Three years ago, I saw a story on the news while I was at the gym. An investigative feature on the breast cancer awareness contributions that various corporations pledged during Breast Cancer Awareness Month found that most of these promotions led to increased sales and windfall profits that dwarfed the piddling donations that the extra sales generated. Until that moment, I was gung-ho about buying products marked with pink ribbons. My mother was only 33 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980, and I am forever grateful that a mastectomy preserved her life. Buying things that could help other women seemed like a no-brainer - the corporations had brainwashed me but good.
Once I saw the news story, I did some research. A few outlets were starting to discuss the gross exploitation of breast cancer and loose laws that allowed companies to say they were giving money to a cause to convince people to buy their products, and then give a teensy donation to a foundation. The resource for critical thinking about breast cancer awareness is a nonprofit agency called Breast Cancer Action. They launched "Think Before You Pink" in 2002 as Breast Cancer Awareness Month exploded from something to educate women about the risks of breast cancer to Corporate Profit-A-Thon. It was through BCA that I learned that many, many of the products sold to help "fight" breast cancer actually contain chemicals that are linked to the disease. I credit the evolution of my thinking on shopping/walking/whatevering for "the cure" to BCA.
Another important eye-opener for me was Samantha King's book Pink Ribbons, Inc.. King's research crystallized the link between exploiting fear of losing one's breasts or dying with the obscene amount of money corporations began raking in by affiliating themselves with "breast cancer awareness." The social cause marketers really believe that they are doing good things.
Otherwise, no one was saying much about the disgusting way Breast Cancer Awareness Month had been turned in Profit-Generating Month. I am happy to say that although the situation has only worsened, awareness of the exploitation - not only of the corporations and the marketers, but of some of the beneficiary agencies themselves - has grown exponentially. When I sat down to write this post, I found tons of bloggers and media outlets turning a skeptical (and righteously angry eye) on pink ribbon bullshit.
My friend Alex Elliot at Formula Fed & Flexible Parenting sent me a link to an article on Shine by Dory Devlin, Pink overload: Are companies taking advantage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month?. Devlin, in turn, cites articles about corporate abuse of breast cancer awareness in The Boston Globe and Daily Finance. Devlin's warning: "Buying pink does not always mean your green will go to cancer research." At the end of the article, she offers a list of places interested parties can donate to directly.
Siel at Green LA Girl has a few other suggestions for people who want to do their part in the battle against breast cancer:
So if you’d like to donate $10 to fight breast cancer, don’t buy 500 Swiffers. Instead, consider donating that money directly to groups like Breast Cancer Action, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and Environmental Working Group — all of which work to limit environmental exposures that put people at risk for breast cancer. That way, more money will go towards reducing the number of people who get cancer in the first place, less to companies cashing in on a do-gooder campaign.
Reminder: not only do you know exactly where your donation is going when you give directly to a charity, but you get a tax write-off. This is truly double bottom line investing!
Note that the big charities like Susan Komen, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Foundation that benefit from most of the big campaigns are not on Siel's list. Not a mere oversight. In fact, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation was started by Evelyn Lauder. You may know her from her family's business, Estee Lauder cosmetics. What you may not know is that many Estee Lauder products contain parabens, which are estrogenic. According to BCA, "Estrogenic chemicals mimic the function of the naturally occurring hormone estrogen, and exposure to external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer." While it is great that Lauder wants to help find a cure for breast cancer, she could help prevent it in the first place by producing make-up that is paraben free.
As for Susan Komen, Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors goes one step further, and I like the way she thinks:
Meanwhile, over at the Komen Foundation website you can buy a pink feather boa for $10, and 25% of the purchase price “will benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure® in the fight against breast cure.” But what does that mean? Komen gets $2.50 if I buy a boa but what exactly does Komen do with the money? All I learned from the most recent Komen Annual Report is that it spent the following on “Program Services” in 2008:
Total Program Services $292,571,000
Based on expenditures the Komen’s biggest priority is “education” and I wonder if that includes advertising campaigns like “Punch It.”
"Punch It," by the way, features posters of women wearing t-shirts describing the fight against breast cancer like some sort of mob beating. Another poster highlights the breast-y goodness of fighting breast cancer. Back in September, my friend Suebob at Red Stapler wrote about how marketers try to get more men interested in "breast cancer awareness" by promoting titties. She noted:
To get a few more dollars for the cause, we further objectify women and, in the process, play into the idea that men are hopeless, sex-crazed goons who can't get their heads out of their asses unless a woman is shaking her boobs in their face. (Mixed metaphors our specialty)....Here's a hint for the marketers: breast cancer is a deadly, serious disease that affects a WHOLE WOMAN, not just her fun-sacks.
Really! I'm at the point where Breast Cancer Awareness Month is making me (and my at-risk fun-sacks) ill. Between the companies that sell us products that may cause cancer so they can throw some pennies to foundations that exploit women in order to fight cancer, how can I not be cynical?
If you still want to buy something to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I suggest picking up a copy of Not Done Yet, a fabulous book by blogger Laurie Kingston. I bought a copy for my mom at the BlogHer conference in Chicago this past summer, and Laurie was kind enough to sign it, then go out for pizza with me, my mom, and an awesome group of women bloggers. She is awesome. Sure, by buying her book, no donation is going any "cause," but to me, this is one of the best ways to support women who are dealing with or dealt with breast cancer.
Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. When not plugging her book about unusual things to see and do in NYC (Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, she gets her mind off the tyranny of Breast Cancer Awareness Month by posting chapters from the young adult novel she wrote when she was in 8th grade at Always.
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