental footprint and choose products and services with better environmental performance. They deserve accurate and scientific answers, not vague or false claims.”  Věra Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency


Source: Lewis Silkin – AdLaw . Authors: Brinsley Dresden and Ardie Yilinkou.


Need some promotional advice? If you want to understand more about how to make sure your marketing materials meet ad standards, please click here.


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