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ASA rules against airlines for misleading green claims in paid-for ads

Published on 17 April 2024

The question

Will it ever be possible for airlines to advertise themselves as being environmentally friendly?

The key takeaway

Businesses in the aviation industry are back in hot water for making unsubstantiated green claims. Adverts from Air France, Etihad and Lufthansa have been banned by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) due to concerns they have misled consumers regarding the environmental impact of air travel.

The background

Three paid-for Google ads were seen in July 2023, containing the following claims:

  • Air France: “…Air France is committed to protecting the environment: travel better and sustainably”.
  • Etihad: “… Explore the World With Confidence and Total Peace Of Mind With Etihad Airways. Environmental Advocacy”.
  • Lufthansa: “… Fly more sustainably”.

All three ads were identified for investigation by the ASA’s Active Ad Monitoring system, which utilises AI to scrape the internet for ads which may contravene the CAP Code. In this case, the CAP Code rules in question were 3.1 (that marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so), 11.1 (that the basis of environmental claims must be clear) and 11.3 (that absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation).

The development

In all three cases, the ASA noted that the wording in the ads would be likely understood by consumers to mean that the airlines offered a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to travel by air (ie absolute claims). As a result of this, the ASA would expect to see a high level of evidence to substantiate these claims.

Air France did not provide a substantive response to the ASA, neither regarding the complaint nor demonstrating that Air France was protecting the environment or making their air travel sustainable.

Upon notification of the ASA’s complaint, Etihad revised their ads, removing all references to “Environmental advocacy” from their UK paid-for Google ads. The ASA welcomed this revision, but remained doubtful that customers could travel with Etihad with “total peace of mind” with regards to their environmental impact.

Lufthansa responded to the ASA arguing that their environmental claim was founded on the fact that their “Green Fares” option (which customers could select on various European flights) used sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). They stated that using SAFs reduces the flight-related emissions by 20% and that the remaining 80% of emissions would be offset by contribution to high quality climate protection projects. Lufthansa did acknowledge that all of this information would not fit on a Google Callout ad and agreed that they would instruct their ad agency to remove the wording “Fly more sustainably” from their paid-for Google ads going forward.

All three ads were held to be in breach of rules 3.1, 11.1 and 11.3 of the CAP Code, and the ASA warned the airlines that the ads must not appear again in their current form.

Why is this important?

These rulings form a wider piece of enforcement work on climate change and the environment and highlight that the regulators are taking significant steps in tackling green claims (as previously covered in our Summer 2023 Snapshots). Given that aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions (and continues to rise), this is particularly important. Leo Murray, the director of innovation at the climate charity Possible commented: “As the ASA explicitly notes, and our own work shows, that meeting our climate commitments means overall levels of demand for flying must fall, and fast.”

Any practical tips?

Businesses – and especially those in high-emissions industries such as aviation – should carefully consider the scope and nature of any green claims they wish to make – and ensure they hold robust substantiation to support any claims. Given the “state of the art” of the aviation industry, it feels unlikely that any airlines will be able to make broad sustainability claims, as the ASA itself has pointed out currently “there is no such thing as environmentally friendly air travel”.

For now, these airlines have simply been subject to upheld ASA rulings, but in future they will need to be wary of the upcoming enhancements to the CMA’s powers to enforce consumer protection law – including the prohibition of misleading advertising. The Digital Markets, Competition & Consumers Bill, which is set to receive royal assent and come into force in the UK in the next 12 months or so, will give the CMA the ability to make findings on breaches of the relevant regulations and fine companies as much as 10% of annual turnover.

Spring 2024