Almost two years ago, together with Reclame Fossielvrij (Fossil free Advertising) and supported by ClientEarth, we filed a lawsuit against KLM. KLM had launched a new marketing campaign that made our hair stand on end: together with KLM, you would be on your way to a more sustainable future. What’s more, KLM pretended that you could offset your flight’s emissions by planting trees.

After a long process, on 20 March the judge ruled in our favour: it was a historic victory! Here are the eight claims that KLM and other polluting companies are not allowed to make, according to the ruling.

1. KLM may not claim (without proper substantiation) that it is on its way to a more sustainable future

It is misleading for KLM to say “that consumers are on their way to a more sustainable future with it”, while it is “not clear whether, and if so how, flying with KLM contributes to that”. The judge says this claim by KLM is too vague and general. Moreover, for KLM, this is “only an ambition”.

Making vague claims about being sustainable while continuing to do business as usual is what many polluting companies do. This month, Shell was also reprimanded by the Advertising Code Committee for the slogan: “We are changing for a cleaner future”. The judge also called statements that cannot be substantiated misleading and a prohibited form of business operation.

2. KLM must not mislead about their commitment to “Paris”

If KLM makes statements that it has committed to the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, consumers should expect KLM’s own targets to also be in line with Paris. In court, KLM claimed that there is a difference between these two things. However, the judge rejected this reasoning: consumers will think that KLM is actually acting in line with the Paris target itself.

This is a very important ruling by the judge. It is relevant not only to KLM, but to all polluting companies that like to communicate about Paris, but do not want to align their operations with it. This is not allowed. And it is very important at a time when companies are using the Paris Climate Agreement more as a marketing tool than a policy goal.

3. KLM may not pretend that the emissions from a flight are neutralized or reduced by CO2 offsetting.

It is misleading for KLM to imply a direct connection between customers’ contributions to reforestation projects and the CO2 impact of their flight. KLM implied that planting trees “reduced the impact of your flight”. The court ruled that this cannot be asserted because, for example, it is not clear whether the trees will remain permanently. The court also put a firm red line through the term CO2ZERO, which KLM used for this method of CO2 offsetting.

In the weeks leading up to the ruling, KLM removed their CO2 offsetting reforestation programme from their website. KLM has now finally admitted honestly on their website that “compensation through nature regeneration is not possible.” It is very important that KLM is now being truthful about this: the damage from your flight cannot be undone or reduced if you plant a tree in return.

This ruling is not only relevant for KLM but also for all airlines and all those major polluters who pretend that it is possible to “offset” your emissions.

4. KLM may not promote alternative fuels as “sustainable aviation fuel”

It is misleading for KLM to present alternative fuels as “sustainable aviation fuel”. The court ruled that this statement is too absolute and not concrete enough. KLM does not sufficiently substantiate claims “such as that ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ reduces CO2 emissions by ‘at least 75%’ compared to fossil fuel”.

The aviation industry markets biofuels and synthetic fuels as Sustainable Aviation Fuel or SAF. This court ruling means that this term is misleading. The same applies to the use of the abbreviation ‘SAF’ in marketing.

Alternative fuels are either biofuels or synthetic fuels. Both do not reduce emissions to zero; both also carry risks. For instance, biofuels can lead to deforestation, and synthetic fuels are hugely energy-intensive to produce. Moreover, the use of these fuels still leads to other harmful climate effects, such as emission of nitrogen oxides, production of water vapour condensation trails and high cloud formation. Quite rightly, therefore, that these fuels may not be labelled as sustainable.

5. KLM may not present alternative fuels as a promising solution

It is misleading for KLM to present alternative fuels as a “promising solution” or as “a big step towards a sustainable future”. KLM must not paint too positive a picture of alternative fuels as a solution to making aviation more sustainable. According to the court, alternative fuels “only marginally reduce CO2 emissions and the negative environmental aspects of flying”.

