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Pastel Injustice: The Corporate Use of Pinkwashing for Profit

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Abstract

This article discusses the importance of recognizing pinkwashing, the practice of using the color pink and pink ribbons to indicate a company has joined the search for a breast cancer cure and to invoke breast cancer solidarity, even when the company may be using chemicals linked to cancer. This article argues that pinkwashing is a form of social injustice directed at women in the United States because the practice a) provides a vehicle for corporations to control the public experience of breast cancer, while simultaneously increasing profits and potentially contributing to the rising rate of the disease; b) obscures an environ-mental health discourse that recognizes the environmental causes of breast cancer; and c) co-opts or redirects women's experiences of the disease by narrowly defining what is possible.
Pastel Injustice: The Corporate Use
of Pinkwashing for Profit
Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis
ABSTRACT
This article discusses the importance of recognizing pinkwashing, the practice of using the color pink and
pink ribbons to indicate a company has joined the search for a breast cancer cure and to invoke breast
cancer solidarity, even when the company may be using chemicals linked to cancer. This article argues that
pinkwashing is a form of social injustice directed at women in the United States because the practice a)
provides a vehicle for corporations to control the public experience of breast cancer, while simultaneously
increasing profits and potentially contributing to the rising rate of the disease; b) obscures an environ-
mental health discourse that recognizes the environmental causes of breast cancer; and c) co-opts or
redirects women’s experiences of the disease by narrowly defining what is possible.
INTRODUCTION
This article discusses the importance of recog-
nizing a complex and multi-layered injustice related
to women’s health in the United States. Pinkwashing is the
co-optation of breast cancer symbolism by corporate ac-
tors who stand to profit from the use of breast cancer
awareness imagery, including pink ribbons or simply the
pastel pink which have become synonymous with breast
cancer ‘‘awareness,’’ ‘‘the search for a cure,’’ or the ‘‘fight
against breast cancer’’ in the United States.
This article will describe and explore the manner in
which this phenomenon functions, with the goal of ar-
ticulating a term that has rarely been explored outside of
cultural outlets, such as blogs and non-profit organiza-
tions’ Web sites as well as a recent documentary,
1
which
often identify instances of pinkwashing but do not ex-
plore the extent to which pinkwashing has penetrated the
breast cancer experience. Specifically, we wish to high-
light how pinkwashing a) provides the vehicle for cor-
porations to control the public experience of breast cancer,
while simultaneously increasing profits and potentially
contributing to the increasing rate of the disease; b) ob-
scures an environmental health discourse that recognizes
the environmental causes of breast cancer; and c) co-opts
or redirects women’s experiences of the disease by nar-
rowly defining possible responses, outcomes, and by
limiting appropriate activist repertoires.
PINKWASHING
Pinkwashing is ‘‘a term used to describe the activities of
companies and groups that position themselves as leaders
in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging
in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the
disease.’’
2
The term is borrowed from the concept of
greenwashing, the practice whereby corporations or
businesses use green and eco-friendly marketing to ap-
peal to consumers, though the actual products, services,
and/or the companies’ overall business practices are
harmful to the environment.
3
Pinkwashing is detrimental
to American women and their families: Corporations
create (and profit from) consumers’ desire to ‘‘cure,’’ be-
come ‘‘aware,’’ or find solidarity while coping with breast
cancer, even while using carcinogens, hormone dis-
ruptors, and other toxic ingredients in the making of pink
Amy Lubitow is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Portland
State University, OR. Mia Davis is Organizing Director, Cam-
paign for Safe Cosmetics, in Boston, MA.
1
Sabrina McCormick. No Family History. (2007). <http://www
.nofamilyhistory.org/>(Last accessed February 15, 2011).
2
Stacy Malkan. Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty
Industry. (New Society Publishers, 2007), 75.
3
Sharon Beder. Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on En-
vionmentalism. (Scribe, 2000).
