How to spot when companies are exploiting breast cancer for profit

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Photo credit: Alina Buzunova – Getty Images

They’re easier to spot during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, but they’re sold out year-round. This particular shade of pink Pepto Bismol shows up on everything from lipsticks to water bottles to (apparently) drill bits. The cute slogans like “save the tatas”, “check your headlights” and “boost the boobies”. Breast cancer awareness is awash with feel-good slogans and bubbly hues urging us to dig into our wallets to show our support. And while there are products and companies that actually help people living with breast cancer and make a meaningful donation to breast cancer research, others simply put a pink ribbon sticker on their products and stop there.

Pinkwashing is when a company uses that recognizable pink ribbon symbol or signature hue to market a product or service without significantly supporting breast cancer research or awarenessexplains Krystal Redman, DrPH, executive director of Fight against breast cancerthe organization that coined the term 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 is not regulated by any agency, and its use does not necessarily mean that the associated product effectively combats the breast cancer crisis. breast cancer.”

While there is undoubtedly support and solidarity in the pink ribbon, we all want to make sure that our donation money goes to the cause. Fortunately, there are simple ways to separate the bad actors from the good ones.

What is pinkwashing?

Many breast cancer survivors embrace the pink ribbon as a talisman in the form of tattoos, bumper stickers, clothing, or all of the above. Its ubiquity has turned breast cancer into a common concern instead of a shameful secret – almost anyone who walked into a store or turned on the television in October can’t help but be aware of breast cancer.

But the power of the tape more or less ends there. The vast majority of funding for breast cancer research comes from of the federal government, not money raised by these types of marketing campaigns, according to the Breast Cancer Consortium. And because it’s unregulated, how companies use the symbol or shadow is up to them. Some beauty and wellness products sport pink ribbons to try to communicate that they are “healthy” and do not contribute to breast cancer risks. Others use it to indicate that the company is going or has donated a percentage of its profits to breast cancer programs or research. But there’s also an asterisk here: Many don’t say how much they’ll donate or whether sales have a direct impact on the size of the check they cut – some companies will cap how much they’ll share, regardless of amount. sold.

Why it’s harmful

When companies focus solely on awareness and not action, pinkwashing can actually harm the very cause it is supposed to support. “Focusing on ‘awareness’ implies that if only people were more aware of this disease, the breast cancer crisis would be solved one way or another,” Redman says. “That’s obviously not true. We all know about breast cancer, and it’s still the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world.

Pinkwashing campaigns also tend to focus on what people can do (and what they should buy to feel better). For example, many encourage people to get screened for breast cancer. While early detection Is save lives, self-exams and mammograms do not cure cancer, nor do they reduce the risk to the general population. It distracts from companies and industries that claim to support breast cancer research but are actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic by using ingredients that increase breast cancer risk or by donating to industries that do — not to mention the lawmakers and regulators that allow it to continue, Redman says.

That’s where BCAction comes in. Their annual campaign, think before you pink, works to expose companies that practice pinkwashing, so consumers can know and understand where their money is going and why it makes a difference. “We should do our research, review products and fundraisers to ‘raise awareness,’ and look for information about where the money goes behind pink ribbon promotions,” Redman says.

How to spot (and avoid) pinkwashing

First of all, if you want to advance the search for a cure for breast cancer, it’s always best to donate directly to the organizations doing this work so you have a better idea of ​​where your money is going. Some people like to donate to research foundations for the types of cancer that have affected them or their loved ones, such as Metavivor, which supports metastatic breast cancer research. Others prefer social or political action groups.

But sometimes that cute pink pajama or snack you love that’s been pink for a month just calls your name. In this case, the most important step to eradicating pinkwashing is to do your research and follow the money. BCAction has four questions you can ask yourself before buying:

  1. How much money from this product is actually going to support breast cancer programs? Examine the fine print to find out where the company shares its proceeds from the sale of a pink ribbon product and to what extent. Because the symbol is not federally regulated, this one might take a bit of research. Look for products or companies that clearly state how much they will donate for each purchase.

  2. Which organization will get the funds? Some companies will say they donate to “breast cancer research” but don’t give any further details. 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 indicating which organization will receive the money and, if possible, how it will be used once it is there.

  3. Is there a cap on the amount of corporate donations? Sometimes a percentage of product sales will go to breast cancer research, but the company will cap it at a certain amount (or donate a fixed amount, regardless of how many products are sold). If a company caps the amount, check to see if the maximum donation has been reached. If so, your money could be better spent as a direct donation.

  4. 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 actually contribute to breast cancer risk factors, such as the financial institutions that fund fossil fuel companies. “Make sure the company’s mission and activities align with your personal values,” advises Redman.

More importantly, if you see something, say something. “The best way to expose the hypocrisy in the culture of pink ribbon marketing is to demand systemic change solutions, because that’s what pink ribbon profiteers are trying to distract from,” Redman says.

Photo credit: property of Hearst

Photo credit: property of Hearst

Mara Model, beloved member of the Good Housekeeping the editorial team who passed away from metastatic breast cancer in November 2021 took the time in the last weeks of her life to research and write about some of the products that got her through treatment for our sister post City & Country. Mara was passionate about ending pinkwashing and educating people about companies that actually make meaningful donations to organizations supporting breast cancer research. “Donating to reputable breast cancer organizations is the only way to get more actionable research and identify better ways to manage this disease that so many women go through,” she said. . Here, Mara’s “no pinkwashing here!” choices that support the cause so central to his all-too-short life.

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