Pinkwashing in the Spotlight on Eve of Breast Cancer Awareness Month


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, unleashing a tidal wave of pink products as brands show their solidarity (and raise money) for a life-saving cause: breast cancer research. But consumers and marketers alike are leery of so-called “pinkwashing.”

It’s the subject of filmmaker Lea Pool’s new documentary about the industry that has grown up around breast cancer, the rise of corporate involvement in fundraising and its deleterious effect on research into the disease: Pink Ribbons, Inc., which premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

“What Pink Ribbons, Inc. questions is whether all these pink ribbons and marches and rallies are actually accomplishing anything at all, other than making people feel better because they think they’re marching for a cause,” writes Kim Voynar in Movie City News.

“More to the point, it raises the question of whether the effect of putting a pink, cheery face on the issue, and promoting the idea of “positive” fundraising walks as opposed to telling women yes, you should be getting angry and marching and protesting and demanding more support for research for a cancer whose primary risk factor is being born female, is more detrimental to actual progress than people think.”[more]

As Mark Broderick blogged earlier this year, greenwashing begat pinkwashing … and brand blacklisting may be next.

Pinkwashing is defined as “positioning an organization as a leader in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease,” Broderick noted. And the the mother of them all, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has raised the ire of Breast Cancer Action, the self-appointed watchdog of the anti-pinkwashing movement.

According to Breast Cancer Action’s new “Raise a Stink” campaign press release,

“Pinkwashing has reached a new low this year with Promise Me, a perfume commissioned by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Promise Me contains chemicals not listed in the ingredients that: a) are regulated as toxic and hazardous, b) have not been adequately evaluated for human safety, and c) have demonstrated negative health effects. At Breast Cancer Action, we call that pinkwashing, and we urge you to Raise a Stink! with us about it.”

Pinkwashing — a term coined by Breast Cancer Action in 2002 — “puts profits before women’s lives,” says Executive Director Karuna Jaggar. “We are deeply concerned that a perfume that can harm women’s health is being sold in the name of breast cancer. When women’s lives are at stake we need rigorous precautionary standards: when in doubt, leave it out!” 

Thus their 2011 “Raise a Stink!” campaign (tagline: “Think Before You Pink!”) is urging consumer action against Komen to recall the perfume, which has been under fire since it was launched in April, and sign BCAction’s consumer “Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing.”

Komen says they are working with the manufacturer to reformulate the perfume “to remove any doubt about the ingredients,” but Breast Cancer Action’s Jaggar responded that “We welcome Komen’s effort to ensure this product is safe, but while Komen reformulates, a pink ribbon product that may be harmful to women’s health is still in women’s homes and being sold in stores.”

Pink Ribbons Inc. reviewer Voynar, meanwhile, wonders (below) if the sea of pink-wrapped consumer products hitting stores this time of year not only overwhelms but undercuts the cause — your thoughts?

“As I passed by the scores of breast cancer walkers this weekend after seeing this film, here’s what I thought: Pink wig? About $30 at Display and Costume. Pink tutu? Probably at least $25. Those hot pink leggings and bike shorts? Probably $20-40 a pop. A pink feather boa? Maybe $15-20. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. If every single person marching had taken the money they spent on cutesy costumes, donated that cash instead directly to a foundation supporting research into causes as well as cures, and then emailed everyone they knew asking them to do the same, how much more money could have gone into the actual cause for which they were marching, than into how they looked while doing it? Now multiply that times the tens of thousands of people who participate in these fundraising walks. It’s a tough question, but one that deserves the serious consideration.”