When Swedish environmental advocate Greta Thunberg first stepped onto American soil in late August after more than two weeks of travel, it wasn’t on the carpeted floor of an airport. It was on the wooden dock of a marina in Lower Manhattan.
Thunberg had sailed for 15 days from the U.K., pointedly choosing to travel by water in keeping with Europe’s flight-shame movement, of which she is a vocal proponent. And while the concept of flying less to help combat climate change has yet to take off in the States, it’s also no longer a distant possibility.
American consumers are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of climate change. And that, in turn, has created a marketing challenge for the global airline industry, which has been embracing carbon offsets in order to appeal to environmentally minded consumers.
Much like paying extra for travel insurance or an additional checked bag, a passenger can buy a carbon offset and the airline will channel the money toward a clean energy project, such as programs that plant trees or capture methane gas near landfills. The amount you pay for your carbon offset depends on how long the flight is. For a cross-country flight in the U.S., it would set you back $5 to $10.
“The consciousness of the impact of climate change has increased substantially over the last year,” notes Anders Fagernæs, head of sustainability at Norwegian Airlines. “We want to contribute to something positive, and this is a way to do that right here and now.”
Airlines make up 2.4% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, an increase of 32% over the last five years. That figure is expected to triple by 2050, as air travel becomes more accessible globally.
Some airlines, like Delta, Norwegian and United, offer travelers an option to purchase an offset at their website. Others pay for the offset themselves.
In November, the European budget carrier easyJet announced that it would start offsetting every one of its flights to become the world’s first carbon “net-zero” airline. On Monday, JetBlue followed in EasyJet’s footsteps, becoming the first major American airline to announce that it too would offset every flight, starting in July.
“Across the board, we see a rising interest in proactive, pre-regulation addressing of climate change,” said Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and environmental social governance at JetBlue. “We are watching the climate crisis unfold in real time…. This is a problem. It’s something we need to address as a business problem in order to keep the industry in a healthy place.”
Delta, the first airline to let travelers offset their flights, starting in 2007, celebrated Earth Day in 2019 by offsetting the emissions of domestic flights in its major hubs. At its website, under a banner titled “Sustainability,” it invited consumers to purchase an offset and “partner with us to offset the environmental impact of your flight by protecting forests and supporting communities.”
Delta CEO Ed Bastian announced today during a keynote speech at CES in Las Vegas that the airline would offset every flight to and from Vegas the week of the conference. That will cost the airline more than $100,000, which will go toward a program helping farmers in Kenya and Uganda reverse the effects of deforestation.
“There is just no substitute for the power that travel has to change lives and make the world a better place,” Bastian said in a statement. “We continue to reduce our footprint and invest in natural climate solutions as well as projects that support local economies worldwide.”
In September, United Airlines held a promotion exclusively for Gen-Z travelers, offering a discount of 10% or more for passengers 18 to 22 years of age and offering to offset the first 25,000 customers who booked during the initiative. The campaign was executed on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, and was so successful that the airline is extending it through June 2020. On Snapchat alone it reached more than 10 million unique viewers.
“[Gen Z] does show a responsibility toward acting with the environment at heart. … We want to be the airline that can take you places you need to go, but we also have your back when it comes to operating sustainably,” says Will Ellingson, who oversaw the campaign for United. “It’s a lot more important, to generalize, to customers within this age group.”
Responsibility as Gen-Z marketing tool
The airline industry’s embrace of carbon offsetting dovetails with the general public’s growing preference for businesses that display some level of social responsibility. In a survey of future marketing trends by the consulting firm Deloitte, more than 80% of consumers said they would be willing to pay more if a brand “raised its prices to be more environmentally and socially responsible.”
“[Airlines] know that people are increasingly concerned about their carbon footprints, and offering them offsetting options may serve as a retention tool, particularly on routes where there is competition,” says Nick Wyatt, a travel analyst at GlobalData.
The targeting of Gen Z, of which Thunberg is a member, is telling. According to Skift Research, a travel industry analysis company, more than 59% of millennial and Gen-Z travelers in the U.S. and U.K. said “it was important to me to choose a travel business that prioritizes environmentally sustainable business practices.”
“The airline industry has had to figure out how they can protect brand reputation as environmental concerns become increasingly aggressive,” explains Jonathan Mildenhall, a brand marketing expert and former CMO of Airbnb. “If companies can’t demonstrate their commitment to societal good and the environment, they won’t have a place in Gen-Z’s wallet. … They are going to hold the airline industry accountable.”
A balancing act
According to a survey by data research company Ipsos, more than 67% of Americans who believe their “personal emissions have an impact on climate change” said they are familiar with carbon offsetting. But in the same survey, 88% of respondents said they had never purchased a carbon offset.
Still, Jodi Manning, director of marketing for the carbon-offsetting nonprofit Cool Effect, says the San Francisco firm has seen a 700% increase in carbon-offsetting purchases since May.
“Consumers are demanding this. They want to know what their footprint is; they want to know what the cost is,” she says. While Cool Effect hasn’t partnered with any airlines yet, it has worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Salesforce.
But activists call carbon offsets a distraction from the real issue, which is getting consumers to fly less.
“The climate crisis isn’t going to be solved through individual consumer choices. … We don’t need people paying to pollute; we need people to fly less,” says Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, an environmental policy and activist group. “[Airlines] are looking at the rising tide of climate radicalism and are trying to figure out an insurance policy against it.”
Manning acknowledges that some of this criticism is valid.
“I think carbon [offsets] are a piece of the solution, but not the whole solution. It’s something we can do right now,” she says.
Meanwhile, the number of passengers traveling by air is expected to more than double from 4.3 billion to almost 10 billion by 2040 as the public’s appetite for air travel grows.
“Flying is inherently a value to society,” says Norwegian’s Fagernæs. “We will continue to fly, but we need to make sure we fly as efficiently as possible.”