October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There is an influx of pink, with pink campaigns, pink products, pink ribbons to “support” the cause. Breast cancer has become a multibillion dollar industry but it’s entirely unregulated.
#PinkIsNotTheProblem is an initiative created by the community for the community.
The Breasties 501(c)3 nonprofit organization brought together 10 community members, all affected by breast cancer in some capacity.
They were asked questions about their experiences surrounding breast cancer awareness month, the color pink, the exploitation of stories, and pinkwashing.
What Is Pinkwashing?
Pinkwashing is defined as a marketing tactic. The exploitation of breast cancer for profit or public relations. The act of supporting the breast cancer cause or promoting a pink ribbon product while actively producing, manufacturing, or selling products lined to the disease. The exploitation or objectification of community members’ stories for marketing or monetary gain.
Pink Is Not The Problem: Full Video
Pinkwashing Is Harmful
- Lack of transparency around funds: Charitable giving around breast cancer is unregulated. The presence of a pink ribbon does not equate to a donation being made and the amount/use of funds is not always communicated clearly.
- Many are profiting off the cause: Companies and organizations are using breast cancer to further their marketing efforts for personal gain. Profits from these campaigns, are not being used to meet the needs of those impacted by breast cancer.
- Community members are being exploited: The stories of individuals impacted by breast cancer are used to sell products and/or enhance marketing efforts, without compensation or a donation to the cause.
A Few Unsettling Facts
- Only 2%-5% of funds raised for breast cancer research goes towards stage 4 research.
- The color pink can be placed on anything and there’s no requirement for it to give back to breast cancer.
- The average “giveback” from a pink product or campaign is less than 10% of proceeds.
- A pink ribbon can be put on products that are harmful, unhealthy, toxic, or carcinogenic.
Meet the Advocates Behind the Campaign
Alexis, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 28
“There’s nothing wrong with the color pink. It’s just another color, but at the end of the day, it’s about what it represents because imagery has power. So it’s about what the color pink represents and pink ribbons represent. The fact that companies use the concept of pain and the stories of breast cancer survivors without actually giving back, is really frustrating.”
Yahira, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 31
“Where is all this money going that they’re supposedly raising? You trust that the company’s actually doing something good for the community instead of just being pink. Companies also do it a lot with other things; Black Lives Matter, Pride Month … rainbows all over the place. I hope that your intention as a company is good, that you’re also donating to these causes.”
Dana, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 27
“Breast cancer is not a holiday. Breast cancer is not a holiday like Halloween and Christmas and Memorial Day. Breast cancer happens every day of every year for every year that we’ve lived and every year that we will live. It’s not a holiday. It should not be treated as such. And it should not be a promotional activity, period, end of story.”
Clara, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 36
“The hypocrisy to me is, don’t pretend to be fighting alongside us when you’re not really doing much of it. You’re actually profiting off of our pain and off our struggle and that’s just not cool. It’s not.”
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Lauren, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 30
“From finding my own lump on my breast in the midst of a shower, and immediately having a knowing that it was cancer, to going through a year of treatment and recovery … it’s a part of my identity at this point. It’s how I identify in this world as somebody who had cancer and will always be faced with those challenges. The impact is vast and everlasting.”
Trish, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 37
“I would say [to corporations and organizations] lead with your heart, do the best you can. But if it’s an organization that makes billions of dollars, then seeing them say 3 percent of proceeds will go back to the cause then that just doesn’t feel good to me. That would give me pause … I would put that item back on the shelf. Just kind of do a little mental math and also consider where it’s going.”
Bianca, Diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer at Age 11 and Breast Cancer at Age 22
“No one should be making a profit off of cancer. No one period. You should pay the actual patients and survivors and previvors and thrivers to work with you to spread awareness and to actually raise money for research and the community. And most of the time, if a hundred percent of the profits are actually going to research or the community, we would happily do it for free.”
Allie, Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at Age 28
“Everyone in the breast cancer community wants the same thing. We want to get rid of this disease. We want to help people who are affected by this disease. And the only way to do that is to support organizations that actually provide resources and programs to the community and who are supporting research.”
Paige, Preventative Mastectomy at Age 24
“I would say to a CEO and to the marketing team (of a pinkwashing campaign), we want your help and we appreciate your help. And we want to work together. Instead of coming to us when you’ve already created the campaign and you’re just trying to plop in an organization, why don’t you bring us into the process, into the creation, into the ideation?
Bri, Preventative Mastectomy at Age 26
“When I see a pink washing campaign now, my first instinct is to roll my eyes and it does feel a little bit like someone’s kind of punching you in the gut. It just feels like it doesn’t matter what your story is, if this disease has changed your whole life, or if it has taken someone so close to you away. Companies now see this as marketing and as this shallow level of social awareness.”
Head to PinkIsNotTheProblem.org for more about the campaign and how to truly make a difference as an informed consumer, nonprofit, corporation, or when supporting a loved one.
— Update: 19-03-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article What Is Pinkwashing? Some Breast Cancer Awareness Products Exploit the Disease for Profit from the website www.goodhousekeeping.com for the keyword pinkwashing breast cancer.
They’re easiest to spot during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, but they’re sold all year round. That particular shade of Pepto Bismol pink showing up on everything from lipsticks, to water bottles to (apparently) drill bits. The cutesy slogans like “save the tatas,” “check your headlights” and “boost the boobies.” Breast cancer awareness is awash in feel-good slogans and bubbly hues enticing us to reach into our wallets to show support. And while there are products and companies that actually do help those living with breast cancer and donate meaningfully to breast cancer research, others just slap a pink ribbon-shaped sticker on their goods and call it a day.
