• U.S.

Pink Ribbon Promises

6 minute read
Stacie Stukin

This past March, Barb Jarmoska and 21 other women over the age of 50 set out from San Diego on a cross-country bike trip to raise money for breast-cancer research. Their goal was to arrive in St. Augustine, Fla., in two months’ time after pedaling through eight states. Each woman paid for her own trip and picked her own breast-cancer charity. For Jarmoska, it was the perfect way to pay homage to two dear friends she had lost to the disease, while fulfilling a lifelong desire to bike across the U.S.

But when she began researching which charity to support, Jarmoska felt overwhelmed. Numerous organizations sponsored walks, runs and bike trips. Even more were pitching pink-ribbon products and promotions with a promise that a portion of sales would support a breast-cancer cause. Jarmoska was stunned by the profusion of pink cosmetics, jewelry, teddy bears, blush wines, blenders, candles and paper products. “I realized breast cancer had become the poster child of corporate cause-related marketing campaigns,” she says. “With so many companies involved, my suspicion was that the motive was not always entirely pure.”

Jarmoska is not alone in her suspicion. A growing number of breast-cancer activists and organizations have become concerned that the pink ribbon– an emblem of breast-cancer awareness since 1992–has been hijacked for marketing purposes, a phenomenon that some call pink washing. Last year the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the nation’s largest private charity focusing on breast cancer, urged consumers to start asking questions like how much of the money they spend on pink purchases will actually go to charity, what kind of activities does the charity support and what has its record been? In the same spirit, Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a grass-roots advocacy organization based in San Francisco, offers a consumer-education program and website called Think Before You Pink (think before you pink org) introduced four years ago. Jarmoska decided to give BCA the $5,000 she raised biking cross-country.

Donating by making a purchase is a “really seductive” idea, says Samantha King, a professor of health studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., and the author of a new book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota; 157 pages). “People often say to me, ‘I’m really busy, and this is something small I can do.’ But the problem is, it’s really not clear what kind of positive effect it’s having overall.”

Some of the pink-ribbon promotions don’t make much sense financially. Take Yoplait’s offer to donate 10¢ to the Komen Foundation for every pink yogurt lid mailed to the company from September through December. Komen would get a bigger donation if consumers simply donated the 39¢ it costs to buy each stamp, not to mention the fact that donors would have to polish off 100 yogurts to come up with a $10 contribution–a formula that surely enriches Yoplait more than the breast-cancer cause.

In other instances, companies put tight caps on their pink payouts. Last year, for instance, Cartier promised to donate $30,000 to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation from the sales of its stylish pink-ribbon Roadster watch. But since the watch retails for $3,900, that’s less than the price of eight watches. This year Cartier lowered the price to $3,800 and agreed to donate $200 for each watch sold but guaranteed only a $16,000 donation.

Pink washing creates a dilemma for charities like Komen, which raises about $30 million a year by working with pink-promotion partners. Clearly, it’s better for corporations to give something than nothing, and these programs do make it easy for people to donate. “We’re always looking for ways to engage consumers in the breast- cancer cause by capturing them where they live, work and play,” says Cindy Schneible, Komen’s vice president of resource development. “But what we began to see that was troubling were programs that didn’t carry a transparent disclaimer. They would say a percentage of proceeds would benefit breast cancer, but there was no clear information about which organizations would benefit or how much they would get.”

Komen, which has raised $775 million for breast-cancer research, screening, education and treatment since it was established in 1982, makes a point of transparency about its pink campaigns, as do at least two other large charities: the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), started by Evelyn Lauder. Komen, for instance, insists that partners in pink-ribbon promotions reveal what percentage of sales will be allocated to the charity and how the money will be spent. They do not, however, require corporate partners to divulge the profits from the products or the amount spent promoting them.

While it’s hard to fault the intentions of any corporation or nonprofit that raises money for breast cancer, critics of pink-ribbon funding say that even though a lot of money is raised, it isn’t necessarily being spent in a thoughtful, coordinated manner. “There’s a lot of duplication on how we fund research, and there are huge gaps as well,” explains BCA executive director Barbara Brenner, who would like to see more research on the environmental causes of breast cancer.

Other activists are worried that the sheer ubiquity of pink-ribbon campaigns creates an illusion that all is well in the world of breast-cancer research and treatment. “When companies make breast cancer so pink and pretty and upbeat, too many people think we’re close to getting answers and that breast cancer isn’t the problem it once was,” says Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “That’s not the right message. We may have raised awareness, but incidence rates are higher than they were 30 years ago. We don’t know how to prevent or cure the disease, and more than 40,000 women still die every year.” Visco is worried that donors will feel they have done their bit by buying pink. What’s more vital, in her view, is keeping pressure on the Federal Government to adequately support the biggest U.S. funder of breast-cancer research–the National Cancer Institute.

As breast-cancer-awareness month gets under way, American consumers are expected to generate millions of dollars for charities by buying pink. That is clearly a good thing. But consumers who want to ensure that their dollars will really make a difference “have to do their due diligence,” urges Susan Arnot Heaney, director of corporate responsibility at Avon. In other words, take off those rose-tinted glasses, ask questions and read the fine, pink print. Ï€


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