KLM has pulled its ‘Fly Responsibly’ ads - but environmental lawyers fear future greenwashing campaigns.
Environmental groups are suing the Dutch subsidiary of Air France KLM over an alleged greenwashing campaign.
They say the adverts breached European consumer law by misleading the public over how sustainable the airline's flights are.
After initially filing the lawsuit in May 2022, Dutch campaigners Fossielvrij NL (Fossil Free NL), supported by environmental law charity ClientEarth and Reclame Fossielvrij, had their case heard in court on Thursday 21 April.
Fossielvrij demanded that KLM publish a rectification and stop similar advertising.
In court, the airline's lawyers have continued to deny the allegations, arguing that its climate goals are credible and it has a right to advertise them.
Why are environmental lawyers suing KLM?
Campaigners have launched hundreds of climate change-related lawsuits against companies, governments and authorities to try to accelerate the world's shift to a low-carbon economy and fight an escalating climate crisis.
"KLM has... stuck by the false message that it is on the path to more sustainable flying," said Hiske Arts, a campaigner at Fossielvrij NL, last year. "There is no way it can do this while planning continuous air traffic growth that will fuel the breakdown of our climate."
KLM, which says it has invested millions of euros in a more sustainable fleet and is working towards the industry goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, met with the groups before the suit was filed, but failed to find a solution.
"It would certainly not be in our interests to misinform our customers. It’s our responsibility to make future travel as sustainable as possible," the airline said in a statement sent to Reuters last year. "We believe that our communications comply with the applicable legislation and regulations."
KLM's 'Fly Responsibly' adverts are part of the problem
Campaigners set out to stop KLM's 'Fly Responsibly' adverts, claiming they violated the Dutch implementation of the EU's 'Unfair Consumer Practices Directive' by giving the false impression its flights will not exacerbate the climate crisis.
KLM launched the advertising campaign in December 2022, urging customers to help pioneer a "sustainable future" for aviation by paying towards reforestation projects or by contributing to the cost of greener aviation fuels.
They could do that through its CO2ZERO offers, designed to help tackle flight-related carbon emissions.
But campaign groups allege that aviation cannot be made sustainable quickly enough to meet global climate goals by replacing fossil jet fuel, improved engines, efficiencies or other future technologies and want a reduction in flights - a view echoed by a leading investor group in March.
KLM has now axed the campaign but has made no assurances about future campaigns.
KLM greenwashing case goes to court
Slamming KLM's campaign in court on Thursday, Fossielvrij lawyer Frank Peters said it featured images of hopeful young people, nature in bloom and possible future technologies.
However for now "the only manner to fly sustainably is not to not fly or to fly less," he said. "Anything that KLM says differently...misleads consumers."
They have demanded that KLM publish a rectification and stop similar advertising.
KLM lawyer Branda Katan noted the campaign has already been discontinued and questioned whether a civil suit makes sense.
She said KLM follows rules governing how companies may advertise and an existing industry panel should handle such complaints.
She argued KLM advertisements would not convince someone to fly who is in doubt about whether flying is bad for the environment - which KLM does not deny.
"KLM is advertising to people who will be flying anyway," she said.
Company plans to meet emission targets include using more sustainable fuel and adopting hydrogen powered planes once they exist.
The Dutch court will decide at a later date whether the case may proceed.