Breast Cancer Industry Month Is Here!

Pink pink pink pink pink!! You must have noticed the vast influx of pink promotional products lining the aisles of supermarkets, adorning the logos of well-known brands, accessorizing the uniforms of football players and overtaking ad space. Breast Cancer Industry month is upon us!

You may know it more familiarly as Breast Cancer Awareness month—a time for businesses to make money and earn public goodwill under the guise of supporting a worthy cause. Rather than donate money to breast cancer research organizations directly, companies create and release pink-ribbon products, promising to donate a portion of the revenue from their sale. But in essence, these companies are using breast cancer to raise awareness of their brand. This commercialization of the disease distracts from actual work to help women living with and at risk of breast cancer. It’s called pinkwashing.

This year’s winner for the most appalling pinkwashing comes from oilfield service company Baker Hughes and one of the most prominent breast cancer foundations out there, Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen announced last week that it will partner with Baker Hughes for the next year on what the breast cancer activist organization Breast Cancer Action (BCA) refers to as “the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t they’ve seen all year”: bright pink drill bits. Baker Hughes, a firm involved in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), will “do their bit for the cure” by distributing 1,000 of the painted drill bits worldwide as a reminder of the importance of research, screening and treatment to help find cures for breast cancer.

But Baker Hughes may be doing its bit to help cause breast cancer, as scientific research has been suggesting a link between the chemicals used in oil and gas exploration and the disease. BCA reports that more than 700 chemicals are used in fracking, dozens of which—such as benzene, identified by the EPA as a known carcinogen—increase our risk of cancer. This claim is backed by research showing that people living in areas with heavy fracking are significantly more likely to get breast cancer than those living elsewhere.

As an organization that claims to do so much to help women, Komen’s decision to pinkwash carcinogenic pollution is outrageous. Karuna Jaggar, executive director of BCA, put it best:

With all the toxic chemicals Baker Hughes is putting into the ground, we thought they didn’t care about women’s health. However, this partnership with Komen makes it clear where both organizations stand on this issue. Komen has been notably absent from all discussions about fracking and breast cancer, but with these pink drill bits they are thrusting this issue onto the main stage. Personally, I love a good dose of benzene with my pink ribbon.

Though this stunt certainly makes them frontrunners in shady charitable intentions this fall, Komen is far from the only organization with a controversial breast cancer awareness platform. Every year, the NFL launches its monthlong breast cancer awareness initiative, “A Crucial Catch,” in which players and officials don pink equipment and give fans the opportunity to purchase pink clothing and accessories to support the cause. However, Business Insider reports that only 8 percent of the money spent on pink NFL products actually goes to cancer research, making it clear that “A Crucial Catch” is more an attempt to pander to the public and improve the NFL’s image among women viewers than it is a focus on finding a cure. It’s also worth noting that “A Crucial Catch” actually spreads misinformation that harms women rather than helps them–the campaign’s mantra “early detection saves lives” is proven false). In addition to the NFL and Komen, BCA is campaigning this month against Oriental Trading, Kohl’s and Dansko, three other companies with deceptive charity initiatives. They also list many other businesses that mislead the public about what exactly is being done with funds generated in the name of finding a cure.

With all the false information, empty awareness campaigns and dishonesty that dominate the breast cancer awareness landscape every October, it’s more important than ever to recognize good work that is being done to combat the disease as well as improve the lives of women living with it. BCA, an organization that refuses funding from pharmaceutical companies or any organization that would attempt to influence the information it releases, challenges the notion that more funding is necessary to find a cure; instead, it focuses on properly allocating available funding. Its agenda includes working toward new FDA standards for breast cancer drug approval to find more effective, less toxic treatments; reducing environmental toxins and exposures that potentially cause cancer; reducing the role social inequities play in the availability of treatment; and changing the way breast cancer is discussed in public discourse. BCA also launched the Think Before You Pink campaign, calling out pinkwashers such as Yoplait, KFC and car manufacturers and rallying public support to push them to change their harmful practices.

While Breast Cancer Action primarily works to change the way we discuss, research and treat breast cancer, other praiseworthy organizations such as the Breast Cancer Fund investigate which chemicals are linked to breast cancer and how to limit our exposure to them. They then translate this research into education and advocacy campaigns, teaching the public the best ways to reduce breast-cancer risk. Over the past several years, they have reported on hazardous chemicals in cosmetics, the dangers of BPA in packaged foods and causes of early puberty, a risk factor for breast cancer among young girls.

So this month, before you pick up that pink ribbon bracelet or contribute to a business with questionable intentions, consider supporting an organization making meaningful progress on breast cancer issues. Hopefully, we’ll begin to see less egregious pinkwashing and the next 30 years of Breast Cancer Awareness months will be more effective than the last 30.

Photo from Flickr user Steve Snodgrass under license from Creative Commons 2.0.





Rachel Kassenbrock is a writer who works at the Feminist Majority Foundation and blogs for Ms. Follow her on Twitter at @rkassenbrock.