Run It Through The Pinkwasher: Ethically Concious Buyer Beware


Ross Pyka

Cute, pink-themed socks

Katie Stromme, Editor-In-Chief

It’s pink and it’s got those cute little ribbons on it, so a good percentage of the money I paid for it must be going to a reputable breast cancer research organization, right? I mean, for goodness’ sakes, what company would take advantage of October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and color their products pink just to make more money? At the very least, I’m sure no company would ever stick a pink label on something containing chemicals suspected to have carcinogenic properties. That would be just plain evil.

Unfortunately, not only are such practices currently legal, they are widespread among some very popular and powerful companies. The lucrative nature of slapping a pink ribbon on everything from rain boots to bags of potato chips has become well known, and the effects are rather disheartening for consumers wishing to genuinely make ethical purchasing a priority.

The nature the “pink ribbon” campaign is considered by many to be problematic in general. It is blatantly geared towards women when men are also susceptible to breast cancer. Some see the campaign as a cheapening and commodification of a terrifying and deadly disease, and many cancer sufferers are offended by the infantilizing nature of the pinkification of their experience.
Breast Cancer Action (BCA) is an organization dedicated to addressing the most pressing issues related to breast cancer in the U.S. today—including topics of social inequities and FDA chemical regulations. The term “Pinkwashing” was coined by BCA in 2007 and is used to refer to the process of using the pink ribbon imagery as a marketing technique to sell a product that has nothing to do with good health, or may even contain ingredients thought to be a risk factor of the disease.

There aren’t presently any regulations in place governing how companies can advertise or market their contributions (or lack thereof) to cancer research. This means that often when something has a label declaring that “a portion of proceeds go to cancer research,” the amount could already fixed, indicating that the purchase of a product has no effect on the amount donated by the company. There is simply too much freedom for companies to abuse well-known pink ribbon imagery to suit their own purposes.

One of the worst offenders is the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the largest name breast cancer research fundraising today. Although the group has done a lot to raise money for the cause, they have also been aligned with some highly questionable products, including a perfume with a number of toxic ingredients, which has since been discontinued. Last year, the charity also decided against renewing a grant to support Planned Parenthoods of America, the largest provider of cancer screenings for low-income women in the country.

As far as “awareness” of breast cancer goes, at this point it would be far more beneficial to encourage the ideas of prevention, action, and education. Companies that claim to promote “awareness” of a problem that’s about as easy to ignore as color of the crap they’re selling should examine their priorities, or at least their rhetoric.
Instead of going out and buying the first pink item you see and assuming you’re making an important contribution to the fight, you’d be better off doing some research in order to be a more conscious buyer. Unfortunately, we can’t always be certain that every company claiming to do virtuous things is actually making good on their promises (welcome to America).
Some of the most important things you can do are to perform monthly self-exams, talk to your doctor, and avoid products with ingredients you can’t pronounce the name of—no matter what color they are. The website has fact sheets with current data about health and risk factors associated with breast cancer that are helpful and unbiased.