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
Volume 4, Number 2, 2011
ªMary Ann Liebert, Inc.
DOI: 10.1089/env.2010.0026
139
products. These chemicals are rendered invisible by lack
of consumer knowledge, misleading or incomplete label-
ing, lack of transparency along the supply chain, and by
the marketing strategies that play to consumer emotions.
ENVIRONMENTAL CAUSES OF BREAST CANCER
Worldwide, breast cancer affects more than 1 million
women every year, with women in industrialized nations
experiencing the highest rates of disease.
4
In the fifteen
years between 1973 and 2008, the incidence rate for
American women rose by more than 40 percent; today a
woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of
being diagnosed with the disease and nearly 40,000 wo-
men die each year.
5
Although diagnostics have improved
in the past four decades, increased diagnostic changes
cannot fully account for the four-fold increase in the
United States in such a short period of time.
Despite the widely held assumption that breast cancer
is genetic, no more than 1 in 10 women with breast cancer
has a genetic history of the disease.
6
Additionally, data
shows that less than 50 percent of all cases are related to
individual risk factors such as diet. The cultural percep-
tion that breast cancer is genetic obscures an under-
standing of how women of color, who tend to be
over-represented in communities that contain toxic waste
sites and industrial facilities, may face higher cancer risks
than white women. It has been suggested that the medical
establishment’s preoccupation with genetic disease fac-
tors exploits women of color in particular, fostering an
expectation of undergoing expensive genetic testing, de-
spite the fact that minority women may face a multitude
of risk factors that are directly related to their community
or workplace.
7
Interestingly, a person’s cancer risk in-
creases when she moves to a country with higher inci-
dence, suggesting that a woman’s local environment,
rather than her genes, is a significant predictor in whether
or not she will develop cancer.
8
Along with the reality that breast cancer is not simply
genetic, research indicates that environmental exposures
to toxic chemicals (through air, water, food, furniture,
cosmetics, plastics, cleaners, and workplace exposures)
are contributing factors in a large number of cancer
cases.
9,10
Disease and illness are mediated by social, en-
vironmental, and economic forces and breast cancer is no
exception; in the United States, African American women
are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but are
20% more likely to die from the disease than white
women.
11,12
And while the age of puberty in U.S. girls is
falling across the board, girls of color now reach puberty a
full year younger than do their white peers.
13
This phe-
nomenon has fairly clear and alarming cultural implica-
tions, but the health outcomes are less obvious: the longer
a woman is exposed to estrogen in her lifetime (or the
longer the span of time between puberty and meno-
pause), the greater her risk of developing breast cancer.
14
Differences in socioeconomic status, access to care, prox-
imity to toxic industries and institutionalized racism
within the medical field may all contribute to the dis-
parities in women’s experiences of breast cancer.
15
How-
ever, this reality is rarely represented in mainstream
discussions of breast cancer and all but absent from cor-
porate depictions of breast cancer ‘‘survivors.’
The United States’ current approach to regulating
chemicals has been critiqued elsewhere.
16
Existing laws
have failed to assess for safety many thousands of che-
micals, resulting in countless chemicals and finished
products entering the market with little or no data on
their effect on human health or the environment. The
present regulatory paradigm fails to account for the syn-
ergistic effects that occur when numerous chemicals are
used in a product (which is nearly always the case).
17
And
since current regulation is based on the outdated theory
that the dose makes the poison, it has a limited capacity to
4
Janet Gray. State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast
Cancer and the Environment. (Breast Cancer Fund, 2008). <http://
www.breastcancerfund.org/media/publications/state-of-the-
evidence/>(Last accessed on July 30, 2010).
5
Ibid.
6
Breast Cancer Fund. Make Prevention a Public Health Prior-
ity. <http://www.breastcancerfund.org/big-picture-solutions/
make-prevention-a-public-health-priority/>(Last accessed Feb-
ruary 15, 2011).
