Pinkwashing: supporting the breast cancer cause or promoting a pink ribbon product while producing, manufacturing, and/or selling products linked to the disease. In recent years the definition has expanded to include any company or organization that exploits breast cancer for profit or public relations motivations.

See also: Breast Cancer BrandCause Marketing, Environment

Think Before You Pink

Over the years “Pinkwasher” has become a common term used to describe the hypocrisy and lack of transparency that surrounds Breast Cancer Awareness Month and fundraising. It was coined by the group Breast Cancer Action in response to growing concerns about pink ribbon commercialization and the glut of pink ribbon products on the market. Breast Cancer Action started calling out pinkwashers in 2002 as part of its Think Before You Pink® project.

Today, with the ubiquity of cause-marketing and breast cancer promotions, many of us use the term pinkwasher to describe anyone who supports the breast cancer cause while profiting from the disease or using it simply to enhance public relations.

Pinkwashing Collage

Pinkwashing Collage2Despite the broadening of the definition in common usage, Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign maintains its focus on those who sell or manufacture pink-ribboned products linked to the disease.

Each year Breast Cancer Action evaluates the most egregious pinkwashing examples and selects one campaign to draw public attention to the broader issue and specifically, to call out the hypocrisy of companies profiting from their affiliation with breast cancer while at the same time producing, manufacturing and selling products that are linked to the disease. “It is these entities,” says executive director Karuna Jaggar, “that fail to follow through on their self-proclaimed commitment to the cause of breast cancer, that we target for our campaigns.”

Breast Cancer Action has called out everything from perfumes and body care products with known carcinogens or reproductive toxins to the use and manufacture of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) found in many dairy products and linked to cancer to those now famous Pink Buckets (of chicken) for the Cure.

The goals are to:

(1)  Change corporate behavior to demand accountability from specific companies that purport to care about breast cancer;

(2)  Educate consumers about pinkwashing and spread the word about Breast Cancer Action’s “Critical Questions for Conscious Consumers: Think Before you Buy Pink”;

(3)  Raise awareness so that “pinkwashing” corporations aren’t able to exploit good intentions by positioning themselves as leaders in the struggle against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.

Knot Our Pink Ribbon

This year (2017), Breast Cancer Action took on cosmetic company and leader in pink ribbon branding, Estée Lauder.

For the last 25 years, the Estée Lauder Companies played a key role in turning breast cancer awareness into a brand. Senior Corporate Vice President, Evelyn Lauder (1936-2011), was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and quickly became committed to breast cancer awareness and research. That year, she helped to create a breast center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, known today as the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center. In 1992, she collaborated with Self magazine to introduce the pink ribbon as the official symbol of breast cancer awareness. In 1993, Lauder founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which is a top-rated charity. However, through the platform of the Lauder companies, the pink ribbon set the stage for the strategic use of symbolism and mass media to influence public opinion about the disease. It didn’t take long for cause marketers, including those at the Lauder companies, to transform the disease-specific symbol into a logo for the breast cancer brand.

The commercialization of breast cancer awareness as serious implications. Breast Cancer Action argues that,

Estée Lauder has built their brand around their self-proclaimed “commitment” to breast cancer. As part of their Breast Cancer Campaign, each October Estée Lauder distributes pink ribbons at cosmetic counters, sells a variety of pink ribbon products, spearheads large events to illuminate international landmarks, hosts star-laden galas, and more. None of these will “create a breast cancer-free world.”

The group is calling on the company to stop using empty awareness campaigns to fortify its brand while hyping the power of positive thinking, distracting the public from meaningful actions that would impact the breast cancer epidemic, and using chemicals in that in their products that may increase breast cancer risk or interfere with treatment.

For more information about the Knot Our Pink Ribbon campaign, click here.

Toxic Time is Up

Each year, corporations sell thousands of pink ribbon products with their own brand of awareness messages and fundraising promises. Yet many of these products contain chemicals linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, infertility, birth defects, and other health problems. Why are these chemicals on the market? What’s more, how can it be that only about 200 of the over 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have even been tested for human safety at all? The pinkwashing problem is due in part to regulations that allow toxic chemicals in commercial goods.

In 2013, toxic-time-is-up-logo_-cropped-300x234Breast Cancer Action’s Toxic Time Is Up campaign called on The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to overhaul and update the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), which has not been updated since it was first passed in 1976. A senate hearing in 2009 acknowledged that the act was badly in need of reform, and in 2013 Sen. Frank Lautenberg [D-NJ] introduced a Chemical Safety Improvement Act (S. 1009) to reauthorize and modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act. As of October 22, 2013, the bill had a 27 percent chance of getting passed the committee and an 11 percent chance of being enacted.

The TSCA Modernization Act passed in 2015, and fails to meet six standards for meaningful chemical safety reform.

  1. Establish Funding, Timetables and Deadlines: The EPA must have adequate funding as well as a realistic implementation schedule that requires compliance from the chemical industry.
  2. Protect Heavily Impacted Communities: Ensuring environmental justice means that the EPA must place a special focus on reducing toxic chemicals in “hot spot” communities—those that are heavily impacted by chemical exposures.
  3. Expedite Action on the Worst Chemicals: Meaningful reform must eliminate unnecessary red tape that can cause the EPA major delays in getting dangerous chemicals off the market. That’s why strong TSCA reform must allow for expedited action on the most toxic chemicals.
  4. Allow for Stronger Laws:  In response to the EPA’s failure to protect the public from chemicals of concern, states or regions will often enact chemical safety laws that are tougher than current federal law.
  5. Adhere to the Precautionary Principle: Where existing evidence points to health harm from chemical exposure, the EPA must act to protect public health from the threat of harm even in the absence of definitive scientific data, until and unless the chemical is proven safe.
  6. Place the Burden of Proof on the Chemical Industry: Chemical regulations must not assume that chemicals are safe unless proven otherwise. Rather than require the EPA to demonstrate proof of harm, industry must provide proof of safety.

Here is a timeline of BCAction’s past Think Before You Pink campaigns.

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