You put on your pink ribbon sweatshirt, spritz on some perfume, and head to the store. After loading your cart with the usuals - milk, veggies, whole grain bread - you pause at the chips before you grab a bag and toss it into your cart.
There’s a big pink ribbon emblazoned on the bag and you like the idea of donating to a good cause. After all, that’s why you bought that sweatshirt and that perfume. Your mom and great aunt both survived breast cancer, and that coworker you adore was just diagnosed. Buying stuff to support breast cancer research makes you feel good. Especially when it’s a disease that can leave people feeling so utterly powerless.
And it should make you feel good, but here’s the catch. That pink ribbon that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy? It’s largely unregulated. Anyone can put a ribbon that’s pink on anything, whether they donate to breast cancer research or not.
And a bunch of companies are taking advantage of people wanting to do something. They’re using situations where people are vulnerable to run lucrative marketing campaigns.
Does that all sound cynical and alarmist?
Here’s the thing: people already know about breast cancer. Which makes the fact that we don’t have a cure all the more infuriating.
Even worse, some companies who make people feel good by donating might actually be making the situation worse.
Take Chevy, the auto company. Racecar driver Danica Patrick recently appeared on Fox & Friends to promote breast cancer awareness. Clad in bright pink Chevy gear, she proudly shows off a pink Chevy pace car.
“This is my GoDaddy Chevy here that I’ll be racing,” she says, plugging the two companies, before talking about how much they contribute to breast cancer awareness.
However, as Karuna Jaggar, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Breast Cancer Action noted, studies suggest there’s evidence that exhaust from cars might actually increase the chances of getting cancer.
Jaggar points out that there’s even a term for this behavior: pink washing.
Her organization defines a pinkwasher as “A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.”
Too often, Jaggar said, companies use the campaign to build brand loyalty without taking steps to make sure their own products, like cars, are safe.
And while not all companies participating in pink ribbon campaigns are pinkwashers, they’re not all doing it with completely pure intentions, either. Some put caps on how much they’re willing to donate, meaning your individual purchase might not make a difference at all, for instance:
*As Kate Harding wrote for Jezebel, in 2009, “Procter and Gamble [would] only donate two cents of your pink Swiffer purchase if you [had] a specific coupon that appeared in newspapers a couple of weeks [prior], for instance. In others, the fine print tells you there's a cap on donations — e.g., $15,000 for Herr's Whole Grain Pretzel Ribbons — so if you [bought] the product after the limit [had] been reached, your money [went] exactly where it would go if you bought the normal package. And in still other cases, such as Hershey's Bliss chocolates, the donation [was] not only capped (at $300,000 there), but entirely separate from sales of the product, so [there was] no reason at all to buy the pink package unless you like your chocolate gendered.”
The pink Swiffer no longer appears on the Swiffer website.
*Emma G Keller wrote more forcefully in The Guardian in September of this year about a Manolo Blahnik promotion that, “If 20% of pink purchases goes to help people with breast cancer, a bunch of healthy people are doing very nicely with the other 80% from your good intentions. Do those who get rich off the sick have their own room in hell? If they do, let's hope it's a large one.”
Those are just a couple of examples on mainstream sites. Dig into the blogosphere a little and sheer anger at awareness campaigns emerges:
Of being asked to purchase a pink ribbon cookie by a surely well-meaning woman, Suzanne Reisman wrote on Blogher in 2012:
“Instead of stopping, looking her squarely in the eye, and saying, "Are you f**ing insane? I should increase my consumption of a product loaded with sugar and saturated fat and put myself at higher risk than I already am for getting breast cancer so that a measly few cents can be donated to some vague 'awareness' campaign that is unlikely to reach the small audience that at this point is not 'aware' of breast cancer? Why don't I just throw my money on the street?" I took a deep breath and walked by. I may have even politely mumbled, "No, thank you," because my mom, a breast cancer survivor of 30 years now, taught me to not be rude. But if I am honest with you, dear reader, the only reason I did not explode on this poor woman who is just trying to "help" was because I was late to meet my friend.”
There are other companies that don’t necessarily meet the smell test, according to watchdog organizations:
*Living Essentials, the makers of 5-hour Energy will donate five cents from the sale of each bottle of a new “limited edition” raspberry flavor to the nonprofit Living Beyond Breast Cancer, but they’re also launching what they call an “awareness campaign” that will place a LBBC logo on the hood of NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer’s car during three races on the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
In other words, more cars that emit potentially toxic fumes in the name of “awareness.”
*Then there’s pink alcohol. That sounds cute until you consider that there’s pretty sound evidence excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a higher risk of cancer.
Mike’s Hard Lemonade has a pink version it says is “in memory” of a member of the “Mike’s family” who left the world “too soon,” and that Mike’s is supporting The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
*Jaggar also pointed the finger at cosmetics, like lotions and foundations, which can contain chemicals she says have been linked to cancer.
*And those chips with the pink ribbon? Junk food is linked to obesity, which some studies have linked to cancer.
Think Before You Pink
That’s of course not to say that you should be warry of purchasing all pink ribbon products; it’s a word of caution. Breast Cancer Action, the organization Jaggar heads up, launched a campaign called “Think Before You Pink” more than a decade ago in response to concern about pink ribbon products on the market.
The group spearheaded a successful campaign to get General Mills, the manufacturer of Yoplait, to remove the hormone rBGH, which has been linked to cancer in some studies, from pink-lidded yogurt sold to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness.
*They also pressured the Susan G. Komen Foundation to end a partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the organization and restaurant said the partnership helped bring cancer information to hundreds of thousands of people and raise millions of dollars for research and outreach programs.
“The concept of buckets for a cure is crazy,” Jaggar said, noting that chemicals in fried foods go largely unregulated, and that studies suggest obesity is linked to cancer.
The companies mentioned in this post did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
What You Can Do
First, not all pink products are bad. Some are good and seeing the pink ribbon makes some people feel better. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But Jaggar and other watchdogs advocate knowing what you’re getting into.
Here are some tips:
1. Look at the fine print. Is any money going toward research or is the product purely for awareness? If money is going toward research, how much? Is the amount capped, meaning your individual purchase might not make a difference?
2. Which organization is the money going toward? Are they reputable?
3. Is the product potentially harmful? If there are chemicals such as phthalates in a product you’re buying in the name of breast cancer awareness that might actually be causing cancer, it might be a good time to rethink that purchase.
4. Consider making a donation directly to a reputable breast cancer research organization.
“It’s time,” Jaggar said, “to move beyond awareness to some real action.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.