As most of you probably know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every month of the year is dedicated to causes and charities, most of which are deserving of attention, time and funding. I remain undecided on whether or not October also needs to be designated Auto Battery Safety Month, but I’m sure someone has a tale about the death trap that is an auto battery, so I’ll defer judgment for the time being. Breast cancer, which accounts for 22.9% of all cancers in women, is a horrible disease that impacts almost every woman and family you know, with stories of treatment, loss, triumph and love. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that breast cancer doesn’t deserve to be studied or that wouldn’t want to find a cure for this disease.
But here is where things get tricky. America, in all of its rampant consumerism, seems to have turned a noble cause – the cure of cancer - into a money making endeavor that promises consumers the easy ability to fight for their health (and that of their friends, neighbors and loved ones) just by spending money! Just about everything comes with a pink option or counterpart in October, often with a sticker that lets you know part of the proceeds of your purchase will go towards breast cancer research. Or, my personal favorite, when I’m asked at the grocery store check out if I want to donate $1 to “breast cancer” and I stare dumbfounded, wondering if the clerk is aware that they are missing some key words in their question.
Some companies and items give you a decent return on your investment when it comes to your proceeds going to cancer research funds – a quick Google search turns up a plethora of products from well known retailers that will provide 100% of proceeds to various charities and research institutes. Making things even more complex is the fact that the largest breast cancer research related charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has fallen out of society’s good graces in the past few years thanks to their attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood mammograms, their lack of support for stem cell research, and their litigation department’s dedication to suing any person big or small that tries to use “For the Cure” in their slogan, advertising or literature. Unfortunately for people avoiding Susan G. Komen, a lot of intermediary charities funnel their money through the foundation so it takes a conscientious consumer to ensure their money is going to a charity they personally support.
Raising money is important for any medical research, but just how much money are we talking about? Statistics show that Susan G. Komen raises approximately $55 million a year through “pink” sales, and like all money given to the foundation, 20% will go to research. How much are the retailers making? Lets look at the the National Football League, which goes pink in a variety of ways and donates the proceeds to the American Cancer Society (not Susan G. Komen). Through merchandise sales, the NFL donates a mere 5% of proceeds from each item to charity. After you figure out how much of that money the charity actually spends on research you discover that for every $10 spent on an NFL-branded pink item, only 35 cents is actually going towards cancer research. The NFL makes $4.50 per $10 purchase, so when you figure the NFL has raised $3 million since the inception of their campaign, they’ve pocketed a nice $38 million dollars (and change) in profits in four years, according to my rough estimate math. So who is the NFL really helping with their pink-out? Research? Or themselves? (Worth noting: One component of the NFL’s fundraising is a charity auction, of which 100% of proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.)
Other retailers make things more confusing – Ralph Lauren has a well known “Pink Pony” campaign, wherein they donate 10% of proceeds from pink pony items to the “Pink Pony Fund of the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation” which according to RL, supports ”programs for screening, early diagnosis, treatment, research and patient navigation.” Further research tells us that Pink Pony Fund beneficiaries include the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Women’s Cancer Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai, and the Nina Hyde Center. What does all that mean? I’m not really sure, but if you are buying a pink pony item for the sole purpose of raising money, you can probably do better by donating directly to one of the listed recipients.
The age old argument is that for everything the NFL or other brands aren’t raising in money, they are raising in awareness, and just to keep things tricky, awareness isn’t really something we can quantify. What we do know is that in the early 80′s, when awareness became a cornerstone of Susan G. Komen’s mission, breast cancer research was underfunded and the disease was largely stigmatized. It wasn’t something people talked about, and it was a disease that was needlessly killing daughters, mothers and friends. Today the disease still kills (a fact most of us are entirely too painfully aware of) but I think most of us would agree that there isn’t much of a stigma behind the disease any more. Just about everyone has seen or worn a t-shirt with a catchy slogan about “Saving Boobies,” information about the importance of self-exams and regular mammograms is readily available and physicians are careful to ask about and record family history. How much awareness does breast cancer research need today? And before we suggest charities or diseases that “deserve” awareness more than breast cancer, I’m quick to remind everyone that no cancer, charity or illness is more or less deserving of another, but we all must decide what causes we have the time, energy and inner determination to promote and fundraise for. For some, raising awareness about breast cancer has run its course, and they feel more compelled to raise money for other worthy causes.
The final component of pinkwashing that deserves to be mentioned are the scams. The pink items that crop up every October with vague wording and flashy displays that make a consumer feel like they are doing good while they spend their money. As with anything, consumers need to be educated and mindful of where they spend their money and where it is going. An item doesn’t have to be pink to do good. Outside of the blatant scams (where no money goes towards any charity) there are also brands that make you think they are making a donation based on your purchase, when in fact they are making a set donation no matter how good or bad the sales of their October-branded item are. In 2010 Dansko (the shoe company) sold clogs with pink ribbons on them, but no portion of the sales went towards the Susan G. Komen foundation- instead, Dansko planned to make a $25,000 donation no matter who bought the shoes. Some companys limit the amount of proceeds that can go towards a charity as well- so once the portion of proceeds going to charity hits a certain number, the company is keeping the rest of the money.
Truth be told, most of us would probably be better off donating directly to a local (or national) research institution or hospital. You can always turn to Charity Watch to find out just how much of every dollar donated goes towards a cause versus administrative costs. If you have your heart set on a pink item (and lets face it, I love pink just as much as the next person) you can check out Think Before You Pink, which can help you decide if your item is really helping to fund research. Or, you can follow the lead of my friend K(atty) who joined Army of Women, a foundation that pairs up women around the country with research studies going on near them, so that healthy and sick women can be part of critical research that is helping to find a cure. Studies can range from a simple questionnaire to tissue samples, but all of them go directly to the underlying issue at hand: saving lives.
Go forth and donate, but more than ever, be a conscientious consumer. The cure could depend on it.
Daisy is a lawyer married to a lawyer (insert lawyer jokes here) living in a small condo in a big city with a new baby and beagle. She breaks up the legal-speak by blogging about life in Chicago, which is filled with escapades of urban living. In the summer she enjoys patio dining and in the winter wonders what she was thinking when she moved here. You can read more from Daisy on her blog, Just Daisy.
image via WikiCommons/Public Domain