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Pinkwashing is when a company uses that recognizable pink ribbon symbol or signature shade to market a product or service without meaningfully supporting breast cancer research or awareness, explains Krystal Redman, DrPH, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, the organization that coined the term back in 2002.
“The lack of accountability and transparency in pink ribbon marketing is hugely problematic,” she explains. “Pink imagery is now one of the most widely recognized marketing tools for breast cancer, but it’s not regulated by any agency, and its use does not necessarily mean the associated product effectively combats the breast cancer crisis.”
While there’s undoubtedly support and solidarity to be found in the pink ribbon, we all want to make sure our donation money is going to the cause. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to separate the bad actors from the good ones.
What is pinkwashing?
Many breast cancer survivors adopt the pink ribbon as their talisman in the form of tattoos, bumper stickers, apparel or all of the above. It’s pervasiveness has turned breast cancer into a common concern instead of a shameful secret — just about anyone who’s walked into a store or turned on the TV in October can’t help but be aware of breast cancer.
But the power of the ribbon more or less stops there. The vast majority of funding for breast cancer research comes from the federal government, not from the money raised by these types of marketing campaigns, according to Breast Cancer Consortium. And because it’s unregulated, how companies use the symbol or shade is up to them. Some beauty and wellness products sport pink ribbons to try and communicate that they are “healthy” and don’t contribute to breast cancer risks. Others use it to indicate that the company will or has donated a percentage of its profits to breast cancer programs or research. But there’s an asterisk there, too: Many don’t say how much they’ll donate or whether sales directly impact the size of the check they’re cutting — some companies will cap the amount they’ll share, no matter how much is sold.
Why it’s harmful
When companies keep the focus solely on awareness and not action, pinkwashing can actually hurt the very cause it’s intended to support. “Focusing on ‘raising awareness’ implies that if only people were more aware of this disease, somehow the breast cancer crisis would be solved,” Redman says. “This is obviously incorrect. We are all aware of breast cancer, and it is still the most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide.”
Pinkwashing campaigns also tend to focus on what individuals can do (and what they should buy to make themselves feel better about it). For example, many encourage people to get breast cancer screenings. While early detection does save lives, self-exams and mammograms don’t cure cancer, nor do they reduce the risk for the population in general. This shifts attention away from the corporations and industries that claim to support breast cancer research but actually contribute to the breast cancer epidemic by using ingredients that elevate breast cancer risk or donating to industries that do — not to mention legislators and regulatory agencies that allow for that to continue, Redman says.
That’s where BCAction comes in. Their annual campaign, Think Before You Pink, works to expose companies that are pinkwashing, so consumers can know and understand where their dollars are going and why that makes a difference. “We should do our research, be critical of products and fundraisers to ‘raise awareness’ and seek out information about where the money behind pink ribbon promotions is going,” says Redman.
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How to spot (and avoid) pinkwashing
First things first: If you’re interested in advancing research toward finding a cure for breast cancer, it’s always better to donate directly to organizations that are doing that work so you have a better sense of where your money is going. Some people like to donate to research foundations for types of cancer that have impacted them or their loved ones, like Metavivor, which supports metastatic breast cancer research. Others prefer social or political action groups.
But sometimes those cute pink pajamas or that snack you love that’s turned pink for a month is simply calling your name. In that case, the most important step in eradicating pinkwashing is to do your research and follow the money. BCAction has four questions you can ask yourself before you buy:
- How much money from this product actually goes to supporting breast cancer programs? Examine the fine print for information on where the company shares its proceeds from sales of a pink ribbon product and in what amount. Because the symbol isn’t federally regulated, this one might require a little research. Look for products or companies that clearly state how much they’ll donate for each purchase.
- What organization will get the funds? Some companies will say they give to “breast cancer research,” but don’t share any further detail. And because it’s such a broad category, a number of organizations claim to advance breast cancer research but don’t explain precisely how. Look for a statement that says which organization will get the money and, if possible, how it’ll be used once it gets there.
- Is there a cap on how much the company will donate? Sometimes, a percentage of product sales will go toward breast cancer research, but the company will cap it at a certain amount (or they’ll donate a fixed sum no matter how many products are sold). If a company is capping the amount, look to see if the maximum donation has been met. If so, your money might be better spent as a direct donation.
- What is the company doing to contribute to the fight against breast cancer? Believe it or not, some industries that claim to support breast cancer research are actually contributing to breast cancer risk factors, like financial institutions that bankroll fossil fuel corporations. “Make sure the company’s mission and activities are in line with your personal values,” Redman advises.
Most importantly, if you see something, say something. “The best way to call out the hypocrisy in pink ribbon marketing culture is to demand systemic change solutions, because this is what pink ribbon profiteering is trying to distract attention away from,” Redman says.
Mara Model, a beloved member of the Good Housekeeping editorial team who died from metastatic breast cancer in November 2021 took time in the last weeks of her life to research and write about a few of the products that helped her through treatment for our sister publication Town & Country. Mara was passionate about putting an end to pinkwashing and educating people on which companies actually make meaningful donations to organizations supporting breast cancer research. “Donating to reputable breast cancer organizations is the only way we are going to get more concrete research and identify better ways to manage this disease so many women go through,” she said. Here, Mara’s top “no pinkwashing here!” picks that support the cause so central to her too-short life.