7
April Taylor, ‘‘High-Tech, Pop-a-pill-Culture: New Forms of
Social Control for Black Women,’’ in Dangerous Intersections:
Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development,
eds. Jael Sillman and Ynestra King. (South End Press, 1999), 242–
254.
8
Sandra Steingraber. Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal
Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. (Vintage Books, 1997),
61–62.
9
Gray. State of the Evidence.
10
Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, ‘‘Public Eyes: Investigating the
Causes of Breast Cancer,’’ in New Perspectives on Environmental
Justice: Gender, Sexuality and Activism, ed. Rachel Stein. (Rutgers,
2004), 161–176.
11
Carles Muntaner, ‘‘The Bell Curve: On Race Social Class and
Epidemiologic Research.’American Journal of Epidemiology 144
(1996): 531–535.
12
Lisa Newman, James Mason, David Cote, et al., ‘‘American
ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and breast cancer survival.’’
Cancer 94 (2002): 2844–2854.
13
Sandra Steingraber, The Falling Age of Puberty in US Girls.
Breast Cancer Fund, 2007. <http://www.breastcancerfund.org/
media/publications/falling-age-of-puberty/>(Last accessed on
February 15, 2011).
14
Silent Spring Institute. Risk Factors for Breast Cancer. <http://
www.silentspring.org/faqs/risk-factors-breast-cancer>(Last ac-
cessed February 11, 2011).
15
JM Phillips, MZ Cohen, and G. Moses, ‘‘Breast cancer
screening and African American women: fear, fatalism, and si-
lence.’’ Oncology Nursing Forum 26 (1999): 561–71.; WJ Eley et al.,
‘‘Racial Differences in Survival From Breast Cancer: Results of the
National Cancer Institute Black/White Cancer Survival Study.’’
JAMA 272 (1994): 947–954; Rhonda Moore, ‘‘African American
Women and Breast Cancer: Notes from a Study of Narrative.’’
Cancer Nursing 24 (2001): 35–42; TR Taylor, CD Williams, H
Kepher et al., ‘‘Racial Discrimination and Breast Cancer Incidence
in US Black Women,’’ Journal of Epidemiology 166 (2007): 46–54.
16
The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. Chemicals
Policy Reform. <http://www.sustainableproduction.org/publ
.chempolicy.php?pid¼174>(Last accessed on February 15, 2011).
17
Steingraber. Living Downstream, 250.
140 LUBITOW AND DAVIS
incorporate scientific findings that low dose exposures of
certain chemicals (e.g., hormone disrupting chemicals) are
more harmful because they mimic the body’s own pro-
duction and synthesis of hormones. There is mounting
evidence that many now ubiquitous chemicals can cause
harmful effects at very low doses—the levels currently
found in consumer goods
18,19,20
and in peoples’ bod-
ies.
21,22,23
Given the inadequacies found in chemical reg-
ulatory policies, many of the consumer goods that are
marketed with pink ribbons may contain chemical sub-
stances linked to breast cancer.
24,25,26
CORPORATE SPONSORED CANCER
AND THE MARKETING OF CARCINOGENS
The practice of tying a product or brand to a cause has
the potential to raise money and awareness, which can be
very helpful for non-profit research and advocacy groups.
However, corporations often have the most to gain in this
supposedly symbiotic relationship, and can mislead
partners and consumers in the interest of increasing brand
recognition, image, loyalty, and ultimately profits.
Breast cancer is useful for corporate cause marketing
campaigns because it is a disease that many people are
intimately familiar with and it is associated with beloved
family members and friends. Breast cancer as a marketing
tool has few (if any) risks of alienating potential con-
sumers, unlike HIV/AIDS, poverty, obesity, or other
‘uncomfortable’’ epidemics. In addition, women control
somewhere between $0.70 and $0.85 of every household
dollar spent, so marketing in relation to women’s health is
a logical business move.
