Think Before You Pink: What You Need to Know About Pinkwashing

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month quickly approaching in October, things are about to get pink. Really, really pink. That’s because 27 years ago, Evelyn Lauder of the Estée Lauder company and her friend Alexandra Penney decided that pink (particularly pink ribbons) should be the color denoting breast cancer awareness.

Pink has been an international symbol for breast cancer awareness and prevention ever since.

Some people in the breast cancer community love it. Others hate it.

Some people in the breast cancer community love October. Others hate it.

If you don’t have direct experience with breast cancer, you might be reading this and wondering why it matters. From an outside perspective, all of the pink probably seems impressive. What could be wrong with brands and corporations wanting to raise awareness and funds for such an important cause?

Insiders call the tsunami of pink products that descends upon us in October “pinkwashing.”

Pinkwashing, as defined by the Breast Cancer Consortium, is the act of supporting the breast cancer cause or promoting a pink ribbon product while producing, manufacturing, or selling products linked to the disease. In recent years, the definition has expanded to include a darker side of pinkwashing: companies and organizations that exploit breast cancer for profit or public relations.

As the cofounder of a nonprofit organization called The Breasties, an activist for women’s health and empowerment, and a woman who has been affected by breast cancer, I struggle with October.

I love that so many brands go out of their way to show support through turning their window displays pink, coming out with pink products, and running campaigns that support the cause. Each year, these corporations sell thousands of products by associating a pink ribbon with giving back.

However, I can’t help but wonder how much money these corporations spend on these marketing efforts. What if, instead of putting all of that money toward marketing and advertising materials, that money went directly to a nonprofit, a hospital, or breast cancer research?

Don’t get me wrong, awareness is important, but haven’t we all been aware for some time now?

A Brief History of Breast Cancer Awareness

Back in 1974, breast cancer was still a taboo topic that women weren’t supposed to publicly discuss, and awareness was a top priority.

Betty Ford recognized this and played a major role in bringing breast cancer out of the shadows by actually allowing the press into her hospital room and sharing her breast cancer diagnosis with the media. In fact, she was one of the first women to ever publicly talk about her diagnosis. Her openness about her diagnosis was revolutionary, and because of her the number of women getting breast exams increased dramatically, as did the number of women willing to talk about it.

In 1989, Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president of the Estée Lauder Companies, was diagnosed with breast cancer and turned breast cancer awareness into a brand staple, with many other corporations following suit. Evelyn went on to launch a nonprofit, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), and has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer research and drastically increased awareness for the disease, as the Estee Lauder Companies continue to do today.

In 2013, Angelina Jolie put the BRCA gene mutation on the map by sharing her decision to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy in an op-ed published in The New York Times. This catapulted the BRCA gene into the spotlight and was the catalyst for women around the world to undergo genetic testing, and for funding to go toward genetic cancer research.

These are just a few examples of women in the breast cancer community making a difference, and how awareness has evolved over the years. But it seems that in 2019 most of us are aware, and to spend millions of marketing and advertising dollars to raise funds for breast cancer awareness might be missing the mark.

What we need is to raise money for research, community support, educational resources, and hospitals. When a brand or corporation puts their money toward these things, real change happens and it directly impacts those of us who are affected by breast cancer.

After all of these efforts and all of the money that has gone toward awareness, we still do not have a cure for breast cancer. This is why making a direct donation — during October or whenever you can — is so crucial. Research is still needed. Better resources are still needed for women undergoing treatment and surgeries. More information regarding genetic mutations is still needed. Better access to mammograms is still needed.

So now that we are all aware, lets use our money in the most powerful way possible. The best and least stressful way to support a breast cancer charity and make sure you are not duped into supporting a misleading cause or marketing campaign is to donate directly to the charity of your choice. That way you know 100 percent of your donation is going directly toward their cause and mission.

But let’s be realistic: At some point during October, you’re going to be faced with a necessary purchase, and one of the options is going to be pink. Here are a few helpful questions to ask before purchasing any products that support breast cancer awareness, and a few things to think about:

Does any money from this purchase actually go to support breast cancer research, awareness or support? 

This type of partnership between a brand and a nonprofit is called “cause marketing” — when a company’s campaign or product promotion has the purpose of increasing profitability while also giving back to a cause. It is an amazing way for a brand to give back while also profiting, and is especially common in October during breast cancer awareness month. If a brand or corporation has an active give back campaign, they will typically have this clearly outlined for you in the product description or in the fine print below. For example, it should say something along the lines of: “Twenty percent of this purchase will be donated to X charity.”

Make sure the company tells you specifically which charity the money is going toward, not just something vague, like, “Proceeds will be donated to breast cancer awareness!”

If you are struggling to determine where or how much of your purchase is being donated, I highly recommend calling the company of the product you are purchasing to inquire where the funds are going. If the product description states that it is giving back to a specific charity but does not specify how much is being given back, you can call the listed charity partner and speak to them directly about this partnership.

Keep in mind that just because a product has a pink ribbon on it, does not mean it is actually giving back to a charity.

We saw something similar this year with “rainbow-washing” during Pride Month in June, when brands showed their support for the LGBTQ community by adding rainbows to their marketing campaigns, product packaging, and advertising materials, without giving any financial or tangible support to the LGBTQ community. In many ways, this is how pinkwashing began, and many people view it as taking advantage of the current political climate, capitalizing on a cause, without actually having to give back.

Does this purchase put you or someone you love at risk for exposure to toxins linked to breast cancer? 

It is crucial to check that products you purchase, especially when supporting breast cancer awareness, are clean and nontoxic.

Exposure to harmful chemicals and ingredients, like parabens and phthalates, commonly found in cosmetics and personal care products, can increase breast cancer risk. These ingredients are toxic to the body and increase breast cancer risk by imitating estrogen and throwing off the body’s hormonal balance.

I recommend using the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website or Healthy Living App to see how products score based on their ingredients’ links to cancer, allergies, and others.

Do you agree with or want to support the specific organization this product or purchase is supporting? What do they do with their money? 

Once you find a campaign that you feel aligned with, it is important to look into what the organization or nonprofit does with their funding to fully understand where your donation is going. You can find exactly what these nonprofits and organizations do with their money by looking up their annual reports (all public information) and ratings on websites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

According to Charity Navigator, a 501(c)(3) organization should spend the majority of their funding on the programs and services they exist to provide.

Breast Cancer Nonprofit Organizations That I Support Year-Round

There are a plethora of amazing organizations that are doing incredible things for the breast cancer community that you can support, but here are a few that I truly love and believe in:

BCRF: Breast Cancer Research Foundation

In 1993, Evelyn Lauder founded the Breast Cancer Research to prevent and cure breast cancer by advancing research. To date, the organization has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for breast cancer research.


METAvivor is a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research for stage 4 breast cancer. According to the organization, only 2 to 5 percent of current breast cancer research funding goes to stage 4 breast cancer. METAvivor works to challenge that by using 100 percent of their donations to fund crucial stage 4 research.

The Breasties

Granted I am a bit biased here as a cofounder of this organization, but we put together free events and wellness retreats for young women affected by breast and reproductive cancers. We are an all-inclusive organization that serves survivors, previvors, carevivors, and thrivers — we want women to know that whatever they are going through, they are not alone. Through community, we bridge the gap between online support and in-person meetups, creating an empowering and fun space to make lifelong friendships.

LBBC: Living Beyond Breast Cancer

Living Beyond Breast Cancer is a 501(c)(3) organization that connects people with trusted, medically vetted, and personalized breast cancer information as well as a community of support.

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