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On flight shame

The term 'flygskam' has become popular in the past few years, but does flight shame really change behaviour?

FlightFree UK
14 Jun 2022 4 min read

You might have heard of flygskam.

It entered the lexicon back in 2019, the year that Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic ocean to attend a climate change conference, and awareness of the climate impact of aviation hit the mainstream. 

The term literally translates as ‘flight shame’, a feeling of climate responsibility that led to people, especially in Sweden, ditching flights en-masse. It was so powerful that flight bookings in Sweden fell by 9%: remarkable at a time when airlines the world over were fixated on growth. 

"The feeling of climate responsibility led to people, especially in Sweden, ditching flights en-masse."

Then the term entered the media and morphed into something else: ‘flight shaming’. Flight shaming is what you might do to someone else – to point a finger and make them feel bad for their travel choices. 

The distinction is important. There is no doubt that feelings of guilt, even shame, can lead to behaviour change – as we’ve seen in Sweden. But this is much more likely to be the case if you’ve come to the realisation on your own terms, perhaps after learning about the huge emissions from flying: the next time you book a flight you might feel bad, then the next time you might decide not to travel by air at all. 

On the other hand, putting guilt on someone else is more likely to raise feelings of indignation, or defence, or lead to a raft of excuses – in short, not changing behaviour at all. In fact, it might go the opposite way and close off that conversation completely, never to be revisited.

At Flight Free UK we don’t do flight shame.

Our campaign is about informing people of the climate impact of aviation and inspiring them to travel by other means. 

Many people don’t know the true climate cost of flying, so our job is to tell them, and to uncover industry scandals such as there being no tax on aviation fuel. Once people become informed, they quickly choose to fly less. Making that choice is empowering and likely to be long-lasting. 

"Once people become informed, they quickly choose to fly less." 

By sharing stories of the people who have taken our pledge we show others that it’s possible and even desirable. Choosing not to fly doesn’t have to be a sacrifice, and travelling by other means can enrich the holiday. People find that flight-free travel can be just as adventurous and even more rewarding than travelling by air, and the massive emissions savings just cement the argument. 

For some people, our approach is not enough.

There is no doubt that we are reaching crisis point: we are already seeing the devastating effects of a changing climate at home and around the world. Every single flight we take eats into our steadily dwindling carbon budget. People are already dying from the climate crisis; taking a holiday flight in that context seems completely inappropriate. We can't just wait for people to come to this in their own time. 

"Every single flight we take eats into our steadily dwindling carbon budget."

So why don’t we say more directly to people, stop flying? Why don't we say it like it is: your flight is contributing to the death of people around the globe? If your own child were unable to eat because of repeated crop failure, or dying from thirst or heat, or displaced because of sea level rise, or facing the devastation from worsening natural disasters, would you think twice?

The reason that we don't do this is not because we don’t want to be upfront about the situation. It's because an approach like this is unlikely to change behaviour. A small number of people might be shocked into action, but the majority will switch off and disengage with the issue – and it's the majority that we need to reach if we are to achieve that essential societal shift away from taking flights as a default. 

That doesn’t mean that we shy away from the reality of climate change and what it is doing to people around the globe. We really, really need people to stop flying, and quickly! But we know that this is much more likely to happen if we inform and inspire individuals to change their behaviour, rather than shame them. If we can reach enough people, social change will quickly follow.

"We know people are more likely to stop flying if we inform and inspire them, rather than shame them."

There is another side to this.

Even though we vehemently don’t do flight shame, we will certainly hold people to account if they are saying one thing and doing another, especially people in the public eye. 

For example, a politician who takes a flight to speak at a conference about climate change. Some would argue that this counts as a ‘legitimate’ flight – it’s for work reasons, and the speech and the subject matter are important. 

But there’s a problem with flying to a conference to speak about climate issues if the person doing the flying doesn’t acknowledge the irony.

Taking a high-emissions jet to speak to other people about reducing emissions smacks of privilege and a lack of realism. The person clearly doesn’t understand the actions that it will take all of us to address the climate crisis – and if they do, they see themselves as above taking those actions. This is not great for encouraging society to move away from high-carbon behaviours.

The speech will be impactful, no doubt. But how much more impactful would it be to demonstrate climate leadership and deliver the speech by video conference? 

Research by behaviour change expert Steve Westlake focuses on pro-environmental behaviours of people in the public eye, such as politicians and celebrities. We humans are very influenced by those around us. Usually that influence is felt most keenly in our social circle (if everyone around you flies, you will consider it normal to do so; if no one flies, you would feel awkward being the only one), but the influence of those that we might look up to is also considerable. 

It’s the mixed messaging that’s the problem: someone who talks about climate change as though they think it’s important (e.g. an elected politician), but then takes a flight… that is a very public action. People will see that action and think, oh, well the climate crisis can’t be that bad then, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken that flight. And then they go and book their own.

So our position is this:

Even though the holiday flights taken by everyday people make up the largest portion of flights from the UK (more than business flights or trips to see family and friends), and we desperately need to reduce these in order to make a meaningful dent in our emissions, the man on the street doesn’t respond to flight shaming. That’s why our mission is to inform and inspire. Flight shame, in any form, is inappropriate here.

But when it comes to an elected member of society, in a position of privilege and who others look up to, who understands the climate crisis yet still behaves in a way that is counter to that – and, worse, through that behaviour likely encourages others to as well – we will challenge them. 

Addressing the climate crisis will take a massive effort from all of us. It will require us to change everything about the way we live.

When those in the public eye take climate action and demonstrate the behaviour we all need to adopt, mass climate action will come more quickly. When elected leaders claim to know about climate change yet demonstrate starkly non climate-friendly behaviours, it’s our role to call them out.

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