Airline misleads Euros football fans with pitchside greenwash

A greenwashing advert in Wembley Stadium during UEFA Euros 2020 has prompted the latest call for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to crack down on greenwashing, including at major sporting events.

Advertising and sponsorship in sport was brought into the spotlight recently, when Ronaldo raised eyebrows and lowered Coca-Cola’s market value by moving two bottles of coke out of sight during a press conference in June. High sugar drinks clearly have a questionable place in sports.

But what about adverts and sponsorship deals for industries that are highly polluting, dependent on fossil fuels and closely linked to climate change, also called “high carbon”? Anyone watching the UEFA European Championship over the last few weeks would have noticed glittering advertisements from high-carbon sponsors lining the pitchside boards in Wembley stadium. Watching the players also meant watching banners advertising Gazprom, the Russia-owned oil and gas company, Volkswagen, the German car firm found to be duping millions of customers through dodgy emissions reporting, and Qatar Airways, the international airline that recently became the largest air-freight carrier in the world. A study released earlier this year by the Badvertising campaign found that of 13 sports, football was the most heavily sponsored by high-carbon industries, with 57 ongoing deals. 

Watching athletes at the peak of physical fitness against a backdrop of adverts for companies that directly contribute to health-damaging air pollution and climate breakdown was an uncomfortable paradox during the Euros. Adding insult to injury was the knowledge that the fossil fuel corporations were gaining publicity among over 30 million viewers – with worrying implications for the social normalisation of harmful high-carbon products in a world shattering under the impact of heatwaves, wildfires, floods and species loss caused by anthropogenic climate breakdown. 

At a time when public concern over climate change has never been higher, the inclusion of some of the world’s most highly polluting companies in the Euros might seem controversial. Or it might not, since these companies often go to great extents to present an environmentally responsible public image. “Greenwashing”, the subject of accelerating protest around the world, was front and centre during the Euros in a pitchside advert for Qatar Airways reading: “Qatar Airways – Fly Greener”.

Qatar Airways ad shown during the Euros 2020; this picture taken during the England-Denmark semi-final on 7th July

The Fly Greener advert misleadingly suggests that flying with Qatar Airways is ‘green’ or environmentally sustainable. This is emphatically not the case, since aviation remains a highly polluting industry and this international airline’s fleet in 2020 consisted of 205 passenger aircrafts, 28 cargo aircraft, 25 executive jets and more planes on order(1). With no additional text explaining the claim, the basis of the comparison is also not clear, leaving it wide open to misinterpretation. Does “greener” mean that flying with Qatar Airways is more environmentally sustainable than other airlines? It isn’t. Or does it mean that flying with Qatar Airways now, in 2021, is better for the environment than in previous years? That’s also not the case.

If the “greener” claim is based on Qatar Airways’ introduction of a voluntary passenger offset scheme in 2020, this can be quickly shown to be an empty promise even without the scientific futility of carbon offsetting(2). Like most airline offset schemes, the amount of carbon accounted for is tiny relative to Qatar Airways’ operations, is limited by its voluntary nature and also does not apply to cargo operations (full detail here).

In 2021, using wording and imagery to market any airline as ‘green’ or ‘greener’ is inherently misleading

In a letter written to the Advertising Standards Authority, Adblock Bristol has set out the ways in which this greenwashing ad breaches advertising Code under Section 11, Environmental Claims. Alongside several other organisations, we’re calling on the ASA to crack down on this type of advert, including at major sporting events. 

As more and more people look for ways to minimise their carbon footprint, greenwashing has become more and more common in tandem, causing concerns that the ‘golden age of greenwash’ is successfully stalling efforts to tackle the climate and ecological crises. The ASA has rarely upheld claims based on greenwashing in the past, but its role in ensuring that companies do not unfairly mislead people to think they are making sustainable choices is more important than ever. In the case of air travel, the illusion of ‘green’ flight is particularly dangerous as this could lead to an overall increase in emissions if people choose to fly more than they would have otherwise.

In 2021, using wording and imagery to market any airline as ‘green’ or ‘greener’ is inherently misleading and should be prohibited by the advertising regulator; to go a step further, any advertising that perpetuates air travel, the projected increase of which is recognised as incompatible with efforts to limit global heating to <1.5-2oC above pre-industrial levels(3), is seen by many as increasingly insupportable.  

Join the call for the regulator to play its part by making your own complaint to Ofcom here: https://ofcomforms.secure.force.com/formentry/SitesFormCSLEStandardsComplaints.

Update 21 July 2021: The ASA has replied to our complaint saying:

“Thank you for contacting the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) with your complaint about Qatar Airways’ advertising. On this occasion, the pitch-side hoardings you complained about are not covered by the Advertising Rules.

The content falls outside of our remit because the ASA is not entitled to regulate material arising from sponsorship.  This usually applies to logos and messages on the kits of professional sportspeople and athletes, on racing vehicles and on posters or pitch or track-side hoardings that have appeared as part of a sponsorship agreement.  For these reasons we will not be taking your complaint further. Given that the content appeared during a televised football match, you might wish to raise your concerns with Ofcom.  You can do so here.”

Notes

(1) Qatar Airways (2020) Annual Report. Available at <https://www.qatarairways.com/content/dam/documents/annual-reports/2020/Annual-Report-2019-20_EN.pdf>

(2) Burners Lee, M (2020) There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years – Updated Edition. Cambridge University Press.

(3) Lee, David (2018) International aviation and the Paris Agreement temperature goals. Department for Transport. Available at <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/aviation-2050-the-future-of-uk-aviation-consultation-sustainable-growth-carbon-reports>

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