When it comes to making sustainability claims, getting it wrong can cost organisations the earth

Clara Taylor
Written by Clara Taylor

Tags: environment sustainability

According to Robin Hicks, “2022 was the year that policymakers started to take greenwashing more seriously”. And what an expensive year it was. For the likes of HSBC, H&M, Deutsche Bank, false climate claims resulted in banned advertisements, lawsuits, and even police raids.

With the ever-increasing spike in climate lawsuits, businesses simply cannot afford to make false claims about their green efforts – even if done so unintentionally. According to Boston Consulting Group, businesses have an average error rate of 30% – 40% in their emissions measurement, with Scope 3 notoriously the hardest to quantify. Despite the best of intentions, organisations can easily fall foul of greenwashing.

This week, the Advertising Standards Authority banned a Facebook advert from Ethiad, on the grounds it was misleading consumers over the environmental impact of flying. The ad in question featured the tagline “environmental airline of the year 2022” and suggested that choosing to fly with them was a “conscious choice for the planet”.

This was only a month after the ASA announced a similar ruling for a Lufthanser campaign, stating that it had misled consumers over the environmental impact of air travel. The campaign featured an image (above) with the copy “Connecting the world, protecting its future”. The inference here, of course, is that flying with Lufthanser in some way protects the planet against climate change.

For some, this was blatant greenwashing, given the carbon intensity of aviation. Lufthanser defended the greenwashing allegations on the basis that claims made in the campaign were aspirational and tied to its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050, and halve carbon emissions by 2030. Deemed insufficient, the ASA stated, “we understood that there were currently no environmental initiatives or commercially viable technologies in the aviation industry which would substantiate the absolute green claim ‘protecting its future’, as we considered consumers would interpret it.”

This is not to say that The Lufthanser Group or Ethiad are not taking steps to green their operations. A month prior to the ASA’s ruling, Lufthanser  received the top ranking from non-profit organisation CDP for its CO2 reductions strategy and implementation, thus securing a place in the top 5 airlines worldwide with the best ranking. The Lufthanser Group’s carbon reduction targets were validated by Science Based Targets Initiative in 2022, making it the first airline in Europe with science-based targets in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Equally, Ethiad CEO, Tony Douglas, has openly discussed the company’s desire to “become a leader in aviation sustainability” and has highlighted how its “2021 sustainability report demonstrates the potential advancements to be made in sustainable aviation”. Potential being the operative word, it’s clear the ASA takes seriously its requirement that absolute green claims be substantiated.

These rulings demonstrate that there is still a long way to go before sustainable aviation really takes off. According to Oliver Wyman’s Aviation Sustainability: Our Future, in partnership with the University of Limerick, to enable the industry to meet its 2050 net zero targets, a combination of decarbonisation pathways are required. This includes the aggressive overhaul of operations, aircraft design, implementation and scaling of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, electric propulsion, and hydrogen propulsion (where appropriate). Needless to say, these are not quick or cheap fixes.

The pair of now-banned advertisements reinforces the importance of good communications. The race to net-zero can be is confusing enough without high-profile campaigns misleading people about what is and what is not good for the planet. As government statistics show, only 39% of the public understand net zero. Why exacerbate the problem with more misinformation?

As stewards, and at times authors of our clients key messaging, we have a responsibility to guarantee that what we’re promoting is grounded in accuracy as opposed to aspiration. It is no longer good enough to simply pledge support for the net zero transition, this now must be supported by measurable actions. The climate crisis is too far progressed to enable further greenwashing. It’s our job as communicators to cut through the white noise and crucially, ensure we partner with credible organisations truly committed to bringing about real change.

For Stand, this means working with the trailblazers who are committed to leveraging their brand to build a better, more equitable and sustainable future.

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