A Dutch Court has ruled that airline KLM’s sustainability advertising is illegal. the greenwashing case that was brought by Fossielvrij NL, Reclame Fossielvrij and ClientEarth.

The judges said claims that the airline was ‘creating a more sustainable future’ and promotions telling customers they could ‘offset’ the climate impact of their flight were misleading and therefore unlawful.

This judgment has set a major legal precedent with ramifications across the international aviation sector – leaving airlines’ climate PR strategy dead in the water.

"Today’s judgment is a landmark victory in the fight against greenwashing. KLM’s “green” marketing creates a misplaced trust that even if you are worried about the climate crisis, you can board a plane reassured you are not harming the planet. The judge has put an end to this harmful strategy to lull the public and politicians to sleep," said Hiske Arts, campaign lead at Fossielvrij NL.

A short history of the court case against KLM

In July 2022, Client Earth supported Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij in filing a groundbreaking lawsuit against KLM, marking the first-ever legal claim challenging airline industry greenwashing.

The case argued that KLM's advertising misled the public by giving the impression that the airline is tackling climate change, despite the fact that its plans for air traffic growth will exacerbate the crisis. It also challenged KLM's carbon offsetting marketing, which suggests customers can reduce their flight's impact by supporting reforestation projects or the airline’s costs of purchasing small quantities of biofuels.

Almost a year later, in June 2023, a significant milestone was reached in the case. The District Court of Amsterdam granted permission for the lawsuit to proceed to a full trial, which meant moving one step closer to holding KLM accountable for its misleading narrative around the airline’s climate impact and its attempt to maintain its 'licence to grow'.

There is no such thing as sustainable flying

According to KLM, customers can offset their flight’s emissions if they pay extra for tree planting or what KLM calls ‘sustainable’ biofuels for its jets. But carbon offsets, biofuels and promises of future technology are false solutions, promoted to reassure people that they can ‘fly responsibly’. These ‘solutions’ simply can’t make flying sustainable. KLM is planning to expand its business with more flights – like all airlines worldwide – while aggressively lobbying against climate action. But the truth is that the number of flights overall have to be reduced.

KLM ended its 'fly responsibly' campaign prematurely after the court case was announced.

Aviation’s injustice

The coming years are crucial: emissions – including from aviation – must be reduced now to keep a just, liveable world within reach. It is unjust that a small group of people who fly frequently continue to fuel climate breakdown, while the impacts of a hotter planet are mainly felt by people with less money, people in the Global South and future generations.

Read the writ here (in Dutch).