Pinkwashing: What it is and how to spot it

The Pink Ribbon was co-created by the late Evelyn H. Lauder. The iconic shade of pink is now used across the globe to represent breast cancer. In 1992, Evelyn knew that the topic of breast cancer needed more awareness and alongside The Pink Ribbon, she launched The Estée Lauder Companies Breast Cancer Research Campaign.

The charity aimed to generate funding and educate others about the disease and now continues to grow with thousands of survivors and supporters joining the community. The foundation has led the way for many different organisations around the world that now also conduct research and raise awareness for breast cancer. A few examples of these charities include; Breast Cancer Now, Breast Cancer Support and Against Breast Cancer. There are also thousands of advocates, many of them with their own experiences of the disease, working tirelessly every day to raise awareness. 

Pinkwashing is a phrase that has been circulating for many years and is used to help people recognise that breast cancer goes beyond the colour pink. Every October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month various well-known brands market ‘pink’ versions of their products with the promise of donating a percentage or all of the proceeds to charity. While this seems harmless, and in some ways selfless, it is important to understand how the iconic ‘pink’ came about and the detrimental impact this has had on Breast Cancer Awareness. 

The core reason behind Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to raise awareness of the disease by creating discussion points around the signs and symptoms to look out for, statistics, new treatment methods and any progress that is being made. Many fundraising events take place to support Breast Cancer Awareness during this time. The money raised helps fund charities and organisations that research ways to prevent and cure breast cancer, as well as offer support to those diagnosed and their families. 

The international campaign has helped both men and women around the world discover the disease earlier and therefore increased thousands of people’s chances of survival. An estimated 600,000 people are alive in the UK after a diagnosis of breast cancer and it is with the campaign’s great efforts that this number continues to increase. Most organisations take part in helping to spread awareness and actively help the campaign to succeed, however, there has been backlash from some companies who have created a public awareness campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness but contradicted the cause. This is known as Pinkwashing.  

What is Pinkwashing and why is it harmful? 

While raising awareness is important, too much of it can dilute the truth of breast cancer. Every October various companies support Breast Cancer Awareness Month and everything from burgers and coffee to pyjamas and beauty products sport the iconic shade of pink. While most companies who participate will have the intention of helping to raise awareness and donate to support the cause, others raise no awareness at all and is simply a marketing exercise – this is known as Pinkwashing. 

In addition, the use of ‘pink’ for products that contain carcinogens (chemicals that can cause cancer) has caused outrage in the community. A few brands who have previously been called out for this are Campbell Foods, Yum! and car manufacturing giant, Ford. Although this company have raised large sums of money (Ford alone is thought to have raised over £100 million) they have all been deemed to have been Pinkwashing due to their products either containing or producing ingredients/chemicals that are known to cause cancer. 

Last, but not least, Pinkwashing can create misconceptions about how devastating breast cancer can be. The overwhelming use of the colour pink portrays breast cancer as ‘feminine’ when in fact it also affects many men around the world. There is also limited recognition from brands to raise awareness of secondary breast cancer, which currently has no cure. So, while their intentions may be in the right place, awareness doesn’t necessarily mean knowledge.  With this in mind, if you are wanting to donate money towards breast cancer research, it may be a better idea to go straight to the organisation or charity that carries out the research itself or even host your own fundraising event. That being said, if you come across breast cancer awareness products that you wish to buy, but are not sure how much of your donations will be going to the charity, here are a few things you can look out for:

How much money from this product goes to supporting breast cancer programs?

Look in the fine print for information on how much the company donates from sales of breast cancer awareness merchandise. This information should be easy to find out either at the point of sale or on the company’s website. 

Which organisation will receive the funds?

Some companies will state that they are donating to “breast cancer research”, but will leave out the detail of which organisation, in particular, they are donating to. To make sure you have a better understanding of where your money is going, you may want to look for a statement that says which organisation will be receiving the donations.

Does the organisation cap how much they will donate?

Sometimes, a percentage of product sales will go toward breast cancer research, but the company will cap it at a certain amount. If a company is capping the amount, look to see if the maximum donation has been met. If so, your money might be better spent as a direct donation to the charity itself.

Connect with organisations that take real action

Brands can use their platforms to spread awareness about breast cancer, however, you can really make a difference by connecting with an organisation that spends its time and money on researching how to prevent, treat or cure breast cancer. You can do this by donating a percentage of your proceeds to a breast cancer research organisation. It’s also recommended to make it clear to your customers that you are doing this and which organisation your proceeds will be going to so that your customers know exactly where their donations are going.

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