The rise of eco-litigation. Important lessons from what’s happening in the Netherlands

By Dirk Singer / February 23, 2023

When it comes to climate activism and aviation, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Netherlands.

Public opinion polls in the country show very high levels of climate change awareness, and so not surprisingly, the Netherlands also has a very active group of campaigners focused on aviation. As a result, what happens in the Netherlands could point to the future elsewhere. In particular, climate groups are turning to so-called eco-litigation to combat what they see as airline greenwashing.

Most recently, this has culminated in a case where Corendon, a holiday company and leisure airline, is being taken to the country’s advertising regulator, despite the company’s ads making no sustainability claims whatsoever.

That case is being brought by Reclame Fossielvrij, which seeks to ban all fossil fuel ads, including airline advertisements. The ad Reclame Fossielvrij objected to had the tagline, ‘to the sun with Corendon.’ So, what is Reclame Fossielvrij up to, bearing in mind that the ads say nothing about being green?

They contend that airline ads are in themselves misleading, by leaving out the effects of climate change.

In an opinion piece, Charlotte Braat and Frans Vollenbroek argued that, “with the slogan ‘to the sun with Corendon’, the travel organisation Corendon offers tempting destinations without providing information about the negative consequences for the climate.”

For them, an airline ad without climate warnings is like a cigarette ad without health warnings. That analogy between airline and tobacco or alcohol advertising is by no means a fringe view among campaigners. For instance, in 2021 two University of Surrey academics published a paper in the Journal of Travel Research, where they examined common airline marketing tactics.

They argued that airline ads “manipulate desire and encourage unrestrained consumption.”

Based on that, the report authors then went on to claim that airline marketing works in similar ways to tobacco and alcohol advertising, and that it needs to be regulated in much the same way to suppress demand.

Variations of this kind of argument are now quite common from within campaign groups. Added to that argument is the charge that a lot of flying involves so-called ‘luxury emissions’ when most of the world does not fly.

Our hunch is that Reclame Fossielvrij probably don’t anticipate success against Corendon, but instead regards the simple fact that the case is being heard as a big win.

As Charlotte Braat and Frans Vollenbroek say in their article, “for the first time, a case accepted at the RCC (the Dutch ad regulator) was about the consequences of air travel advertisements in themselves, and not just about one misleading claim or phrase.”

In other words, there is a bigger picture here. One that is about slowly eroding the commercial airline industry’s social licence, and associating it in the public imagination as detrimental to the climate.

Of course, Corendon is only the latest in a series of airlines facing eco-litigation from activists. In January, Ryanair was told by the Dutch ad regulator to tone down claims around carbon offsetting.

Then the eco-litigation case which has made headlines worldwide is the one against KLM, accusing the Dutch national airline of greenwashing in its marketing. That is due to be heard in April, with a preliminary hearing on the admissibility of the case.

Greenhushing doesn’t work

In our greenwashing report, we talked about the growing trend of ‘green hushing’. This is the belief that it is best to say nothing for fear of being targeted.

As this new eco-litigation case in the Netherlands shows, green hushing won’t work. As an airline, the spotlight may well land on you, whether you talk about sustainability or not. However, if you don’t, you simply miss the opportunity to tell your side of the story.

We believe that story can be told, but it has to be done in the right way and has to be based on actual initiatives. Vague aspirational statements are no longer effective, if they ever were.

Want to know more?

  • Take a look at our greenwashing report.
  • Recently we interviewed ten airline sustainability leaders to find out what they are doing. Those interviews include a number of valuable insights on aviation’s road to net zero.
  • Finally, we sometimes get the question of why aviation is being targeted, when other industries account for greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve tried to answer this in an in-depth article.
  • More aviation specific sustainability updates and analysis can be found in our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to stay on top of the latest trends.

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