We are more than halfway through October and pink ribbon products abound. Even the bottle cap for a non-breast cancer prescription from Walgreens comes with a pink ribbon on it. Each year, my outrage grows over companies that put pink ribbons on absolutely anything in the name of breast cancer, and this year here they are again: cleaning agents, groceries, toilet paper, office supplies, beauty products, apparel, alcohol. You name it; odds are you can find a pink ribbon option.
Few people realize that Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) was launched by Astra Zeneca, a pharmaceutical company that sells cancer treatments on the one hand and carcinogenic pesticides on the other. So BCAM has all along been one big marketing campaign — arguably the most successful marketing campaign of the 20th century. This is why at Breast Cancer Action, we call October “Breast Cancer Industry Month,” the month when corporations make money professing how much they care about breast cancer by selling pink ribbon products.
Let’s be very clear: corporate giving benefits the corporate bottom line. Research by Cone Communications, a Boston consulting firm and pioneer of cause marketing, showed 79% of consumers would likely switch to a brand that supports a good cause, all things being equal. In addition to finding that companies raise prices and make higher profits on products that benefit a specific cause, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor also found that sales increases that result from brand loyalty more than make up for any money donated to charity. Pink ribbon promotions raise billions of dollars for corporations in the name of breast cancer, and yet more than 40,000 women in the U.S. still die of the disease every year.
And this year, companies are at it again, making money hand over fist by selling products in the name of breast cancer — some of which contain the very chemicals that increase a woman’s risk of the disease:
- Procter & Gamble is partnering with Cleaning for a Reason and Walmart to promote limited edition pink Swiffer products. Swiffer products contain various fragrances, which may include phthalates, synthetic musk and petroleum products such as toluene, each of which has been linked to cancer and other diseases and disorders. Phthalates can affect estrogen levels and can cause tumors through non-hormonal pathways.
- In addition, Procter & Gamble is giving away a free pink pancake breakfast set with the purchase of $30 worth of participating products, including: Tide, Downy, Gain, Febreeze, and Cascade cleaning products containing chemicals of concern in the fragrance; and Cover Girl and Olay cosmetics, which also contain fragrance as well as hormone disruptors that are implicated in breast cancer and other diseases and disorders. Procter and Gamble encourages people to purchase products that contain a range of chemicals of concern with known and suspected links to cancer in order to get a free pink pancake breakfast set, but what exactly does this campaign do for breast cancer besides cause it?
- Chevrolet is donating $10 for each test drive to the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer — which sounds like a generous donation. What Chevrolet is not addressing, or even educating the public about, is the fact that pumping gas and breathing auto exhaust exposes women to chemicals that cause breast cancer and other health harms. Furthermore, women who work in auto factories are exposed to a range of harmful chemicals such as benzene which is used to manufacture rubber tires, chromium and nickel for welding and machining, and formaldehyde in the manufacturing of plastics and textiles — each of which is linked to an increased risk of cancer.
The list goes on and on.
Since 2002, Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink® campaign has held corporations accountable for their pink ribbon promotions. We launched Think Before You Pink with a “parade of pinkwashers” via a three-quarter-page ad in the New York Timesasking “Who’s really cleaning up here?” In 2003, we followed with another New York Times ad, this time focusing on pink ribbon cosmetics companies asking “Philanthropy or hypocrisy?” Questions for Critical Consumers followed soon after to provide consumers with tools to evaluate pink ribbon products and promotions.
We’ve targeted the most egregious corporate pinkwashers, demanding changes to reduce exposure to chemicals linked to breast cancer: Ford Motors, Yoplait, Eli Lilly, KFC’s Buckets for the Cure, Komen for the Cure’s Promise Me perfume. We’ve shown that by joining together, people can demand change that puts public health before profit.
How many of the ingredients contained in a random selection of pink products are toxic and bad for our health? No-one knows because of weak chemical regulation in the United States that’s outdated. All anyone knows for certain is only a small handful — about 200 of the over 80,000 chemicals in the United States–have been tested for human safety.
The evidence linking environmental toxins to cancer is building. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel reported that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated [and]… the American people — even before they are born — are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.” And just this month, yet another study showed an even stronger link between BPA and breast cancer than we’d previously thought; additionally, lab data shows BPA impacts the efficacy of some breast cancer treatments for women who have already been diagnosed!
We have an opportunity to make history: environmentalists, health activists, and industry are calling for reform of the Toxic Substance Control Act, an outdated law that doesn’t provide adequate protection from the thousands of hazardous chemicals found in everyday products. But you know that industry’s idea of chemical reform is very different from the ideas of women living with and at risk of breast cancer. We can’t waste another October watching corporations make money off pink ribbon products that contain toxins linked to breast cancer.
If you are outraged, take a stand to protect all of us from toxic chemicals that are making us sick because the manufacturers of pink ribbon products certainly won’t. Sign Breast Cancer Action’s petition to end pinkwashing once and for all via strong chemical regulations.
Let’s turn our outrage over pinkwashing into action and ban the toxins that make us sick in the first place.
This post was originally published on The Huffington Post.