‘Pinkwashing’ doesn’t cure breast cancer

By Hannah Sparks

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and, accordingly, pink stuff is everywhere: Pink ribbons, pink cleats on your favorite NFL players, pink buckets of fried chicken at KFC. (Because if anything cures cancer, it’s franchise-quality fried chicken.)

Topeka Library/ Flickr

Though breast cancer rates have been decreasing in recent decades due to improved screening techniques and treatment, the American Cancer Society estimates that, in 2013, the disease will kill 39,620 women and 410 men. Approximately one in eight American women will experience invasive breast cancer, while a man’s risk is one in 1,000.

The idea that individuals, charities and corporations have come together to fight (and by fight, they mean “raise awareness,” which is not quite the same as curing) such a devastating disease probably warms your heart.

Well, I hate to burst your bubble. The sad and insidious truth behind “pinkwashing” is that it’s a scam designed to prey on consumer sympathies in order to turn a profit. Even the Better Business Bureau is cautioning consumers against it.

To offer just one example: ESPN reporter Darren Rovell found that for every $100 spent on pink NFL merchandise, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society, with only $8.01 of that actually going to research. The NFL receives $1.25, whoever makes the merchandise, $37.50, and whoever sells the merchandise (usually the NFL, or one of its teams) collects $50. So, only around eight percent of your “donation” actually makes a difference.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the most famous breast cancer organizations, is also a target of outrage. Though it has raised $1.9 billion since its founding in 1982, the organization has recently lost some of its clout, due to controversial corporate partnerships (like with KFC) and CEO Nancy Brinker’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood in 2012 due to political pressure. Brinker, who is Komen’s older sister, also makes nearly $700,000 a year.

Gail McGovern, CEO of the American Red Cross, an organization 10 times larger than SGK and pulling in $3.4 billion in donations annually, makes around $500,000 a year.

The fact that some breast cancer charities are scams, and that little of the money they raise actually goes to breast cancer research, and that their CEOs are overpaid, may not be that jarring to our cynical modern sensibilities. But there’s more to the evil of pinkwashing than just consumer deception. Many of the products whose profits supposedly go to help cure breast cancer can actually… cause breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Action, which coined the term “pinkwashing” and has been fighting much of its associated nonsense for years, advocates for increased government testing and regulation of carcinogens in everyday products. They hope to update the Toxic Substance Control Act, which, unchanged since 1976, would regulate many of the products sold to cure breast cancer.

The women’s website Jezebel compiled a list of some of the worst pinkwashed products. The list includes Mike’s Hard (pink) Lemonade, Estee Lauder makeup, KFC buckets of chicken and special edition Swiffer products. Alcohol, carcinogens in makeup and cleaning products and fatty, high-calorie foods have all been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer.

Worse yet was the Susan G. Komen perfume, “Promise Me,” which, according to Think Before You Pink, “contains unlisted chemicals that are regulated as toxic and hazardous, have not been adequately evaluated for human safety, and have demonstrated negative health effects.” Both this perfume and Swiffer products would be regulated under an updated Toxic Substance Control Act.

Breast cancer is a deadly disease, but it’s hardly the deadliest. Heart disease kills five times more women each year than breast cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer kills nearly 160,000 Americans each year, and the survival rate for pancreatic cancer, which is becoming more common, is around fairly low. Compared to the amount of attention corporations and marketers put on breast cancer, little is done to educate the public about these other diseases. Why?

Much of it has to do with attitudes about women. Those who suffer from breast cancer are among the most treasured members of our society: mothers, grandmothers, women we feel a cultural imperative to protect. If all it takes to save a mother or grandmother from a terrible death is to buy some pink pens and stationery, why not do it?

Though they are so often causes for good, charities and their logic can be predatory. And that’s how charity works: once you elicit people’s attention and sympathy, it’s easy manipulate them and elicit their money.

The grossest thing about pinkwashing is the way it sexualizes breast cancer. Magazine ads encouraging people to donate often show young women modestly covering up their perfectly perky breasts. Though young women can develop breast cancer, those models are not a representative sample of breast cancer’s victims. Bracelets that read “save the boobies,” or T-shirts saying “save second base” are cute and all (I guess), but they contradict the fact that to save the woman’s life, her breasts (where the cancerous tumors are located) often have to be removed.

“Saving the boobies” may actually kill the woman, which is kind of against the point.

And forget about products like “Jingle Jugs” (think of the plastic singing trout that your grandpa has mounted on his wall, but breasts) whose sales supposedly raise money while also perpetuating misogyny!

If, however, you just can’t get enough of the pink stuff, the Better Business Bureau has some recommendations for you: Research sellers, ask how much of the profits go to research and confirm the relationships between charities and sellers. All I can say is, in October, let the buyer beware.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]