27,28
However, many corporations
that engage in breast cancer cause marketing actually
exacerbate the problem by contributing to environmental
causes of the disease—they use chemicals linked to cancer
and hormone disruption in the manufacture of their
products.
29
Recently King noted that the public perception of
breast cancer has been transformed from a grassroots
struggle to secure research funding to a ‘‘chic’’ project for
wealthy elites and corporations, a shift which has allowed
corporate entities to largely dictate the public discourse
around breast cancer.
30
In fact, Cindy Schneible of the
Susan G. Komen Foundation, the self-proclaimed global
leader of the breast cancer movement, refers to the stra-
tegic management of breast cancer marketing noting,
‘We’re always looking for ways to engage consumers in
the breast-cancer cause by capturing them where they
live, work and play.’’
31
Schneible flips the oft-repeated
environmental justice concept on its head, applying the
language of grassroots environmental justice activism to
consumption-oriented behavior that is isolated from a
social movement community. Her comment suggests not
only that pink ribbons are omnipresent in American
women’s lives, but that consumer responses to breast
cancer should be seen as a viable means of engaging with
the ‘‘cause’’ of breast cancer.
In practice, this can be understood as what Jurgen
Habermas refers to as the colonization of the lifeworld
where the lifeworld represents the social and cultural
symbols and forms of language that support social
structures.
32
Habermas suggests that in an advanced
capitalist society, economic and political actors seeking to
maintain positions of power must rationalize their actions
through the creation of social or cultural norms that le-
gitimate their activities. Following his logic, pinkwashing
can be recognized as a practice whereby corporate actors
seek to legitimate their products via the creation of lan-
guage and imagery that obscures the often harmful nature
of some consumer products while simultaneously pro-
ducing a positive corporate image. Pinkwashing further
perverts this process when these pink ribbon products
18
National Workgroup for Safe Markets, No Silver Lining: An
Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods. May 2010. <http://
ej4all.org/contaminatedwithoutconsent/downloads/NoSilver
Lining-Report.pdf>(Last accessed on August 10, 2010).
19
Heather Sarantis, No More Toxic Tub. Campaign for Safe
Cosmetics, March 2009. <http://www.safecosmetics.org/
toxictub>(Last accessed on August 10, 2010).
20
Heather Sarantis, et al., Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret
Chemicals in Fragrance. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics May 2010.
<http://www.safecosmetcs.org/notsosexy>(Last accessed Au-
gust 10, 2010).
21
Rebecca Sutton, ‘‘Adolescent exposures to cosmetic chemi-
cals of concern.’’ Environmental Working Group, September
2008. <http://www.ewg.org/reports/teens>(Last accessed on
August 10, 2010).
22
Kathy Curtis and Bobbi Chase-Wilding, Is It In Us? Chemical
Contamination in Our Bodies. Commonweal Biomonitoring
Resource Center & Coming Clean Body Burden Workgroup,
November 2007. <http://www.isitinus.org/documents/
Is%20It%20In%20Us%20Report.pdf>(Last accessed August 10,
2010).
23
Environmental Working Group. Pollution in People: Cord
Blood Contaminants in Minority Newborns. 2009. <http://www
.ewg.org/minoritycordblood/BPA-cordbloodpollution>(Last
accessed on August 10, 2010).
24
JG Brody and RA Rudel, ‘‘Environmental Pollutants and
Breast Cancer: The Evidence from Animal and Human Studies,’’
Breast Diseases: A Year Book Quarterly 19 (2008): 17–19.
25
Malkan. Not Just a Pretty Face.
26
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database search
of ‘‘Avon.’<http://www.mbcc.org/content.php?id¼169>(Ac-
cessed August 10, 2010). Search of ‘‘Estee Lauder’<http://
www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/company/Est%26%23233%3Be_
Lauder/>(Accessed August 10, 2010).
27
Boston Consulting Group.WomenWantMoreTheBook.
<http://www.womenwantmorethebook.com/overview/default
.aspx>(Last accessed February 15, 2011).
