Accusations of ‘Greenwashing’ Levelled Against UK Airlines

Environmental charity, Possible, has lodged official complaints against British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, accusing them of “Greenwashing” – making deceptive environmental claims about their carbon emission reduction endeavours.

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The Complaints and The Allegations

The complaints, filed through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), maintain that both airlines are duping customers with exaggerated claims about their ability to cut carbon emissions.

According to Possible, airlines have a moral duty to provide their customers with accurate information about their carbon reduction efforts. Instead, they are making dubious claims about their ability to fly greener.

The OECD and Its Role

The OECD permits lodging complaints at one of their National Contact Points (NCPs) for violations of the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The UK’s National Contact Point, part of the Department for Business and Trade, was chosen for this case.

Greenwashing: Limitations on The Promotion of Carbon Neutrality Initiatives
By Pierre Frühling, Alix d’Arjuzon and Enzo Pannozzo, HFW Paris/Brussels

Critiques of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s Claims

British Airways has proclaimed to be “driving urgent action towards net zero emissions”, having a “clear roadmap to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.” However, Possible’s analysis reveals that BA’s jet fuel emissions have actually increased year-on-year from 2016 to 2019.

Virgin Atlantic, on the other hand, prominently showcases its “Mission to Net Zero” plan on its website and in its 2022 Annual Report. Yet, it fails to mention the airline’s earlier failure in meeting its emissions targets – a fact Possible deems critical for consumers.

Misleading Claims About SAF

Possible contends that the airlines’ assertions about the emissions reductions achievable through alternative fuels, such as SAF, are misleading. According to Possible, these fuels will not attain the emissions reductions claimed.

The complaint was filed a week before Virgin Atlantic conducted a test flight from London to New York using only alternative aviation fuel, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

Reactions & Statements:

Alethea Warrington, a senior campaigner at Possible, commented that “people globally are already experiencing the harsh repercussions of the climate crisis. But, instead of taking genuine action to reduce emissions by decreasing flights, airlines are resorting to Greenwashing.”

Tom Short, a solicitor at Leigh Day, further stated: “Our client, Possible, alleges that the marketing by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic is misleading and conceals the true climate impact of flying from customers.”

The Green Mobility Magazine contacted British Airways and Virgin Atlantic for a comment but received no response from either airline before publication. 

Our Editor’s Views 

Thomas Hayden-Lefebvre
Editor-in-Chief

Another day, another greenwashing complaint against transport operators. Indeed, from Delta to KLM and the entire LNG sector, NGOs and climate groups have filed dozens of complaints over the past few years alleging misleading and imperfect marketing activities. The Science Based Targets Initiative’s (SBTi) pathways have recently been questioned

However, having spoken to the airline industry and communications professionals over the past couple of months, there is a genuine feeling that many, but not all, greenwashing accusations are spurious and/or vexatious. Similarly, many transport operators feel as if they have been placed between a rock and a hard place: if they market their activities, they are accused of greenwash; if they don’t, consumers and stakeholders think that they are not invested in the green transition. 

More broadly speaking, I think that this story has two underlining and very important implications:

Firstly, the UK’s Department for Business and Trade’s decision on the matter will influence the future behaviour of UK airlines and that of the complainants. For example, similar complaints will be rare if Possible’s allegations are deemed meritless. Invariably, the opposite will also be true.

Secondly, regardless of the Department for Business and Trade’s findings, with allegations like these making headline news, airlines seem to be losing the battle for “hearts and minds.” Surely, there will always be defenders of the industry. Still, public, and perhaps even more importantly corporate, acceptance of flying will fall as long as the aviation industry fails to provide a scientifically backed and positive message to the masses beyond “future technology will save us.”

Mark Watts, 
Editorial Board Member

I fundamentally disagree with Possible. They falsely claim that technologies for cleaner flight either ‘don’t exist yet, or don’t work’ and consequently, they advocate ‘cutting back on flights’ as the answer to climate change. They are wrong on so many levels and play into the hands of those in the industry who resist change. Are we telling the next generation they won’t be able to enjoy their hard-earned holidays abroad? Are we telling citizens, who in many parts of the world were until fairly recently denied the right to travel by poverty or state restrictions to travel, they can no longer do so?

Flying has been one of the great liberators of the 20th and 21st centuries. It has brought the world, families, friends, and businesses closer together, and it is no exaggeration to say it’s been a catalyst for greater global cooperation, understanding and prosperity. We must stand up to those who seek to turn the clock back by re-erecting new barriers to free movement and effectively returning aviation to the preserve of a privileged elite.

Many in the green NGO movement also fundamentally disagree with ‘Possible’. For example, T&E argue ‘Green fuels, new technology, and demand reduction can put us on a path to cleaner flying.’

I urge ‘Possible’ to think again and work with those of us who believe that saving the planet and preserving our right to fly are not incompatible goals.   

We must work together to deliver the technology and green fuels that can make sustainable aviation a reality.

Pedro Castro,
Editorial Board Member

Airlines around the world are facing scrutiny from advertising and consumer agencies, regulators, and courts over allegedly making misleading claims about their sustainability efforts – the term “greenwashing” is more than appropriate.

In the early 2000s, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a TV ad for Actimel after a viewer complained about the ad’s “scientific” claims. The viewer felt the claim that Actimel was “scientifically proven to help support your kids’ defences” was inaccurate and questioned whether it could be substantiated.  

Danone UK (the producer of Actimel) said the brand’s health benefits had been proven in 23 studies, eight of which had been on children up to 16 years of age. It added that the claim “scientifically proven” had featured in its Actimel ads since November 2007.

In response, the ASA noted that the ad was likely to lead consumers to believe the product would protect kids against everyday childhood infections.

The watchdog assessed each of the studies conducted by Danone, but found that the data did not adequately support the claim in the ad. For this reason, it concluded the ad was misleading and must not be broadcast again in its current form.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I trust that the British watchdogs will have all the tools and information required to make the best judgment on airlines’ greenwashing campaigns and follow what other EU jurisdictions have already decided on similar cases.

Conclusion

To conclude, while airlines play a crucial role in global transport, it is equally important for these enterprises to be honest about their environmental impact. The allegations brought forward by Possible against British Airways and Virgin Atlantic highlight demands for transparency in any environmental claim. 

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