Today’s publication of three upheld complaints by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against three different airlines for greenwashing raises an interesting question. Is it ever possible for airlines to make green claims that will survive scrutiny by the ASA? 

All 3 adjudications involved Google ads and all 3 were called to account having been identified by the ASA’s Active Monitoring System. The ASA is very proud of this system, and it’s easy to see why. It enables them to catch misleading ads at a scale and speed which previously they could only dream of by using Artificial Intelligence “to proactively search for online ads that might break the rules”. As we reported last week, the ASA’s new 5-year strategy is based on the greater use of the system, and they plan to increase the number of ads processed through it from 3 million this year to 10 million next year, although presumably not all of these will be investigated!

Today’s adjudications also illustrate the application of the new Intermediary and Platform Principles (IPP). The Air France decision involved a paid-for Google ad in July 2023 which claimed, “Manchester to Bangkok […] Air France flights […] Air France is committed to protecting the environment: travel better and sustainably”. The ASA were concerned that the claim “gave a misleading impression of the advertiser’s environmental impact”. The address for Air France stated in the adjudication is in Paris and apparently the airline did not provide a “substantive response”. So what insubstantial response did they provide? A Gallic shrug? Or did they refuse to concede that the ASA has jurisdiction over their advertising, given that the French have a strict system of advertising regulation of their own? This could be an interesting challenge for the IPP, particularly where advertisers are based in countries with mature systems of advertising regulation that might conflict with our own.

It must be said, however, and without wanting to indulge in Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, it’s hard to disagree with the ASA’s conclusion on this advert. The ASA believed that consumers would understand “travel better and sustainably” to mean that Air France offered “a  sustainable and environmentally friendly way to travel by air”, which would require a high level of substantiation. Given the ASA’s starting point that “air travel produced high levels of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions, which were making a substantial contribution to climate change”, and Air France’s failure to provide any substantiation whatsoever, it’s not surprising that unlike Louis Bleriot’s pioneering flight across the English Channel in 1910, Air France’s defence failed to make the journey from France and land one piece. 

But you can usually rely upon the Germans to do things correctly. However, German efficiency can sometimes be overestimated, and so it is with their defence of the claim “Fly now with Lufthansa […] Book your ticket directly with Lufthansa and explore destinations around the world […] Fly more sustainably”. In fairness to Lufthansa, they did play the game and submit a substantive defence to the ASA. Just not a very good one. They referred the ASA to their “Green Fares” option which they assert would “reduce 20% of flight-related CO² emissions by using sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and offsetting the remaining 80% of the CO² emissions by an equivalent contribution to high-quality climate protection projects.” The ASA agreed with Lufthansa that “Fly more sustainably” was a comparative claim, but that the basis for it was unclear. The ASA therefore did not feel the need to interrogate the impact of SAF, about which they have so far been rather sceptical, or Lufthansa’s offset projects, about which the ASA are also increasingly sceptical. The absence of a clear basis for the claim meant that that their defence simply failed to take off, without the need for a detailed analysis.

Finally, Etihad Airways were called to account for their advert, which was also a paid-for Google ad from July this year, which claimed “Etihad Airways – Book Your Flight Today […] Enjoy Great Discounts, Offers and Deals On Your Flight Bookings. Explore the World With Confidence and Total Peace Of Mind With Etihad Airways. Environmental Advocacy. Award-Winning Service”. Not only did Etihad engage with the ASA, despite being based in Dubai (unlike Air France), they also removed the reference to “Environmental advocacy” from their paid-for Google search ads being delivered to users in the UK immediately upon receipt of the Complaint Notification. But if they thought that was going to enable them to survive the ASA’s attack by crash landing an Informal Resolution, they were destined for disappointment. Consistent with the other decisions, the ASA concluded that absolute claims such as “Total Peace Of Mind” and “Environmental Advocacy” require a high level of substantiation. While Etihad’s prompt mea culpa was welcomed, it was no substitute for substantiation, of which there was none. 

As these 3 decisions are latest in a series of complaints that have been upheld against airlines making environmental claims, it begs the question, can airlines ever make green claims that will survive ASA scrutiny? The answer is, perhaps.

Back in 2009, we helped easyJet to successfully defend the claim “Fly greener, fly easyJet”. The context was a comparison against rival low-cost airline Jet2 in a press ad in the Newcastle Chronicle. We demonstrated that easyJet’s fleet was, on average, about 14 years younger that Jet2’s and therefore had the advantage of various technological advances. In addition, the easyJet fleet had been built without galleys, which meant their planes had more seats, as well as a higher load factor. These factors combined to mean that CO² per passenger kilometre for easyJet was lower than for Jet2. And easyJet could prove this by running a comparison using the software used to calculate fuel requirements for the three destinations that both airlines served from Newcastle airport. So the complaint about ‘fly greener, fly easyJet’ was not upheld (although a technical complaint about verifiability was upheld). 

It is anybody’s guess whether the ASA would come to the same conclusion now, but easyJet’s ad avoided many of the problems exhibited by Air France, Lufthansa and Etihad. The basis for the comparison was clear, the claim was not absolute, and the substantiation was sound. And they did submit a robust defence, unlike the French. Plus ça change. (Oops, a soupcon of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism seems to have slipped in there….)

Challenges against airlines’ green claims are also becoming increasingly sophisticated. Virgin Atlantic recently used public relations to promote the first transatlantic flight by a commercial airliner using SAF, rather than advertising that could be challenged by the ASA. However, at the end of November, the campaign group, ‘Possible’, lodged a complaint against both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) about claims that they are reducing environmental harm by improving efficiency, as well as by using SAF and carbon offset schemes. According to Possible, these claims appear on the airlines’ websites, which would be within the ASA’s remit, but also Annual Report, which are outside remit. 

When it comes to advertising challenges, Possible may have proved that anything’s possible and that for airlines that want to make green claims, upheld ASA complaints may be the least of their worries.