28
Stephanie Holland. She-conomy: A Guy’s Guide to Market-
ing to Women. <http://she-conomy.com/report/facts-on-
women/>(Last accessed on February 15, 2011).
29
Breast Cancer Action. Think Before You Pink. <http://think
beforeyoupink.org/?page_id¼13>(Last accessed on July 24,
2010).
30
Samantha King, ‘‘Pink Ribbons Inc.: Breast Cancer Activism
and the Politics of Philanthropy,’’ International Journal of Politics in
Education 17 (2004): 473–492.
31
Stacey Stukin, ‘‘Pink Ribbon Promises.’Time Magazine (Oc-
tober 2006).
32
Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis. (Heinemann Educa-
tional Books, 1976).
PINKWASHING FOR PROFIT 141
actually contribute to the occurrence of (or inhibit the
treatment of ) breast cancer.
33
Thousands of products are now stamped with the
ubiquitous pink ribbon. From bottled water and snack
foods to clothing, iPod cases, shoes, batteries, KFC
buckets, and credit cards, ‘‘thinking pink’’ has become
nearly unavoidable. Barbara Ehrenreich, a social scientist
diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1990s, has noted
that the space afforded to breast cancer now ‘‘bears a
striking resemblance to a mall.’’
34,35
One of the most poignant instances of pinkwashing is
the cosmetics giant Avon. The company launched the ‘‘Kiss
Goodbye to Breast Cancer’’ campaign in 2001 with a fun-
draising lipstick in six shades (Courageous Spirit, Crusade
Pink, Faithful Heart, Inspirational Life, Strength, and Tri-
umph).
36,37
Those lipsticks may have contained ingredients
that disrupt hormone functions (which is in turn linked to
breast cancer).
38
The use of hormone disruptors is not
uncommon in the cosmetics industry, and is not currently
prohibited by U.S. law.
39
Avon is one of the most recog-
nizable corporate entities participating in the breast cancer
awareness industry and according to the Massachusetts
Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC), more than 250 of Avon’s
products listed in a database assessing the health risks of
cosmetic products are listed in the ‘‘highest concern’’ cate-
gory due to the presence of hormone disruptors, neuro-
toxins, and possible carcinogens.
40
Avon and many other
companies fall back on the claim that ‘‘it’s just a little bit’’ of
carcinogen or hormone disruptor in a given product, de-
spite the fact that we are all exposed to more than one
product and to thousands of chemicals daily, and that low
doses of these chemicals are very concerning.
The corporate manipulation of pink ribbon imagery is
not only confined to tangible goods, but extends to phil-
anthropic activities as well. Between 2005 and 2008,
the cosmetic giant Avon raised over $265 million from the
country’s largest corporate-sponsored fundraiser, the
Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.
41
Although Avon proudly
announces on their website that they disperse the funds
raised to a variety of organizations nationwide, one-third
of the funds raised from these walks go toward Avon’s
own overhead. In fact, Massachusetts Breast Cancer
Coalition notes that the Boston Avon Walk has raised
millions of dollars, but less than two percent of those
funds have supported environmental research related to
preventing breast cancer in Massachusetts, despite the
high rates of breast cancer in that state, the need for more
research on disease causation, and the seemingly obvious
need to prevent the disease whenever possible, rather
than treating it after the fact.
Funds raised from breast cancer walks and runs un-
doubtedly serve to further treatment and early detection of
breast cancer (which saves more women’s lives). However,
corporate entities marketing to cancer patients and their
families develop brand loyalty, generate free advertising on
the part of women who participate, and discourage ques-
tions about the role of chemicals used consumer products
in cancer incidence. Philanthropic events and breast cancer
branding aim to legitimize the activities of corporations
(many of them major, international conglomerates), while
minimizing consumers’ abilities to recognize hazardous
products—already a difficult task when most consumers
assume that federal agencies are ensuring that chemicals
ingredients are safe for customers’ long term use.
