The Greenwashing Gimmick

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As Kermit the frog so famously put it, ‘it ain’t easy being green’ – but are airlines doing enough when it comes to supplying sustainable, green alternatives to their onboard amenities?

Amenities has explored this topic a number of times, but with the constant media coverage, and some reports saying the world has just 10 years to fix the climate crisis – are airlines taking enough responsibility for their impact? And who is the real driving force for change; the airlines or their passengers?

Amenities took the chance to speak to a number of suppliers to hear their thoughts. 

Sustainability is the current trendy buzzword. It is used to make consumers feel that the product they are using is having a positive impact on the environment, lessening the guilt in using everyday products. However, is it possible to create truly green amenities for the airline market? Or are the airlines also guilty of ‘greenwashing’ their passengers? 

First of all, what is greenwashing? Greenwashing is another marketing buzzword, dreamt up by the media industry. It encapsulates those products that are marketed to consumers as being ‘green’, or ‘ethically sustainable’, without having the scientific research to back it up. In fact, some of the products on the market, such as biodegradable plastics, have been proven to cause more harm than good, but do passengers really care? 

According to Matrix, ‘There is a growing interest in the transparency and the origin of products… Taking into account recent consumer research, it is clear that passengers and consumers are increasingly guided by ethical and environmental considerations when making their travel and product choices.’ 

According to Kaelis, the impetus for change can come from a variety of places. ‘The changes are sometimes driven by passengers and/or airlines as seen in some Northern European airlines, but sometimes pushed by regulation – but we are not quite there yet for amenities.’ This is important, as the only way the world is going to see real change is if the pressure is not on the consumer to have to make a choice. Airlines are governed by budgets and profit margins, and although their passengers are their bread and butter, they may be quicker to make a change as far reaching as the amenities sector if their efforts for sustainability are supported by subsidy.

The airlines’ interest is unquestionably there as Albea professes, ‘Sustainability is definitely more than a trendy topic. Most of the airlines we meet are committed to sustainable development and are looking for eco-designed kits and inside items, for instance made of recycled materials.’

However, does a change in the view of airlines really matter if the possibility of creating a truly green amenity kit is currently impossible? Matrix had this to say, ‘All products, including amenities, have some level of environmental impact due to the production, logistics or waste process.’ The supply chain is possibly the biggest challenge airlines, and their suppliers currently face when re-inventing their amenity offerings. Sourcing product, fabric, labour and everything else that makes up passenger amenities requires relationships with people located at all corners of the globe. Bringing each item together requires air miles, and, consequently, an understandable increase in carbon footprint. However, luckily for the airlines, it is this part of the process that most passengers do not have access to, or, more importantly, have no real interest in. 

In the same way that airlines think with their profits, passengers think with their wallets, and although there is a move to supporting more sustainable lifestyles, it is not clear if onboard offerings would currently impact the vast majority of passenger’s choice of airline. There is also a problem that passengers often do not put ethically sourced products on the same level as the luxury brands offered by some airlines. According to Kaelis,‘As citizens, we need to change our perception of eco-friendly products to perceive them as special products too.’ As top brands begin to get aboard the ‘sustainability wagon’, it may mean that passengers can get the best of both worlds, and airlines can continue to offer their passengers something they really want, whilst lessening their carbon impact. 

However, here’s the crunch, surely doing something is better than nothing at all? Kaelis believe that, ‘Every little effort counts’ and airlines are starting to make the move to change their offerings. As we sit here in 2019, there are more and more stories of airlines taking the risk and lessening their environmental impact. An incredible example of this is Etihad being the first airline in the ultra-long haul sector to operate a flight between Abu Dhabi and Brisbane that was entirely single use plastic free to celebrate World Earth Day.

The amenities onboard this flight were designed by Buzz Products, and included a sustainable kit containing – RPET-Blend eyemask, RPET-blend bocks and a wheat straw- blend toothbrush. These products were packaged within a jute bag with an FSC Paper bellyband. In the longer term, Etihad are committed to reducing their single use plastics by up to 80% by 2022. 

Another example of this is Albea’s work with Air France, ‘For their Paris/Detroit flight on World Environment Day, when Air France removed all single-use plastic items and replaced them with bio-based materials, from their plastic cups through to their amenity kits.’

It’s exciting that it seems that airlines, even superficially, are attempting to make changes to their offerings, seeking alternatives with less impact. According to John Horsfall, ‘We are finally seeing a real step-change in the industry, with airlines willing to invest in more sustainable solutions, which is great news for all of us.’ This is a view echoed by a number of other suppliers, including Matrix, ‘We have found there is a real appetite amongst the major carriers for improving the sustainability of their service and products, such as investing in innovative new materials, encouraging use of recyclable and recycled materials and reviewing unnecessary packaging.’ 

The way to create truly sustainable onboard products already exists, and even if the majority of passengers are happily ‘greenwashed’, the time for this is changing. To create real change it will take airlines, and their suppliers thinking outside the box, and altering the way their businesses are run. Thankfully this shift is starting to happen, but the results need to happen quickly for the aviation sector to keep up with this global transition.

Supplier Albea highlights that they are, ‘relentlessly developing sustainable, recycled and reusable material for amenity kits, combining elegance with comfort and green attitude, whilst integrating sustainability within the entire value chain to offer our customers sustainable and innovative products and services.’

Businesses of all descriptions are being held more and more accountable for the sustainability of their products, and the airline industry will continue to make headlines on their environmental impact. Consumers have so many options available to them, and jargon and buzzwords won’t be acceptable for too much longer. As the next generation of passengers come through, airlines will need to be even more transparent, or it will start hitting them where it hurts – passenger numbers and profit margins, and with the options already out there, why take that risk?