Ad regulator rules against Austrian over ‘CO2 neutral’ ads

Here’s another watch-out for airlines when running campaigns that talk about them being ‘green’ or ‘carbon neutral’.

Austrian Airlines was on the receiving end of a complaint around ads promoting flights from Vienna to Venice at the time of the Biennale festival.

These gave the passenger the option of offsetting flights to Venice with the purchase of SAF, and to receive free public transport tickets and entrance to the Biennale in exchange.

The complaint made by an academic and climate change activist to the Austrian advertising regulator (English original version here), said that Austrian’s SAF comes from biofuels, which aren’t 100% carbon neutral, instead there is likely to be an 80% reduction.

The complaint went on to say:

“The consumer doesn’t understand a) what SAF is; b) what the net saving potential of SAF is; and c) what 100% SAF means. Therefore, the average consumer might easily think that he/she is able to ‘fix’ aviation’s climate problem by purchasing SAF. 

“This is what the message ‘fly carbon neutral already today’ suggests. It’s deeply misleading. In fact, it’s clever accounting that simply isn’t good enough to justify the use of claims such as ‘fly carbon neutral today’.”

The ad regulator agreed with the point that that an 80% reduction was not carbon neutral flying.  The regulator further criticised Austrian for using terms “not familiar to the average consumer, not explained in detail and could therefore be misunderstood”.

Austrian was asked to “be more sensitive in its design and more precise in its wording” of ads.

In response, Austrian said it took note of the findings, but said it doesn’t claim that SAF eliminates all climate related problems. It also claims that in the booking process, it is “indeed possible for customers to design their own journey in a CO2-neutral way.”

So what’s the take-out for airlines?  

Every sustainable aviation solution, almost without fail, is met with two objections.  It’s not practical / won’t work / too expensive.  SAF gets that to a certain extent, especially with cost.  Then there’s the objection from climate change activists. They claim that it’s just a ploy by big aviation to carry on with business as usual (or as they see it, greenwashing).  

This point in particular gets to the heart of what most climate activists want.  They don’t want tech fixes.  In their view, the only solution to the climate emergency is to stop a lot flying.

KLM of course is also facing action in the Netherlands over advertising.  One of the claims by activists there is that the airline can’t be climate friendly as it wants to grow.

As a result, care needs to be taken when using terms like ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘climate neutral’.  These are absolute terms which can and will be challenged.  Better to work with terms like lower footprint, more responsible flying, better for the climate and so on.  And even here, you need to be able to back it up (see what happened to Persil in the UK as an example)

At the same time, as we’ve said in previous newsletters and reports, the growth argument needs to be tackled head on, with proactive campaigns from the industry about why flying is a good thing in terms of benefitting cultures, societies and economic development. Ideally, messaging around sustainability and aviation as a force for good, should be run in tandem. 

Finally, the Austrian advertising regulator is right about one thing.

Most consumers almost certainly have no idea what SAF is.  The way a lot of SAF is made is actually pretty interesting, and would capture consumers’ imaginations.  For example, you can now turn household trash into SAF (Fulcrum BioEnergy does this).  You can even produce solar jet fuel , see Synhelion, which has worked with Austrian’s parent, the Lufthansa Group.

Those are interesting, consumer-friendly stories and many airlines are missing a trick by not ampliflying them more and bringing SAF to life.

(Top image via Austrian)