Beware of for-profit corporate pinkwashing

by Madison Hopkins

It’s October, which means fall has finally begun, bringing with it an end to the incredible heat of summer, new Halloween decorations and pink—pink everywhere. Breast cancer awareness items have overrun stores with little pink ribbons seemingly attached to everything imaginable. You can now buy pink flat irons, pink razors, pink energy drinks, pink vodka and even pink 9 mm pistols. All of these items are clearly meant to support breast cancer awareness and many boast financial contributions for research with every purchase. However, the latter claim can sometimes be exaggerated.

Pinkwashing is a term that reffers to corporations that abuse the symbol of breast cancer awareness to increase sales. Some of these goods contain unhealthy elements, which could actually lead to breast cancer. Others utilize morally dubious strategies to trick consumers into buying goods with little or no effect on the company’s breast cancer donations. For those who are rightfully outraged at this corrupt ploy, I advise you not to hate the player, but to get smart about the game. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that advertisements aren’t always accurate or used for good. It’s the duty of the consumer to sort through the ambiguous slogans and symbolic colors to find out where the money is actually going.

There are no restrictions on who can use breast cancer’s pink ribbon, leaving it open to endless promotions. I have fallen subject to this time and time again, filling my shopping cart with pink goods and feeling good about what a kindhearted person I am. Unfortunately, I was blatantly unaware about the insignificance of my contributions.

Many companies put financial limits on their donations, regardless of how many pink items they sell. In 2010, Reebok heavily advertised their new pink ribbon shoes. For every pair of shoes sold, the company would donate a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research. This was true, but only for a limited time. The fine print set a $750,000 donation limit. Yes, this is a sizeable donation, but for a multibillion-dollar corporation, it isn’t that much. Consumers weren’t even notified when this limit was reached, misleading many would-be conscious consumers to think they donated to a good cause.

Most upsetting is the blatant hypocrisy regarding the message these items promote. Certain goods with the pink ribbon stamp of approval actually contain substances linked to breast cancer development. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Buckets for the Cure” are filled with high-fat fried chicken, an element known to contribute to cancer. Sutter Home Winery offers its collection of white zinfandel, commonly known as pink wine, for breast cancer fundraising. Many other alcohol companies supply similar products, despite the fact alcohol abuse is another contributing factor linked to breast cancer. If companies such as this had any real concern for breast cancer research, they wouldn’t advertise items perpetuating the problem. Estee Lauder is among the worst offenders. It donates 20 cents of each purchase to breast cancer research. However, the item itself contains carcinogens, reproductive toxins and other extremely harmful elements.

Even if an item is healthy and honestly marketed, we still need to question where the donation is going. For example, the NFL goes all out for breast cancer awareness, selling pink shirts, hats and other football paraphernalia. While they do put on an auction donating 100 percent of the proceeds, the total number of pink goods sold at merchandise stores is not always reported accurately. Only about 35 cents for every $10 are donated to cancer research. The rest of the money, after production costs, goes right back to the NFL.

Similarly, inflated salaries of nonprofit executives take a large chunk of some organizations’ proceeds. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is a prominent charitable organization donating millions of dollars to breast cancer research, but pays some top executives more than $400,000 a year.

Despite all of the deceptive issues surrounding pinkwashing, I don’t want to diminish the importance of spreading awareness. Understanding the problem is essential for gathering advocates to work toward a cure. However, there are ways to do this without supporting items and corporations exploiting the emotions of cancer victim sympathizers.

Understanding what to look for in the fine print allows consumers to focus their energy and money on more worthwhile outlets. Buying from morally responsible retailers or donating money directly to legitimate cancer research organizations is a sincere contribution you can be sure will actually make a difference. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives and 40,000 lives will be taken this year. In order to make sure every cent counts toward saving those lives, it is our responsibility to “think before you pink.”