Is KLM's 'Fly Responsibly' campaign just greenwashing?


In July, Dutch flagship carrier KLM launched “Fly Responsibly,” a new campaign to highlight the company’s commitment to make aviation more environmentally sustainable.

The civil aviation industry as a whole is responsible for just 2% of global man-made Co2 emissions. However, emissions from air travel are increasing many times faster than other Co2 emitters and UN data projects that, if predicted cuts in other sectors materialize, aviation is on its way to become the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Concerns over the environmental impact of flying sparked the “flight shame” movement, wherein eco-conscious travelers shun flights as much as possible to reduce their carbon footprint.

In the past year, airlines have been struggling to find effective ways to deal with the PR consequences of flight shame, especially after climate activist wunderkind Greta Thunberg weighed in, urging her followers to reconsider their flying habits.

“The sector is under considerable pressure,” conceded Alexander de Juanic, the CEO of International Air Transport Association (IATA) during an industry meeting in June.

With the “Fly Responsible” campaign, KLM is then one of the first airlines to be proactive about the issue of aviation pollution.

The campaign was kicked off with a spot produced by ad agency DDB Unlimited. The commercial, which also celebrates KLM’s 100 year anniversary, invites viewers to “fly more responsibly” and, quite surprisingly, to consider alternatives like taking the train.

In addition to the spot, KLM set up a website dedicated to the initiative where the company highlights how travelers and the industry can join forces to make the whole sector more environmentally sustainable.

As a marketing push, the “Fly Responsibly” campaign is very powerful. KLM positions itself as a champion of sustainable travel, anticipating competitors and catching flight-shamers off-guard.

The question now is: is this campaign just a marketing push or does it also imply a serious commitment from the company to find the most effective ways to curb aviation’s Co2 emissions? In other words, is it just greenwashing or is KLM ready to give up a fraction of its profits (“consider taking the train”) for the greater good (as the spot goes, allowing “our children to see this beautiful world too”)?

To tentatively answer this question, we need to take a step back. In June, the Dutch government hosted a high-level ministerial conference to explore possible ways to tax aviation, a sector which, according to a European Commission-funded study, is heavily undertaxed in comparison to others.

During the meeting, over 100 EU and national officials, the World Bank, the IMF, and the OECD discussed the environmental benefits of a tax on jet fuel and the possibility of a more widespread adoption of aviation ticket taxes.

Legal experts suggested that bilateral or multilateral agreements could overcome legal and political obstacles to taxing aviation fuel (have a look here for the conference papers).

Understandably, in its “Flying responsibly” campaign, KLM tries to shy away from this discussion as much as possible. The hypothesis of introducing new taxes on aviation is only briefly discussed in the FAQ section of the campaign’s website.

“A national aviation tax will not improve the environment because Dutch passengers will travel by car and fly from an airport in Belgium or Germany, a global approach makes more sense,” writes the Dutch airline, “If the tax is implemented, we believe that it should be invested in sustainability of the aviation industry. National taxes will just go into the national coffers and won’t do anything to combat climate change.”

This is a half-baked answer that doesn’t really address the potential environmental benefits of new aviation taxes. Everybody already knows that what is needed is a transnational approach. If the airline has reasons beyond financial convenience to be against new taxes on aviation it should definitely elaborate on this matter further. It cannot dismiss the idea with just a couple of vague sentences, especially since several governments and institutions think that new taxes on aviation are a fundamental component of any effective strategy to curb airplane pollution.

In this sense, yes, KLM’s “Flying Responsibly” campaign smells a bit of greenwashing (“an attempt to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”) as it doesn’t appear to take a potentially effective way of tackling the problem of aviation pollution seriously.

At the same time, the campaign is certainly a point of no return for the aviation industry. A major airline admitted that aviation pollution is a problem of paramount importance for the whole sector, and there's no way back.

Credit header picture: Pexels            

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