The Great Green Flying Myth: airlines confuse consumers with misleading eco claims
Consumers are increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of everything they buy – including flights. A 2023 survey found that 62% of EU consumers thought it was very or fairly important to consider environmental impact when choosing a flight.
These factors have created perfect conditions for the growth of ‘greenwashing’ in the airline industry. Travelers will be familiar with journeys advertised as being taken on a ‘green air fleet’. At the booking stage, people may have even paid a surcharge to offset the CO2 emissions of their flight.
At the end of June, Euroconsumers members OCU, Testachats and Altroconsumo joined 20 other organisations in a joint complaint co-ordinated by BEUC against these misleading practices.
The complaint filed to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network (CPC) said that misleading climate-related claims by 17 European airlines were in breach of EU rules on unfair commercial practices.
The 23 European consumer organisations together with BEUC are calling on the CPC to send a clear message to airlines to stop these misleading practices, insist they come clean about how any climate initiatives they are involved in actually work and impact on emissions, and compensate consumers who have unwittingly paid into unverifiable carbon offset schemes.
Greenwashing air travel: the case against the airlines
In the absence of any imminent options to decarbonise air travel, airline companies are using a range of creative messaging to mislead consumers. Our organisations in Belgium, Italy and Spain found several examples of deceptive and factually incorrect claims that are all giving consumers the impression that flying is a viable part of a climate-friendly travel mix.
Sustainable air travel which is anything but
There are messages describing air travel as ‘sustainable’ ‘responsible’ or ‘green’. These broad terms might attract a consumer or make them feel their flight is somehow less damaging than before, but in fact, none of the strategies in place in the airline sector are currently able to prevent greenhouse gas emissions. Potentially in the future we may see less polluting air travel but right now, it’s not possible.
Carbon offset with vague and unverifiable criteria
Members also found claims about the practice of carbon offsetting, and the idea that paying additional credit will be able to compensate for the CO2 emissions of a flight.
Activities to offset carbon come with a high degree of uncertainty, and so it is disingenuous to suggest that the CO2 impact of a flight can be simply balanced out with a carbon credit. The way the amount paid is calculated and the actual impact is not explained and cannot be verified.
“The box you tick to offset carbon or pay towards sustainable fuels won’t stop the flight you take emitting harmful pollutants. Airlines need to get real with consumers so they can make a choice based on fact, not wishful thinking”
Els Bruggeman, Head of Policy and Enforcement, Euroconsumers
Additional charges for ‘sustainable fuels’
Some airlines were found to be charging travellers an additional amount to contribute towards the development of less polluting Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). This strategy gives people the false impression that they are all working together in a joint effort to protect the environment. In actual fact, such fuels won’t be market ready for years.
Exploiting climate jargon
Airlines also exploit climate-friendly buzzwords in ways that bear little relation to the reality of reaching targets. For example, companies might boldly state their ambitions to achieve ‘net-zero’.
Net-zero is a confusing term, describing the need to reduce emissions but it is often used much more loosely to refer to interventions that won’t reduce but will only offset or absorb emissions (for example, reforestations initiatives).
As in the case of charges for consumer offsets, the ability to verify the benefits of offsetting is questionable. Used in this sense, positive and aspirational language is used to appeal to consumers, while polluting emissions continue as before.
Airlines’ misleading messages are a false friend
Like many companies, airlines want to convince the market they are green and playing their part alongside consumers to meet the challenge of the climate crisis. But trying to pass themselves off as an environmentally conscious option is not only in breach of consumer law, but also muddies the waters for consumers who want to make the best choice.
They should also be honest with consumers – the strong messaging that flying is a viable, increasingly clean and green option in the travel mix makes choices difficult. It offers a false peace of mind to consumers who if given clear facts about environmental impact would be able to make an informed choice about alternative modes of travel.
The opportunity for a new aviation reality?
The reality is that the claims we’ve described today are dubious and absent of conclusive scientific evidence. The airline sector has to move far to become less carbon intensive, adding light green touches to improve their image with consumers is not the answer.
The communication strategies uncovered in this major research all add up to a sector putting far more effort into convincing consumers that they are fighting climate change, than they are into responding seriously to the challenge. This innovative energy would be better placed developing sustainable aviation fuels at a faster pace and investing all possible resources into making flying less polluting.
Euroconsumers Head of Policy and Enforcement, Els Bruggeman thinks airlines should embrace this as a positive opportunity to invest in a more sustainable future for aviation:
“Instead of fueling consumers with fake green claims, we invite you to redirect your efforts, energy and money into fostering real innovation and invest in more sustainable and futureproof aviation technology”.