Pinkwashing breast cancer: Are the pink items you’re buying actually benefiting charity?

Consumers need to take it upon themselves to research the claims behind pinkwashed products. Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It’s breast cancer awareness month, that time of year when the marketplace is blanketed in a Pepto-pink froth of personal care and household items whose rosy-hued packaging denotes solidarity with the cause. But how, exactly, does this solidarity play out and how does it benefit breast cancer charities?

The answers to those questions aren’t always as cheerful as the colour of the products you’re buying. In recent years, the term “pinkwashing” has come into the collective consciousness to denote the hacky (or fraudulent) products that tend to proliferate in the month of October. Coined by Breast Cancer Action (BCAction), a grassroots organization based in San Francisco, pinkwashing is the promotion of a pink ribbon product by a company or organization that claims to support breast cancer charities but doesn’t provide transparency about their involvement or produces products that are linked to the disease.

“Breast cancer is a social justice and public health crisis, and we’ve seen too little progress for the billions of dollars spent on pink ribbon products,” says Karuna Jaggar, executive director of BCAction.

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For this reason, the organization launched the Think Before You Pink project with the goal of “peeling back the pink ribbon” and helping people determine if they’re buying a product that will actually benefit a breast cancer charity.

It guides consumers to ask four key questions when buying a pink ribbon product:

  1. Does any money go to support a breast cancer program? If so, how much?
  2. Which organization will get the money and how will they spend it?
  3. Is there a maximum donation cap and how will the consumer be able to tell when it has been met?
  4. Does the item you’re purchasing expose you or a loved one to toxins linked to breast cancer? How is the company ensuring it is not contributing to the epidemic?

“This isn’t to say that pink products are bad. We just want people to look beyond the pink ribbon to know if something meaningful is happening,” Jaggar says.

And this is especially important considering how successful cause-related marketing (when a for-profit company partners with a non-profit for mutual benefit) is in the marketplace. A study published in the Journal of Advertising Research found that cause-related marketing had a positive effect on consumer attitudes especially with regards to charitable causes (versus social ones).

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Similarly, a report by the Association of Fundraising Professionals states: “consumers continue to have a more positive image of a product if it is associated with a cause…85 per cent of Americans said they more favourably view a company product that supports a cause they care about.”

The report was relaying the findings of a survey conducted by cause-marketing company Cone and Duke University.

“A cause marketing campaign is a win-win for the charity and the company it’s partnering with,” says MJ DeCoteau, founder of Rethink Breast Cancer. “We know consumers are more likely to choose a product that supports a charity.”

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But she says the transparency of that partnership is key. To help consumers know they’re making a benevolent purchase, the organization launched the #RethinkingPink campaign that clearly states the brands it’s partnering with, how much of the proceeds of certain items will go to charity and how long the campaigns will last.

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“We don’t want to dissuade anyone from buying pink products, but be aware,” DeCoteau says. “If you’re choosing to buy a product because you care about the cause, you should inform yourself on whether those funds are actually going back to a breast cancer charity.”

(There’s also a Facebook page titled Rethinking Pink with running images of dubious pink ribbon items, including pink duct tape and branded eggs, although it doesn’t seem to be linked to Rethink Breast Cancer.)

What many consumers also don’t realize, is that there’s a difference between pinkwashing a product for awareness and actually partnering with a breast cancer charity.

“Chiquita is putting a pink sticker on 100-million bananas worldwide, but no money is actually going to breast cancer. Awareness is not an end in and of itself; it’s the first step and it needs to be paired with action,” Jaggar says.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing that any government can do to stop this kind of awareness campaign from unfolding. The Canada Revenue Agency has guidelines for how a charity can raise funds, but “there are no regulations on a company creating a pink product,” says Mark Blumberg, a non-profit and charity lawyer, and partner at Blumberg Segal LLP. “The CRA’s guidelines are the closest to a legal requirement, but that’s putting the expectation on the charity, not the company.”

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Of course this also raises the question of the legitimacy of some charities that are advertised on products. In 2011, Marie Claire ran an expose on breast cancer charities, and unveiled a number of outfits in the U.S. that used official-sounding names and dubious tactics to pilfer money from unsuspecting people.

“Breast cancer makes a particularly alluring target — not just because there is so much money involved or because women across all income levels tend to give more than men, but because we give to breast cancer forcefully, eagerly, superstitiously,” wrote Lea Goldman. “In this environment, it’s difficult to ask questions.”

But Blumberg points out that it’s not difficult to check up on a charity’s claims. The CRA has a charities listing that allows you to type a name in a box to see how real the organization is, and Blumberg Segal hosts Canada’s largest charity information portal that’s free to the public.

However, the onus remains on the person who’s willing to shell out money for a pink item.

“It comes down to the responsibility of the consumer,” says Carly Schur, national director of corporate programs at the Canadian Cancer Society.

For their part, the Canadian Cancer Society places strict regulations on the companies that partner with them, including enforcing a minimum 10 to 15 per cent donation from the retail sale of an item. It’s traditional best practice and it has worked.

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“We’ve raised $360 million in breast cancer research since the mid-1980s, and the programs and services we provide across the country to help people who are living with or affected by breast cancer are making a positive impact,” Schur says. “Mortality rates have decreased by 44 per cent since the mid-’80s. We can’t prevent pinkwashing but we can help educate people to make the right choice.”

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Jaggar always encourages people to ask questions, too, especially when it comes to participating in one of the ubiquitous walks and runs that claim to benefit breast cancer.

“I would encourage anyone to go to the promoter and ask how much of the money raised will go to breast cancer programs, what they fund and how much the corporate sponsors contribute,” she says. “Because a lot of the time, these events don’t generate as much money as they do names. Every participant is fundraising, but they’re also bringing 50 to 100 names of people who donated to their walk. The money they raise isn’t as valuable as the database they’re helping the companies build.”

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