June 15, 2022

Italian airline ITA is the latest to unveil a special sustainability livery. ITA’s fourth new A350 aircraft will have “Born to be Sustainable” written on the side.

ITA says that this “illustrates this foundational commitment, which ITA Airways pursues in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, combining environmental and social sustainability with business growth and financial strength. “

In April 2022, Turkish Airlines took an A321 and painted a green leaf design on the back, with the words “Biofuel” to highlight a greater commitment to purchasing SAF.

Other airlines to have used a special sustainability livery include British Airways and ANA.

Is this an effective way to promote an airline’s green credentials, and will it be dismissed as greenwashing? The answer to both questions is, it depends.

As we showed in our recent whitepaper, consumers actually enjoy a product more when they believe it is sustainable. Sustainability should therefore be a key part of an airline’s brand DNA going forward.

However, climate campaigners are also waiting in the wings to tear down an airline’s environmental claims.

KLM is currently facing legal action from Dutch climate activists, who claim that a 2021 sustainability campaign isn’t matched by the facts and amounts to greenwashing. Similarly, a report by a UK climate charity that only 1 in 50 sustainability targets over the past decade had been met, generated a fair amount of media coverage.

So the answer is yes, airline’s should be publicising their sustainability efforts and via a special livery is certainly one way of doing that.

However, there needs to be a plan in place behind it with robust goals and targets, as well as a communications strategy to answer the inevitable questions from sceptics.

One factor that the aviation industry will need to start getting to grips with is that of “climate justice.”

In its simplest terms, the concept of climate justice could be summed up with – we pollute, you see the consequences.

Or as London’s Natural History Museum puts it “The impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most by those communities that contributed least to the problem, such as developing countries, indigenous peoples and future generations.”

That’s why airlines need to be careful in rolling out the line of “aviation only accounts for 2-3% of global emissions” (e.g. why single us out)?

While that is true on a global scale, if you look at a major industrialised country like the UK, it actually accounts for 7%.

Also, the Global North accounts for the lion’s share for airline related emissions. As the excellent ‘Our World in Data’ resource shows, the richest half of the world accounts for 90% of emissions from air travel (the highest income countries actually account for 62%), while the poorest half of the world accounts for 10%.

As a result, the “only 2%” messaging is one that we’d advise airline executives to stop using. It’s misleading, as it hides the wider socio-economic factors at play, in particular that much of Global South will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

The wider theme of sharpening airline sustainability messaging is one that we’ll be returning to over the coming weeks.

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