PINKWASHING AS SOCIAL INJUSTICE: OBSCURING
AN ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH DISCOURSE
Pinkwashing practices subvert the ongoing environ-
mental health discourse related to breast cancer, margin-
alizing debates and discussion over the causes of breast
cancer in favor of a dialogue focused on ‘‘the cure.’’ The
corporate practice of pinkwashing has interfered with the
public recognition of environmental causes of breast
cancer and creates significant barriers to better health
outcomes for women in the United States.
Despite a multitude of independent, peer-reviewed
scientific studies that find connections between environ-
mental toxins and increased rates of mammary tumors,
pinkwashing frames the scientific effort related to breast
cancer in terms of pharmaceutical interventions or treat-
ments that will, one day, cure women with the disease.
42
One specific way that this occurs is through the corporate
33
Elizabeth W. LaPensee, et al., ‘‘Bisphenol A at Low Nano-
molar Doses Confers Chemoresistance in Estrogen Receptor-a
Positive and –Negative Breast Cancer Cells.’’ Environmental
Health Perspectives 117 (2009), 175–80.
34
Barbara Ehrenreich, ‘‘Welcome to Cancerland.’Harper’s
(November 2001), 46.
35
The co-optation of the pink ribbon goes deep: the ‘‘awareness’’
ribbons, originally peach, started out as a grassroots campaign to
focus on prevention, until Estee Lauder and SELF magazine
stepped in with a cause-marketing campaign, and changed the
ribbon to a light, feminine pink. For more, read Sandy M. Fer-
nandez. Breast Cancer Action. History of the Pink Ribbon.
36
Malkan. Not Just a Pretty Face.
37
CancerNetwork.com, September 2001. <http://www
.cancernetwork.com/display/article/10165/63618>(Last ac-
cessed August 10, 2010).
38
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database search
for ‘‘AVON ULTRA COLOR RICH LIPSTICK <http://
www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/product/331891/Avon_ULTRA_
COLOR_RICH_Lipstick/>(Last Accessed on August 10, 2010).
39
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.
<http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/whatnottobuy/>
(Last accessed on February 11, 2011).
40
Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. Frequently Asked
Questions. <http://www.mbcc.org/content.php?id¼169>(Last
accessed on February 15, 2011).
41
Avon Foundation. Avon Walks Make a Difference. <http://
walk.avonfoundation.org/site/PageServer?pagename¼walk_how_
spent>(Last accessed on February 15, 2011).
42
MA Kettles et al., ‘‘Triazine herbicide exposure and breast
cancer incidence: An ecological study of Kentucky counties.’’
Environmental Health Perspectives 105 (1997):1222–1227.; M.
Munoz-de-Toro et al., ‘‘Perinatal exposure to bisphenol-A alters
peripubertal mammary gland development in mice,’’ En-
docrinology 146 (2005): 4138–4147.; LN Vandenberg et al., ‘‘Ex-
posure to environmentally relevant doses of the xenoestrogen
bisphenol-A alters development of the fetal mouse mammary
gland,’’ Endocrinology 148 (2007): 116–127.; CP Rennix et al., ‘‘Risk
of breast cancer among enlisted Army women occupationally
exposed to volatile organic compounds,’’ American Journal of In-
dustrial Medicine 48 (2005): 157–167.
142 LUBITOW AND DAVIS
sponsorship of breast cancer research.
43
Avon’s capacity
to raise millions of dollars for research also allows them to
dictate how and where that money is spent. In 2009, less
than seven percent of the $27.6 billion worth of funds
disbursed by Avon went to research investigating the
causes of breast cancer, environmental or otherwise. Of
that seven percent, less than two percent was spent on
understanding the environmental causes of the disease.
44
While allocating funds to care and treatment is hugely
important, understanding what causes the disease is
clearly essential to eradicating it.
