The Era of Green Claims Is Over: An Exclusive Interview with Robin Loos on Greenwashing in the Airline and Travel Sectors

On the 30th of April, the European Commission and the EU consumer authorities, through a network known as the Network of Consumer Protection Cooperation, the CPC, initiated legal action against 20 airlines for potentially misleading consumers whilst making green claims.

It is not the first time airlines have been in the limelight for misleading marketing practices. In the past year, green groups in the UK filed a complaint with the government alleging that British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s marketing concealed the “true climate impact of flying from customers” and, in December 2023, the UK Advertising Standards Authority banned numerous digital adverts for presenting a “misleading impression” of aviation’s environmental impact. Likewise, in March 2024, Dutch authorities found KLM guilty of breaching standards in its “fly responsibly campaign”.  However, this is the first time the European Commission has led this type of charge on such a large scale.

Yet, the European Commission and the CPC did not embark on this legal action from their initiative; they were tipped off by an organisation called the BEUC, which filed a complaint back in June 2023 alleging that 17 European airlines were making misleading climate-related claims.

Eleven months and the launch of formal enforcement action later, I sat down with Robin Loos, Senior Sustainable Transport Officer and Deputy Head of Sustainability at the BEUC, to discuss greenwashing claims and airline sustainability marketing and to explore the challenges facing consumers who are trying to fly more sustainably

“When people are offered to compensate their emissions for 20 euros per flight, they realise that the airlines are taking them for fools”, Loos confidently tells me.

Indeed, he explains that BEUC’s members, consumer rights advocate groups from across Europe, have collected many complaints from consumers who received invitations from airlines to pay money to reduce or offset the climate impact of their flights. This was one of two key issues that led the BEUC to file a complaint with the regulators.

 “Airlines cannot give consumers misleading information about the fact that they could, somehow, compensate their emissions and fly green”, Loos says.

In a 57-page report, the BEUC outlined numerous instances where airlines have marketed carbon-offsetting services to consumers. Ryanair, for one, invited consumers to compensate their estimated CO2 emissions during the booking process and, on one occasion outlined by the BEUC, allowed consumers to offset the estimated 19kg of CO2 caused by a 55-minute flight for as little €0.46. Such practices were replicated by other airlines, like TAP Air Portugal, which invited consumers to make donations to “environmental causes and contribute to UN certified projects”, and KLM, which ran a “CO2 Impact Program”.

Secondly, the BEUC asserts that whatever amount airlines gain or collect from consumers should benefit the climate rather than the industry.

Indeed, airlines have recently asked consumers to contribute to the industry’s efforts to replace traditional jet fuel with Sustainable Aviation Fuels, also known as SAFs. Air France, for example, invited clients to “contribute to the development of sustainable aviation fuel” by making additional payments, whilst the Lufthansa Group, SAS, and others created fare categories which included the cost of a certain proportion of SAF or biofuels. Such “green fares” were priced at a premium compared to the airline’s standard offerings.  

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When asked if the term “Sustainable Aviation Fuel” was inherently misleading, Loos acknowledged it was a tough question. Taken aback, he states: “We have different SAFs from different origins, which lead us to question whether some of these SAFs should be classified as green or sustainable.”  Yet Loos was categorical about one thing: the industry should bear the cost of investing in SAF, not the flying public. 

“There cannot be a story where airlines say that in five to ten years’ time, flying will be green”, Loos tells us as our conversation turns to broader issues in aviation marketing. “We want to encourage the industry to undertake good practices, but aviation, more than other modes, forces us to rethink how much we travel and how much we use planes. It is simple physics: we cannot decarbonise fast enough, so we need to fly less, and we need to promote alternatives. Therefore, we think that using the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ is deceptive”, he added.

Consumers, therefore, need to be careful when faced with green claims and labels purporting that a given product or service has specific characteristics. Yet, aside from the increasingly ubiquitous “Nutri-score” found on food products across many European countries and the EU-wide energy label found on white goods, electronics, and cars, consumers can seldom compare competing products and services in complete confidence.

Quizzed on whether travel services, such as commercial flights, high-speed rail, and coach services, for example, should feature an ‘energy label’ Loos tells us that the travel sector needs “proper accounting of emissions across all modes” and emphasises the need for consumers to be able to compare the environmental impact of a given trip depending on the mode of transport taken.

However, Loos stressed that he would be cautious about the type of labels applied on airlines. “If we end up with a label that puts an A++ on a Ryanair flight because more people fit on these planes and, therefore, they are better than a Lufthansa plane (which holds fewer passengers), we would not have achieved anything”, he warns. According to Loos, such labels must represent the actual environmental cost of a product or service, implying that travel by fossil-fuelled means could not achieve a top certification under such a scheme.

Interrogated on whether regulators should go a step further and regulate carbon-intensive modes of transportation, such as airlines, in the same ways as tobacco, alcohol, or gambling industries, Loos is clear: “We are not, at present, in favour of banning any advertisement for airlines.” Instead, he argues that travel operators can help consumers make sustainable choices as long as they provide consumers with clear information and alternatives.

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Our conversation finally turns to enforcement and the role of regulators in ensuring that consumers can trust companies’ information and that bad actors are held to account.

“Regulatory intervention is very much necessary to achieve our climate goals”, Loos tells us, adding that the European Parliament’s Green Claims Directive was a “good piece of legislation” as it established a sector-non-specific principle that a scientific rationale must back any environmental claims and dictates that claims cannot be overly generic.

Yet, whilst the EU has adopted a significant volume of regulations, directives, and secondary legislation on consumer protection, enforcement of these rules is “quite difficult and quite lengthy”, Loos concedes, noting that numerous companies accused of breaching advertising rules have often engaged in prolonged legal battles and have sought to appeal decisions at every step of the way.

“We need enforcement mechanisms that are swiftly applicable” he tells me, adding that “consumers would be better off in a world where advertising and marketing is based on the actual added value of a product or service.”

As our conversation comes to a close, one thing becomes clear in my mind: the era of easy claims, broad and generic marketing claims, of, in legal terms – misrepresentation in the travel sector is over. Indeed, I leave our interview with a sense that for the first time in decades, consumers, the travelling public, have defenders amongst them in the hallways of power who are increasingly willing to turn to the courts and regulators to uphold not only the law but the high standards which are expected of multi-billion-euro companies from across the entire travel and transport sectors.