Pinkwashing Is The New Greenwashing

Companies that tout their support for breast cancer research are often the same companies whose products may be causing breast cancer. But you won't hear them mention that when they slap pink ribbons on everything.

pink paint

Consumers, beware: You may already be watching out for greenwashing (unsubstantiated "green" claims) but you probably don't pay much attention to pinkwashing—when companies that use chemicals known to cause cancer position themselves as leaders in the fight against breast cancer. It's not just hypocritical, it's dangerous.

The phenomenon isn't all that surprising—many people know someone who has been affected by the disease, and breast cancer isn't as polarizing as other potential campaign targets (think obesity and HIV). So companies can be sure that, say, the promise of donating a portion of the proceeds from a pink ribbon-adorned shampoo to a nonprofit will attract customers.

A recent article in the journal Environmental Justice explains the scope of the problem:

Many corporations that engage in breast cancer cause marketing actually exacerbate the problem by contributing to environmental causes of the disease—they use chemicals linked to cancer and hormone disruption in the manufacture of their products...Funds raised from breast cancer walks and runs undoubtedly serve to further treatment and early detection of breast cancer (which saves more women’s lives). However, corporate entities marketing to cancer patients and their families develop brand loyalty, generate free advertising on the part of women who participate, and discourage questions about the role of chemicals used consumer products in cancer incidence.

The article cites the Avon "Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer’" campaign as one of the most egregious examples of pinkwashing. The campaign launched in 2001 with six different shades of fundraising lipstick—but the lipsticks may have contained hormone disruptors, which are linked to cancer. The Avon Walk For Breast Cancer is also singled out for not donating more money to breast cancer prevention (instead of treatments and finding a cure). According to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, the Boston Avon Walk has raised millions of dollars, but less than 2% of the funds have supported breast cancer-related environmental research in the state.

This isn't to say that Avon actions are all bad; the company has significantly raised awareness as well as much-needed cash for the cause. And it is perhaps unfair to target the company simply because it is focusing on treatments and a cure, both of which are worthy causes. But it might be worth looking a little bit deeper the next time you see a product covered in pink ribbons—your dollars may go toward good, but the carcinogens inside the product itself might be contributing toward higher rates of breast cancer.

[Image by Flickr user Ms. G]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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