By Carli King
Every October, retail stores are plastered in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month – from food packaging, to clothing, to hardware, to home appliances. But what percentage of the proceeds from pink purchases actually go directly to breast cancer patients or towards breast cancer research? The answer to this question remains unclear and is ultimately dependent upon the company and product in question.
What is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer nationally, accounting for 15% of all new cancer cases in the United States1. First established in 1985 by the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries with the support of former first-lady Betty Ford, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an annual campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer during the month of October across the nation2.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month focuses on spreading awarenessfor breast cancer by reminding women to schedule their mammograms with health care providers and to perform monthly self-breast checks. The month is also used as a platform to remember lives lost to breast cancer, to celebrate breast cancer survivors, and to support individuals currently fighting breast cancer.
Pink ribbons, the symbol for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, were first handed out at Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure event in 19913. However, the symbol gained more popularity after 1.5 million pink ribbons were handed out at Estée Lauder makeup counters3. Pink and the use of the pink ribbons soon became a cause-related marketing tool for companies during the month of October. Companies use pink to sell their products to consumers under the illusion that the product is associated with a good cause – breast cancer awareness. The term “pinkwashing” is now used to describe this phenomenon.
What is pinkwashing?
The term “pinkwashing” was first coined by Breast Cancer Action as part of their first Think Before You Pink campaign in 20024. From there, “pinkwasher” quickly developed into a term used to describe a company that profits from the use of pink (i.e. breast cancer awareness) without meaningfully supporting breast cancer research or manufacturing products linked to breast cancer4. Breast Cancer Action celebrated twenty years of breast cancer advocacy this October with their (R)evolution campaign (Figure 1) focusing on highlighting the history of companies choosing profit over advocacy.
What is the harm?
Pinkwashing is becoming increasingly problematic as the cause-related marketing tactics continue to evolve. This marketing is being used by corporations to sell products containing carcinogens or promote products related to unhealthy lifestyles directly related to cancer5. For example, in 2018, Breast Cancer Actions’ “Put the Brakes on Breast Cancer” highlights the hypocrisy surrounding the Ford Motor Company’s “Warriors in Pink” program to support breast cancer patients while the company simultaneously sells vehicles releasing exhaust with carcinogens into the air6. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, has classified diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans7.” Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, eloquently explains the harm in pinkwashing in a 2018 Vox article8. She explains that the overuse of pink can undermine the public’s ability to relate to the reality of day-to-day life as a breast cancer patient from diagnosis, treatment, recurrence, and mortality by masking how devastating the disease is with pink messages of awareness8.
Pinkwashing and blindly emphasizing awareness can draw attention from other aspects of breast cancer that require critical attention. In addition to highlighting the importance of mammograms and breast self-checks, campaigns should additionally promote healthy lifestyles, educate on genetic causes of breast cancer, support patients and patients’ families through diagnosis and treatment, and contribute to breast cancer research. Most importantly, both companies and consumers should move to create action from awareness.
How can you avoid pinkwashing?
I will be the first to admit that I have fallen victim to “pinkwashing,” by buying pink products with the intention to spread awareness for breast cancer after my grandmother was diagnosed in 2010. To help people avoid pinkwashing marketing practices, Breast Cancer Action recommends to Think Before You Pink by asking yourself a few simple questions, a few of which are summarized below9:
- Does any money from this purchase go to breast cancer programs? There is no regulation on branding using the pink ribbon: any product can be made to be pink, and any company can put a pink ribbon on its branding, without necessarily meaning that the company donates proceeds to breast cancer organizations.
- What breast cancer programs receive funding from this purchase? Research the organization receiving the donation from your purchase to ensure the mission and spending aligns with your values. Is it clearly stated whether and how the organization spends its funds towards breast cancer programs?
- Is there a maximum amount that the company will donate? Many companies have a limit for the amount they will donate from pink purchases, often without alerting customers that the maximum donation has already been met. For example, Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Serum has been redesigned to include a pink sleeve for breast cancer awareness, and an article published in Allure boasts that the company will donate 20% of the purchase price to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. However, this charitable contribution has a limit of $261,00010.
If your potential pink purchase doesn’t quite hit the mark in benefiting breast cancer programs supporting research, patients, or survivors, consider donating to a program directly or buying from a small business run by breast cancer survivors. While October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaigns spread awareness for breast cancer, there is an argument to be made that the month should expand to highlight the importance of action.
How can you become an active supporter?
There are unlimited ways to become an active supporter for breast cancer campaigns, a few of which are summarized below.
- Make lifestyle changes to minimize cancer risk, such as being physically active11
- Recognize social injustices and disparities surrounding breast cancer diagnosis and treatment12
- Advocate for policy reform to reduce environmental cancer risks13
- Support researchers investigating breast cancer causes and treatments
Becoming an active supporter is the best way to ensure that you are doing your part during Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
- “Pinkwashing” is a marketing tactic used by corporations to exploit consumers during Breast Cancer Awareness Month while not meaningfully supporting breast cancer programs.
- Don’t fall victim to “pinkwashing” and think before you buy pink.
- Both companies and consumers should use Breast Cancer Awareness Month to promote action from awareness.
- National Cancer Institute, SEER. “Cancer Stat Facts: Female Breast Cancer.” https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html
- Brevard Health Alliance. “A Brief History of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” October 17, 2019. https://brevardhealth.org/blog/a-brief-history-of-breast-cancer-awareness-month/
- Waxman, O. “Wearing a Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness? Here’s How Awareness Ribbons Became a Thing.” October 1, 2018. https://time.com/5408929/awareness-ribbons-history/
- Breast Cancer Action https://www.bcaction.org/
- Jaggar, K. “Komen is supposed to be curing breast cancer. So why is its pink ribbon on so many carcinogenic products?” October 21, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/10/21/komen-is-supposed-to-be-curing-breast-cancer-so-why-is-its-pink-ribbon-on-so-many-carcinogenic-products/
- Breast Cancer Action. “Put the Brakes on Cancer.” https://www.bcaction.org/about-think-before-you-pink/campaigns/put-the-brakes-on-breast-cancer/
- American Cancer Society. “Diesel Exhaust and Cancer Risk.” https://www.cancer.org/healthy/cancer-causes/chemicals/diesel-exhaust-and-cancer.html
- Lieber, C. “Breast cancer awareness products profit off survivors’ suffering.” October 17, 2018. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/10/17/17989624/pinkwashing-breast-cancer-awareness-products-profit
- Breast Cancer Action https://www.bcaction.org/about-think-before-you-pink/resources/4-questions-before-you-buy-pink/
- Trakoshis, A and Han, S. “18 Beauty Products to Shop that Support Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” October 9, 2022. https://www.allure.com/story/breast-cancer-awareness-month-products-donations
- Center for Disease Control. “What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Breast Cancer?” https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/breast/basic_info/prevention.htm
- Breast Cancer Action. “Social Justice.” https://www.bcaction.org/social-justice/
- Breast Cancer Action. “The Root Cause of Breast Cancer.” https://www.bcaction.org/the-root-causes-of-breast-cancer/