Ever since the economist Milton Friedman claimed the sole responsibility of business was to maximize profit, there’s been a lively debate about whether companies should have other, more socially beneficial aims.

It’s pretty much accepted practice, though, for a firm to try to sell more of its products and services. To not do so is a good way to go out of business. So the decision by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to encourage its customers not to purchase flights – at least in some circumstances – is rather curious.

The Dutch airline, part of the Air France-KLM group, launched a new sustainability campaign last week that featured some surprising suggestions for how passengers could help cut the aviation industry’s carbon dioxide emissions. The advert claims that while “we all have to fly every now and then,” sometimes there are better alternatives. “Do you always have to meet face-to-face? Could you take the train instead?” the kindly narrator enquires. The clip concludes by assuring viewers that “no actual flights were taken for the making of this film.”

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If you’d have asked me a few years ago about potential threats to the aviation industry, then video conferencing and high-speed trains would have come high on my list. That KLM has become an advocate for these things is unexpected, but it might help its business in the long run.

It certainly makes sense to try to get ahead of policymakers and public opinion in responding to aviation’s big contribution to pollution (the industry is responsible for about 2-3% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions). Thanks in part to the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, “flight shame” has become a thing and seems to be affecting demand for travel and holidays. France has joined the Netherlands in supporting new European aviation taxes, and some French politicians have floated the idea of banning domestic flights on routes where trains are an alternative.

Taxes and enforced restrictions on short-haul flying would be bad for KLM, which relies on connecting international passengers via its Amsterdam hub. No wonder it’s keen to project an image of environmental responsibility. Its goal certainly isn’t to discourage all air travel. “We are a company that needs to make a profit to survive… We want to still be around when we have succeeded in our efforts to make aviation sustainable,” it has explained.

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Hence its campaign will doubtless prompt claims of green-washing: Raising ticket prices or scrapping routes would be a much simpler way to curtail emissions. KLM knows the train isn’t really an alternative to its many long-haul flights.

Cigarette maker Philip Morris International has drawn similar flak for urging people to give up smoking or to use its vaping or heated tobacco products instead, while the drinks industry was lampooned for urging customers to drink responsibly (while doing everything it could to make alcohol seem cool).

However, KLM’s intervention does at least look like an acknowledgement that the unconstrained growth anticipated by the aerospace and aviation industries is irresponsible. Airbus SE expects international air traffic to increase almost 4.5% a year for the next two decades, creating lots more carbon pollution.

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Large commercial electric planes aren’t technologically viable yet. Until then, it’s better that when people do fly, they pick an airline with more efficient jets, less polluting fuels and carbon-offsetting projects, all of which KLM is pursuing. Similarly, Ryanair Holdings Plc – long a climate change skeptic – has begun publishing monthly emissions data to try to show its “pollution per passenger kilometer traveled” is lower than that of its peers. 

If anything, climate change is happening faster than scientists feared and our efforts to cut emissions have been too slow. That means companies will have to forgo their most indefensible activities. Even Glencore PLC, hardly an environmental angel, has promised not to increase coal production above current levels. As strange as it sounds, “Don’t Buy Our Product” could yet become a common business strategy.

To contact the author of this story: Chris Bryant at cbryant32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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