Pink Ribbons, Pink Products & Pinkwashing

Pink Ribbons, Pink Products & Pinkwashing

It’s that time of year again, when everything suddenly turns pink and a spirit of do-gooderness fills the air. While on a plane the other day, I was offered to buy pink lemonade or pink jellybeans for $2 each, half (in case of the jellybeans) or all (the pink lemonade) of my “donation” would benefit “the cause,” which of course was breast cancer. What’s wrong with this picture?

Consuming sugary sodas or candy is not healthy. In fact, it makes us sick, and countless studies have shown that eating such “foods” can actually cause cancer. How can we promote women’s health and “the cure” with unhealthy products that most likely contribute to increasing the occurrences of the disease they are claiming to fight?

Will pink toolbelts help us win the fight against breast cancer?

Will pink toolbelts help us win the fight against breast cancer?

The pink ribbon was introduced to the mainstream (there were people doing their own grassroots, less commercial breast cancer ribbon efforts before this) in 1992, by Evelyn Lauder, Senior Corporate Vice President of The Estée Lauder Companies and herself a breast cancer survivor, and the editors of Shape magazine, coinciding with magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. The yellow ribbon (representing soldiers overseas) and red ribbon (which stand for AIDS awareness) had been around for a while, so the inspiration was clear. The Susan G. Komen foundation had also been handing out pink ribbons to all participants at their immensely popular Races for the Cure, and continued to do so, focusing more and more of their marketing efforts on the pink ribbon.

Evelyn Lauder is one of the masterminds behind the pink ribbon, and a breast cancer survivor.

Evelyn Lauder is one of the masterminds behind the pink ribbon, and a breast cancer survivor.

This was around the same time that cause-related marketing was rising through the ranks in Corporate America. Every big company wanted to be known for their philantrophic efforts. Breast cancer was a “safe” issue for companies, not as loaded as the other two ribbons — representing awareness of AIDS (gay) and soldiers (war).

Pink cans from Campbell's. While their soups may not cause cancer, the high levels of sodium contribute to heart disease and unhealth.

Pink cans from Campbell’s. While their soups may not cause cancer, the high levels of sodium contribute to heart disease and unhealth.

To marketers, all this pinkness was a gold mine — a cash cow just waiting to be milked. As a result, we now have pink cookware, appliances, fried chicken buckets, sneakers, slippers, airplanes, crystal necklaces, beer-pong floats, tool belts, bedazzled pins, martini glasses, t-shirts, lipstick, vending machines… if you can think of it, you can be sure there is a pink version of it. I’m not suggesting that this is all bad, but in many cases it is very unclear what percentage, if any, of the sales of these products that actually benefit breast cancer research.

A KFC restaurant in Louisville helped launch the company's "Buckets for the Cure" campaign by painting their restaurant pink.

A KFC restaurant in Louisville helped launch the company’s “Buckets for the Cure” campaign by painting their restaurant pink.

While promoting breast cancer awareness with pink buckets, KFC also offers calorie and cholesterol bombs like their "Double Down Sandwich."

While promoting breast cancer awareness with pink buckets, KFC also offers calorie and cholesterol bombs like their “Double Down Sandwich.”

We all want to show that we care, and buying something pink requires very little thought or effort on part of the consumer. Marketers are using these emotions to sell us stuff — it even gave rise to a new word, “pinkwashing.” My mother recently fought a battle with this disease, and I very much take issue with the way companies are benefiting from our concern for the health of mothers, sisters and friends around us.

Pink beer pong float, anyone?

Pink beer pong float, anyone?

This brings me back to Estée Lauder, one of the masterminds behind the pink ribbon. The company offers a great many “pinked” makeup and beauty products, while at the same time continuing the use of toxic, cancer-causing ingredients in many of their products! It’s clear that they have options, because Estee Lauder also owns companies like Origins and Aveda, both brands that use far less of the toxic chemicals so common in the parent company’s own line as well as their other brands. It’s time for them to quit the pinkwashing and start dealing with the real issue — removing cancerous ingredients from ALL their products.

A selection of Estee Lauder's pink ribbon products.

A selection of Estee Lauder’s pink ribbon products.

One Breast Cancer Awareness initiative that I find interesting comes from the NFL. Football players have the option of wearing pink equipment at games, and the league features its pink ribbon logo prominently on the field throughout the month of October. Here, a women’s issue is being highlighted in what is very much a man’s world. It legitimizes the disease and spreads awareness among American men. I’d be interested to see how many more female fans and wives of fans have actually gotten screened for breast cancer as a result. We can just hope that’s the result, not just increased sales on pink fan merchandise.

The National Football League shows it's commitment to breast cancer awareness on the field, and football players also wear pink gear.

The National Football League shows it’s commitment to breast cancer awareness on the field, and football players also wear pink gear.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we should proudly wear our pink ribbons on our lapels and continue to work toward raising awareness and finding a cure for this nasty disease. But instead of buying pink crap that you don’t need, donate money directly to the organizations doing important breast cancer research. Encourage your mother, sisters and friends to take better care of themselves in order to prevent illness — that means eating a healthy diet of unprocessed, whole foods, staying away from smoking and toxic environments, and, of course, stop using cancer-causing cosmetics.

While this is not a real campaign, it represents the pinkwashing dilemma: does supporting breast cancer research make up for toxic products?

While this is not a real campaign, it represents the pinkwashing dilemma: does supporting breast cancer research make up for toxic products?

If you do want to buy something pink, just make sure to do your research. The website Think Before You Pink, lists some crucial questions you should ask yourself before buying pink this month.

Let’s not forget about animal rights, either. PETA lists charities that support cruelty-free cancer research.

And, finally, for all you pretty ladies out there, check out Treehugger’s list of eco-friendly beauty brands that support breast cancer reasearch (and do not use cancer-causing ingredients).

I also highly recommend the documentary “The Beautiful Truth,” based on a controversial book on natural cancer therapy written over 50 years ago by Dr. Max Gerson

Top illustration by Johanna Björk

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Wll here is my take: I don’t just buy pink products because of the donation to a good cause. I buy pink products because I really love the color! The good cause is secondary.

    I really love everything in pink! So why would I buy a silver iPhone case when I can get the same in pink? Why would I buy a sneakers with yellow stripes when they also come with pink stripes. Why have black whole puncher for my office when I can get a cute pink one …
    Just my thoughts … G:)

  2. holly crap your dumb, it actually hurts. You missed the point entirely. Not even sure it’s worth explaining to you as I don’t think you’d understand. Lets try to simplify: Products that are harmful, read cancer causing ingredients, put pink ribons on the product, and by appealing to your small brain and consumerist greed they know you wont care to learn more , but will purchase, supporting their product. If you really care about giving to a cause DON’T buy products that have ingredients that are harmful..do your research!

  3. Kirsten, I’m glad you are passionate about this. If you read the entire article, you would see that this is what it’s all about. 🙂 I don’t at all think that people who buy “pink products” are dumb, they actually think they are doing a good thing and supporting a good cause. It’s very sad and shrewd how marketers use our will to do good and, perhaps, support loved ones who we have lost. This should not be allowed, and it’s up to us, the media, to shine a light on this very important, yet still quite controversial, topic.

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