The LOVE/Army of Women campaign launched by
Avon and Dr. Susan Love
45
has gone further to co-opt the
term ‘‘prevention.’’ As stated on the Web site: ‘‘While
advances have been made in the diagnosis and treatment
of breast cancer, we still don’t understand what causes
breast cancer or how to prevent it. The Dr. Susan Love
Research Foundation is dedicated to getting to where
breast cancer begins—in the breast ducts—and is engaged
in an extraordinary opportunity to focus research on the
anatomy of the breast and breast cancer prevention.’’ One
of the new projects of this campaign is ‘‘The development
of an inexpensive and easy to use band-aid-like test strip
that can assess whether a premenopausal woman is at
risk of developing breast cancer.’’ LOVE/Avon’s ‘‘pre-
vention’’ seems to be far more reliant on determining a
woman’s predisposition to the disease rather than
broadly examining the environmental links to this dis-
ease. In fact, the Web site rarely discusses environmental
exposures to cancer-causing chemicals—where, one could
argue, a large number of breast cancer instances really
begin.
But environmental links to cancer are getting more
attention in the mainstream—for the first time, in its
2008–2009 annual report, the President’s Cancer Panel
focused on the state of environmental cancer research,
and highlighted several impediments to controlling
cancer risk. Among them: a lack of emphasis on envi-
ronmental research as a primary mode of cancer pre-
vention, unequal exposures in some disadvantaged
populations, and the complexity of how low doses of
certain chemicals can act in our bodies during certain
windows of development (e.g., in the womb, in puber-
ty). In a letter preceding the groundbreaking report, the
panel urged the president to use the power of his office
‘‘to remove carcinogens and other toxins from our food,
water, and air that needlessly increase healthy care
costs, cripple our Nation’s productivity, and devastate
American lives.’
CO-OPTATION OF WOMEN’S HEALTH ACTIVISM
Races, walks, and fundraisers for the cure encourage
participants to focus on a future scenario in which breast
cancer becomes just another treatable disease. Women are
encouraged to endure while pharmaceutical companies
continue to search for medical solutions. What Ehrenreich
refers to as ‘‘bright-siding’’—the cultural compulsion to
think optimistically even in the face of great loss or
hardship—has muted discussions related to environ-
mental causation. Women are instead encouraged to look
on the bright side, to move forward without asking crit-
ical questions, which effectively quells the demand for
research on causation and prevention. Public events fo-
cused on raising funds to ‘‘fight’’ breast cancer, while
providing a sense of solidarity and purpose for many
women with breast cancer, also effectively silence expe-
riences that fall outside of the ‘‘valiant cancer-survivor’
model.
The widespread corporate sponsorship of such events
has created the mainstream experience of breast cancer,
molding public perceptions and experiences of breast
cancer into a standard, pre-packaged experience: Someone
you love has breast cancer? Then buy pink, and walk with
others who are in the same boat, fighting cancer together. What
else can you do? Questions about disease causation, feel-
ings of anger, frustration, or sadness do not meld with the
dominant imagery of women who have conquered—or
must be made to feel that they can conquer—the disease.
Notably, this mainstream image is effectively a white,
middle class model which excludes women of color, who
are not only less likely to survive the disease than white
women, but who may not connect with the hegemonic
model of survivorhood that centers on fundraising walks
(some of which require $1,800 as a baseline for partici-
pation), and which are heavily populated by white
women.
Thus, women’s time, energy, and passion are diverted
from efforts to prevent the disease and reduce its occur-
rence, and instead are focused on raising money (often by
spending money on pre-assigned pink ribbon products,
and cloaking themselves entirely in pink clothes with
corporate logos). Everyone is told to keep their eyes on
the prize: the elusive cure. This lost time and money, and
more importantly, the physical pain and emotional
hardship that families and communities endure with ev-
ery breast cancer diagnosis is not accounted for or hon-
ored when we seek only ‘‘the cure.’’
