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Dutch court rules that KLM’s ‘green’ advertising claims misled consumers

KLM Boeing 777 Landing At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport seo

KLM Boeing 777 landing at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, Feb 24. Photo by NurPhoto via Getty Images

An Amsterdam court’s decision that Dutch airline KLM misled consumers with its “Fly Responsibly” advertising campaign is evidence of the developing legal framework regarding environmental claims, green claims and greenwashing, an expert has said.

Amsterdam’s District Court said the airline made “environmental claims that are based on vague and general statements about environmental benefits, thereby misleading consumers”. The Dutch court also found that the company painted “an overly rosy picture” about the sustainability of aviation fuels and by doing so gave “the wrong impression that flying with KLM is sustainable.”

Greenwashing describes when a company provides misinformation on products or services by branding them ‘greener’ or better environmentally responsible than they actually are to promote their public image.

Michelle Seel, technology law expert at Pinsent Masons, said the decision "aligns with the growing controls that are performed to combat greenwashing, such as upcoming regulation as part of the circular economy plan and enforcement by authorities” and that “companies are being closely watched by the European Commission, national consumer authorities and regulators when it comes to their green advertisements”.

There have been several legislative and regulatory developments over the past year at both EU and national level, intended to address these issues. For instance, the Green Claims Directive is currently being discussed, and in January MEPs adapted a new directive that seeks to protect consumers from misleading marketing practices. These new initiatives form part of the EU’s circular economy action plan.

In the Netherlands, the Code for Sustainable Advertising entered into force as part of the Dutch Advertising Code in 2023. This code aims to stimulate the responsible use of “sustainability” claims, whether ethical or environmental claims.

The claim, filed in August 2022 under the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, focused heavily on the use of carbon off-setting schemes by airlines to reach carbon neutrality. Environmentalists argued that claiming to make flying more sustainable by using these schemes is misleading as they do not reduce the negative environmental impact of the aviation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the misleading nature of the advertisements, the court did not require KLM to rectify them, as the campaign is no longer running.

The decision follows other examples of greenwashing monitoring. The European Committee recently found retailer Zalando misled consumers with its sustainability claims. Away from the courts, national regulators have issued guidance to assist companies on the use and formulation of sustainability claims. For example, the Dutch regulator (Authority for Consumers and Markets)  published guidelines last year (37 pages / 718 KB) that contain rules and practical examples to help companies phrase their sustainability claims.

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