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Pinkwashing: How Long Until Awareness Turns Into a Cure?

1 Written by: | Monday, Oct 31, 2011 12:00am

As October winds down, pumpkin-infused treats abound, trees in vibrant fall shades stand at every corner, and the pink ribbons in support of cancer research adorn virtually every conceivable product. 

Every October, companies team up with breast cancer charities across the country to raise money for breast cancer research as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. An October 15 article in The New York Times reported the Susan G. Komen foundation, the most prominent name in breast cancer research, boasts 216 corporate partnerships.

The message behind breast cancer awareness? “Early detection [through mammograms and breast self-exams] saves lives.” Unfortunately, few Americans know more about breast cancer beyond the message, and many breast cancer patients and advocates are concerned that Americans have been lulled into complacency, thinking that shopping and wearing pink are the best ways to contribute to the fight against breast cancer.

A September Marie Claire article points out: “In 1991, 119 women in the U.S. died from breast cancer every day. Today, that figure is 110 — a victory no one is bragging about.” With all the money poured into research, thanks to the pink ribbon movement, why has the daily death rate dropped by less than one percent over the past 20 years? It’s time Americans turn awareness into action and ask questions about where all that pink ribbon fundraising is really going.  

The marketing involved in breast cancer is often referred to as “big pink.” “Pinkwashing”, a term associated with big pink, is defined as using a product to promote breast cancer awareness that contains toxins and other harmful additives linked to cancer development. Pinkwashing is also used to describe the generic pinking of products that are breast cancer themed but do not give any money to the cause.

“Think Before You Pink,” a campaign of San Francisco-based nonprofit Breast Cancer Action, recommends asking some important questions such as how much money will the benefiting corporation give to breast cancer research?  Precisely which organization will receive the money? How will the organization use the money to fight breast cancer?

Could the product itself actually increase the risk of cancer?

One of Komen’s corporate partnerships is food-industry giant General Mills, which has promised $2.5 million to the Komen foundation from sales of pink-packaged foods in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. General Mills is the parent company of Pillsbury, whose cake mixes and cookie dough reportedly still contain small amounts of trans fat.

A 2007 French study for the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition found that a higher level of trans fats, “presumably reflecting a high intake of industrially processed foods, is probably one factor contributing to increased risk of invasive breast cancer in women.” The website www.breastcancer.org explains the study here in accessible terms.

Another major charity with several corporate partnerships is the National Breast Cancer Foundation. The foundation’s website says that its mission is to “save lives by increasing awareness of breast cancer through education and by providing mammograms for those in need.”

One of NBCF’s former corporate partners was CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast food chain Hardee’s and western chain Carl’s Jr. From 2006-2010, Carl’s Jr. sponsored the Pink Star Campaign, a three-week fundraiser in which customers donated $1 to the NBCF and wrote their name on a star that hung in the lobby. They received $10 in food coupons in return for their generosity. What better way to fight cancer than to chow down on chili cheese fries or a steakhouse burger with more than 50 grams of fat, right? Especially at a discount!

While that partnership appears to have dissolved, the foundation is still partnered with Coldstone Creamery and Hungry Howie’s Pizzas, the latter of which promises a “donation” to the NBCF for every pizza purchased during the month of October. As we all know, ice cream and pizza are equally as effective as burgers in the fight against breast cancer, not to mention the obesity epidemic.

Some breast cancer marketing schemes are a bit more obvious. One local Safeway store featured this month an ambiguous display labeled “Pink Stuff” offering customers their choice of shirts, socks and hats adorned with pink. The vague display reads, “A portion of your purchase will benefit breast cancer research and care.” But how much is the portion, and which organization will benefit? Harris Teeter also had a display of breast-cancer-awareness month shirts in shades of pink, black, white and gray. All of the shirts were adorned with pink ribbons and mantras such as “fight for a girl” or “I wear pink” (the latter printed on a white shirt). The display case said nothing about any proceeds from the shirts going toward any organization involved with breast cancer. If you find similar examples of useless pinkwashing, note the company producing the product and call them to task. Research the company online and track down its marketing department and find out if the proceeds are going to anyone outside the company. If they are not, kindly suggest that they align with a proactive breast cancer charity that will receive the proceeds, or that they find another way to make a profit without exploiting such a serious issue.  

Lenore Koors, the operations director for the Komen Foundation in Maryland, says the company has stringent guidelines for anyone planning to do a fundraiser to benefit Komen. “Locally, we have a process where fundraisers must sign a letter of agreement, agreeing that they will disclose the full benefit for Komen to the consumers rather than saying that a portion of the proceeds will benefit Komen.  Clarity and transparency are paramount to our organization’s fundraising,” she says.

What do the Komen and the NBCF do with the money they receive? The Komen’s 2010 audit reports that $140 million dollars, a little more than one third of the foundation’s $389 million dollars in assets, went to public education programs (approximately $42 million of which went to “marketing and communications” for education). A little more than $75 million, approximately half of what was allotted to education, went to research. Nearly $66 million, approximately 16 percent of the total assets, went to treatment and patient services.  

The 2010 financial statement for the NBCF lists the organization’s assets for the year at $6.5 million. Nearly $3 million, almost half the total assets, went to breast cancer “awareness” programs, while $1.5 million went to detection programs. A little more than half a million dollars went to research, but the total salary payments totaled up to over $900,000, nearly twice the research allotment.

It’s difficult and impractical to try to eliminate all items remotely linked to cancer. But when two of the primary organizations responsible for shaping the national dialogue about breast cancer receive money from corporations that create foods that could contribute to a rise in breast cancer, it’s time to replace the mantra of hope with a mantra of transparency.

One of the major organizations working to overhaul the national breast cancer dialogue is the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Its campaign “Breast Cancer Deadline 2020,” aims to eradicate breast cancer by 2020.  The “Think Before You Pink” campaign has drawn attention to several corporate pinkwashing schemes over the past decade. 

On a local level, the Baltimore-based Red Devils help breast cancer patients meet their daily needs outside of treatment. This includes housekeeping, meal preparation, transport to and from appointments, help with prescription co-pays, and most importantly, fun. While the Red Devils are not outspoken critics of pinkwashing, their devotion to the present day needs of patients and the realities of breast cancer sets them apart.

Read about these organizations and what they stand for. If what they say makes sense to you, share the news with the women you love to get the new dialogue about breast cancer rolling. Hopefully, 20 years from now we can talk about how Americans joined informed forces to reduce the impediments to true breast cancer awareness and research progress on their way to defeating the disease.

 

Sarah Smith is a local freelance writer who lives in Columbia.

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