- Opinion - Turbulence ahead

By Megan Hickling

Turbulence ahead

As the landmark ‘greenwashing’ case against the Dutch air carrier proceeds to full trial, the superyacht industry should take note…

A groundbreaking lawsuit has been filed against Dutch national air carrier KLM by Fossielvrij Netherlands and Reclame Fossielvrij, with the support of environmental law charity Client Earth. The District Court of Amsterdam has permitted the case to proceed to a full trial.

The claim suggests that KLM’s advertising, particularly the phrase “fly responsibly", misinformed the public about the company’s commitment to reducing its contribution to climate change, especially considering its simultaneous plans for air traffic growth. The case also takes issue with KLM’s carbon offset marketing, which implies that customers can mitigate their flight’s impact by supporting reforestation projects or contributing to the airline's biofuel purchasing costs.

Hiske Arts, a campaigner at Fossielvrij, stated, “Today’s ruling rightly confirms that climate organisations have a place in combating greenwashing. With the threat of this lawsuit, KLM stopped its problematic ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign."

“But KLM continues to greenwash its growth ambition through other climate messages. The court must assess the full spectrum of KLM’s statements because as long as the biggest polluters continue to lull us to sleep through their slick marketing campaigns, climate action will not happen.”

The superyacht industry also grapples with this mismatch between messaging and actions regarding environmental impact reduction. While initiatives for ‘greener’ designs and technologies exist, many of these efforts don’t actually reduce environmental impact. As the industry continues to expand, building bigger, faster and consuming more, it risks similar scrutiny to the KLM lawsuit.

The industry abounds with green marketing, similar to KLM’s biofuel claims, which often falls short of driving meaningful change. This could be ineffective or uncertified offsetting or marketing hybrid propulsion systems as ‘green’. While it may be argued that everything is a step along the right path, they are minor compared to the significant advancements available, such as alternative propulsion and fuel systems, and transformative design choices that greatly reduce a yacht’s environmental impact.

As environmental deadlines like the Paris climate agreement loom, resentment towards the imbalance between actions and words will grow. This will be amplified if companies present a green image while continuing to expand polluting businesses.

This risk of vilification emphasises the need for the industry to ensure that efforts to reduce climate change impact are scientifically grounded, facilitating (and then marketing) genuine change and substantial improvements in environmental impact. Rigorous testing and setup are required for assessments like the YETI from Water Revolution Foundation, SEAindex, and Marine 360 will play a key role, and require significant further investment. 

As outlined, greenwashing can now lead to lead to real legal repercussions. Genuine sustainability is about ensuring the industry’s relevance in an environmentally conscious world. This means prioritising education, transparent communication, innovative thinking, and investment in research and development for green technologies. By embracing these principles, the superyacht industry can avoid the fate of KLM, and more importantly, significantly contribute to protecting our environment.


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