(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ryanair Holdings Plc has been given a telling off by the U.K.’s advertising watchdog for making “misleading” claims about its carbon emissions. Ads claiming Ryanair is Europe’s “lowest emissions airline” must be withdrawn because the Irish carrier did not fully substantiate this and other environmental boasts, the Advertising Standards Authority found.
As the climate crisis intensifies, Ryanair probably won’t be the last big company given a dressing down by regulators for “greenwashing.” Environmental considerations are increasingly directing consumer purchases and institutional investment decisions. This creates a big incentive for companies to put a positive spin on things.
The huge variety and inherent complexity of some climate-related disclosures tempt businesses to focus on the flattering ones and ignore the rest. In fairness to Ryanair, its claims are based on facts. But it’s an airline, and airlines are heavy polluters, however much they tie a bow on it.
The company and its outspoken boss, Michael O’Leary, certainly have form when it comes to making specious claims about the business. On past occasions the company has claimed to be “Europe’s favorite airline.” That may have been true in terms of passengers carried — it’s neck and neck with Deutsche Lufthansa AG — but Ryanair ranks last in Which Magazine’s yearly U.K. passenger satisfaction survey. O’Leary’s capacity for chutzpah is high.
In some respects, the ASA’s new ruling is a bit harsh on Ryanair. Its operations are pretty efficient in terms of carbon per passenger kilometer traveled, as I’ve written before.
Ryanair flights tend to be full, it doesn’t waste space on business class and its planes fly point-to-point, rather than via hubs, which saves fuel. If consumers are going to buy a product or service anyway, it’s better that they favor a company with a lower per-unit carbon footprint. Ryanair’s new practice of publishing a monthly CO2 report is commendable too. ASA’s main beef was that it hadn’t provided sufficient data to back up its claims and some information was out of date.
Still, no one should shed tears on Ryanair’s behalf; its environmental messaging is still way off key. In public statements, O’Leary has repeatedly disparaged climate science. Furthermore, Ryanair’s business model of selling cheap tickets has helped transform flying from an uncommon luxury into a mass-market phenomenon, thereby worsening the industry’s emissions.
In absolute terms, Ryanair’s carbon emissions aren’t the biggest among European airlines. But they’ve kept rising because Ryanair is carrying more passengers every year.
It’s fine for companies to brag about and set targets for carbon efficiency, as Ryanair does. This a necessary counter-balance to reporting only on absolute emissions, which might show improvement just because a company’s sales have declined.
If their total emissions keep rising, however, corporate claims to be the “greenest” anything will ring hollow.
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Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
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