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Greenwashing Forum, part 2 (The FTC)

Posted 02.06.2009

Chuck Harwood, the Director for the FTC‘s Northwest Region, took to the stage after lunch. Harwood spent the better part of the first half of the forum listening, probably hoping some of the myriad questions related to the FTC would not be directed his way.

“It matters what the consumer says.”

That was how Harwood explained the FTC’s approach to determining whether an advertiser had crossed the line. That’s when the questions started. How many consumers had to claim the advertising was false? (it was 15% for a case against Kraft, but apparently it’s not set). How is that determined? (could be survey conducted by FTC, user complaints, or even market research by the company itself).

What really got the audience going was the discussion about industry self-promotion. The example: Clean Coal. One of the audience members asked whether the FTC was investigating the clean coal ads for deceptive advertising. While Harwood wasn’t sure, he suggested that self-promotion ads don’t necessarily engage in commerce, and therefore tend to be protected under free speech.

A tough issue.

Because that’s the pain point that is supposed to trigger FTC investigation: consumer perception. And that’s exactly what these self-promotion campaigns are intended to do – change consumer perception.

So if someone runs self-promotion/non-commercial communication campaigns to make clean coal seem real (and sparkly clean) in people’s minds, how is that not greenwashing? If you ask the visitors over at the Greenwashing Index, they think it is.

But as Harwood pointed out, they (like everyone else) need more data on consumer perceptions. The FTC sounds like it will continue to collect this data before it releases a new round of Green Guides, expected out later this year.