A NEW WAY FORWARD
The social, medical, and cultural discourse surrounding
breast cancer is narrowly defined by the assumption that
for some percentage of American women, breast cancer is
inevitable, and that raising awareness and searching for a
cure are the primary mechanisms by which to overcome
this disease. This conception of breast cancer etiology
practically renders scientific debate over disease causation
obsolete; if the only goal is a cure, then prevention is not
important. The dominance of ‘‘the cure’’ paradigm is
43
In 2007 The Susan G. Komen Foundation reported that it had
invested nearly $1 billion in breast cancer since its founding in
1980.
44
Avon’s 2009 Approved Grants list search for any research
project studying the causes of breast cancer, including environ-
mental causes. <http://www.avoncompany.com/women/
avonfoundation/2009_grants.pdf>(Last accessed August 10,
2010).
45
LOVE/Army of Women. <http://www.armyofwomen.org/>
(Last accessed July 27, 2010).
PINKWASHING FOR PROFIT 143
further entrenched when corporations market products—
some of which contain ingredients linked to cancer—and
direct philanthropic activities in the same direction,
thereby creating a unilateral understanding of the disease
that leaves little room for other endpoints or contrasting
viewpoints, including not only prevention, but the dis-
cussion of access to awareness-raising events and treat-
ment.
In order to overcome the dominance of this model,
scientific, economic, and cultural changes must occur.
Advocacy organizations are working to increase funding
for prevention, to study the environmental causes of the
disease, and to prohibit from everyday products chemi-
cals that are linked to cancer.
46
Advocates are also asking
hard questions about why women of color are less likely
to survive the disease, and are challenging the dominant
vision of breast cancer ‘‘survivorhood’’ by providing al-
ternative models and support systems that incorporate a
multiplicity of disease experiences. Changes in the mar-
ketplace can also contribute to dismantling a narrow
conception of breast cancer by developing and marketing
products that avoid the use of known carcinogens and
other toxic chemicals. The insistence by industry-funded
scientists that low doses of toxic chemicals pose no haz-
ard, and the current U.S. laws that place the burden of
proof on individuals rather than on chemical manufac-
turers producing the chemicals must come to light, and be
changed. Pinkwashing companies or any corporation
seeking to market products promoting women’s health
have an imperative to protect women’s health by elimi-
nating chemicals and practices linked to harm.
When as many as nine out of ten cases of breast cancer
are not genetic, and are not, as the current public dis-
course would lead us to believe, inevitable, the majority of
research, market ideology, and activist campaigns must
shift to preventing women from getting the disease
whenever possible, rather than treating women once they
have it. Dr. Sandra Steingraber, herself a scientist and
cancer survivor, calls on us to take a human rights ap-
proach to cancer: we need to recognize that when we
continue to allow the manufacture and release of carcin-
ogens into the environment and into our bodies, ‘‘some
number of vulnerable persons are consigned to death.’’
47
But there is a hopeful message here: when we shift this
paradigm and focus on prevention, women benefit, par-
ticularly those women who face unequal burdens of en-
vironmental exposures in their homes and workplaces.
Pinkwashing is problematic in that it displaces public
dialogue related to the social and environmental justice
implications of disease causation, and suggests that con-
sumer-oriented efforts are adequate in the pursuit of
ending breast cancer. In contrast, we would like to
suggest that a critical stance on corporate pinkwashing
is the first step in addressing ongoing racial disparities
in relation to breast cancer and is a necessary element
in the effort reduce cancer incidence and mortality
rates.
Address correspondence to:
Amy Lubitow
Portland State University
P.O. Box 751
Portland, OR 97207
E-mail: alubitow@yahoo.com
46
Advocacy organizations focused on prevention include
Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund, Campaign for Safe
Cosmetics, Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, Safer Chemi-
cals Healthy Families coalition, and others.
47
Sandra Steingraber. Living Downstream, 268.
144 LUBITOW AND DAVIS
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