We need political activism, not corporate pinkwashing, to win the war on cancer. (More)

The title of this post is a risky one because it could apparently trigger a lawsuit by the Susan G. Komen For the Cure organization (“Komen”). Komen is, of course, the fundraising giant that uses pink ribbon themed cause-related marketing and numerous 5K runs and fitness walks to raise money to fund education and research related to breast cancer. Unfortunately, Komen also reportedly uses some of that money to prevent other organizations from using the phrase “for the cure” or the color pink to raise money to fight cancer. As reported in Huffington Post:

In addition to raising millions of dollars a year for breast cancer research, fundraising giant Susan G. Komen for the Cure has a lesser-known mission that eats up donor funds: patrolling the waters for other charities and events around the country that use any variation of “for the cure” in their names.

So far, Komen has identified and filed legal trademark oppositions against more than a hundred of these Mom and Pop charities, including Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure – and many of the organizations are too small and underfunded to hold their ground.

(A note to Komen’s lawyers – if you don’t want us to use the phrase “for the cure,” how about “for a cure” if we don’t really care which cure is found? Or maybe “for ‘da cure” given that we are from Chicago? Or “for z’ cure” if we take up French? Also, can we say “for The Cure” if we actually just support the 1980’s rock band? Please clarify.)

October is, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is when much of the US becomes awash in pink ribbons and other reminders about a horrible disease that kills approximately 40,000 women and 450 men per year. Thanks to the efforts of Komen and others, it is hard to find a grocery store, coffee shop, sporting event, or shopping mall that is not festooned in pink ribbons, often accompanied by the claim that your purchase of a particular product will lead to the donation of money to breast cancer awareness or research. The “pinking” of America is so complete that even the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are prancing around in pink costumes in a stadium that is blanketed in pink.

All of this pink has done some good. For example, over the past 29 years, Komen has reportedly raised $1.9 billion for breast cancer education and research efforts. In addition, by aggressively discussing the issue, Komen and others have undoubtedly played a role in making breast cancer something that is openly spoken about rather than treated as a taboo subject.

But before you get caught up in the annual pink-a-thon, it is valuable to think about three serious problems with the pink cause-related marketing approach to addressing breast cancer.

1. How much money is being donated and to whom?

As the folks at Breast Cancer Action explain at their great site Think Before You Pink, customers who purchase pink products on the belief that their purchase will benefit breast cancer causes have little way to know how much good they are actually doing. For example, many companies do not say how much they are donating per purchase, the total amount they will donate as part of a particular campaign, or to what organizations such donations are being made. It is also important to evaluate whether the company doing the cause-related marketing also produces products that increase people’s cancer risks. For example, the pink KFC bucket above is from a Komen-KFC promotion that involved donations to Komen for every bucket of chicken sold. There is strong evidence that a diet high in the type of fat-laden food that KFC serves increases one’s cancer risk. In such situations, the cause related marketing is arguably as much or more about pink-washing a company’s corporate image as it is about trying to raise money to fight cancer.

2. What actions are being funded?

The next major question to ask about the pink-a-thon is what actions the money that is being raised is going towards. While some of the money is going towards valuable research, most of it is going towards raising “awareness” and funding mammograms for poor women. But federally funded free mammograms are already widely available and, as the blogger at Uneasy Pink recently said, “is there anyone, anywhere, who is NOT aware of breast cancer?” Far more important in the fight against breast cancer is making affordable health care available to all in order to close disparities in cancer health outcomes, increasing funding for the National Cancer Institute and other federal research into breast cancer treatments, and reducing chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and industrial air and water pollutants that are linked to increased cancer risks. Such issues are politically controversial, however, and so organizations that rely heavily on cause-related marketing relationships with major corporations are unlikely to take aggressive stands on them.

3. Are we supplanting political activism?

A third problem with the pink-a-thon is that it discourages the type of political involvement that is needed to get at the root of tackling cancer. The regulatory and tax policies that will be needed to achieve national health insurance, stricter environmental protections, and even increased federal research will not be achieved through 5K races or cause-related marketing. Instead, they will require millions of Americans who are affected by cancer to demand and organize for political change. But when people talk about getting involved in addressing to cancer, our society pushes them to do something safe like participate in a 5K run. And when people are constantly surrounded by claims that they are making a difference by, for example, buying a cup of coffee with a pink ribbon on it, they are less likely to see the need to take more substantive action such as calling their Congressperson or writing a letter to their local newspaper editor. As such, it is critical that we do not let the annual pink-a-thon lull us into the false security that we are “doing something” and that, therefore, we somehow do not need to engage in the type of political advocacy that will be needed to actually have a chance to find the cure.

The good news is that there are alternatives to the pink marketing industrial complex that has been built up around breast cancer. Here are three organizations Winning Progressive recommends that our readers check out and support:

Breast Cancer Action (“BCA”) – the self-styled “watchdog of the breast cancer movement,” BCA focuses on advocating for policies that will reduce environmental exposures that increase cancer risks, address social inequalities that lead to disparities in health outcomes, and reducing the toxicity of cancer treatments.

National Breast Cancer Coalition – an organization that advocates for funding for meaningful breast cancer research and providing everyone with access to quality cancer care, with the goal of ending breast cancer by January 1, 2020.

Breast Cancer Fund – an organization that focuses on identifying, educating the public about, and eliminating the environmental and other preventable causes of cancer.

And to learn more about the pitfalls of the annual pink-a-thon approach to cancer, check out the book Pink Ribbons, Inc., which has also recently been made into a documentary.