Although KLM currently fills its tanks with 99 per cent kerosine, it is quite happy to advertise the 1 per cent alternative fuels currently being used. And KLM is not alone in this: other airlines use this advertising strategy extensively too. With this ruling in hand, they should also watch their step.

6. KLM may not present alternative fuel test flights as major milestones

It is misleading for KLM to present the first test flight that took place on partly synthetic kerosine as an important milestone. This gives customers “positive expectations about flying on synthetic kerosine. This “suggests more than is being delivered and therefore paints too rosy a picture”.

Time and time again, every year, usually just before an important climate conference: the aviation industry presents test flights flying partly on alternative fuels as hugely important milestones. For example, one time KLM put a few litres of synthetic fuels in the tank. Another time was the “first transatlantic flight on SAF”, or then again a flight engine flying 100% on biofuels in a test run. In this way, there are tens of thousands of milestones to be invented, and the media are only too happy to go along with this.

But the judge has decreed it to be misleading to present such experiments as important milestones. And rightly so: no one doubts that it is technologically possible to fly planes on synthetic or biofuels. The problem lies entirely in the scalability of alternative fuels. Because until that scalability is in place, these kinds of experiments are of very little use.

7. KLM’s slogan “reduce your impact” is misleading

It is misleading that KLM pretends that its consumers can reduce the impact of their flight, with the stilted slogan “reduce your impact” that KLM uses, accompanied by an image of green leaves surrounding an aircraft. KLM suggests “more than can be delivered”. This gives an “overly rosy picture of the (minimal) environmental benefits that can be achieved with a customer’s contribution to reforestation or SAF”. The judge added “a direct link is suggested between a customer’s contribution and the environmental impact of its flight”. There is no such link; as such it is misleading.

KLM still uses the slogan “reduce your impact”. With this, KLM is still pretending that that extra drop of biofuels is going to make a substantial difference, when this is not the case. As such, KLM must go back to the drawing board.

8. KLM must not give the impression that flying with KLM is sustainable

It is misleading that in their Real Deal Dagen [in English: Real Deal Days], KLM created the impression “that flying with KLM is sustainable, when in fact it is a ‘price stunt’”. In these advertisements, KLM sold cheap tickets under the guise of “flying more consciously”. The judges ruled that the statements should be viewed in their entire context. Even though the statements may be partially correct and informative, in the entire context they were misleading.

This ruling is not only relevant for KLM, but is also a warning for other travel organisations that are only too happy to market their trips as (more) sustainable.

Where do we go from here?

The judge has only ruled on the 19 statements that we presented as examples of KLM’s misleading ads in our subpoena. During the proceedings, KLM withdrew and took offline some of these statements – some even just before the ruling. In other statements, KLM used slightly different wordings, but the essence of their communication remained the same. Unfortunately, the judge did not look at these new wordings. Either way, the judge spoke clearly about what was misleading about the statements at the time of the subpoena. The judge took into account that KLM had promised in court to be “on the safe side” in their marketing. Therefore, it is all the more important that KLM does not break that promise. The airline will therefore have to take another serious look at their communications.

We will scrutinize KLM’s current statements and continue to keep a close eye on KLM for new advertising campaigns. With this ruling in hand, the road back to court is easily paved.

These rulings are relevant not only to KLM, but to all polluting companies that like to market themselves as sustainable, when in reality they are driving us deeper into the climate crisis. This ruling sets new international standards, requiring polluters to rethink their marketing strategies. And what if they fail to do so? Then this ruling will inspire new lawsuits, in the Netherlands and abroad. In Europe, BEUC, the umbrella of European consumer organisations is already taking action against 17 airlines and their misleading statements. This ruling strengthens their complaints and also increases the likelihood that regulators will take stronger action.

It is important that politicians, businesses and citizens take concrete action against the climate crisis and that consumers are no longer lulled to sleep with rose-tinted marketing campaigns. This important ruling against greenwashing is just the beginning.