Has Breast Cancer Become too Branded?

By Dr. Sharon Gurm

Many of us have causes we donate to for multiple reasons…for some people, it’s because they are pure philanthropists, for others it’s because they are fighters and survivors, and for many, it’s because they’ve lost someone close to them and want to give back.

A cause that touches many of us in more ways than one is the fight against breast cancer.  Charities seeking funds for research or education and awareness are on the rise in Canada, and while that’s a good thing, we need to take a close hard look at the ethicality behind the charity and the dollars. Many of us have seen the movie, or read the book Pink Ribbons Inc, which has brought to light some of the complexity behind not only the origin of the pink ribbon, but how this terrible disease that affects roughly 22,700 women in Canada each year[i] is pure profit for many companies and charitable organizations.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a HUGE advocate for breast cancer education and awareness.  To me, it’s all about talking to young men and women about proper diet, exercise, weight management, environment, and choices they will make in their lives that will greatly impact them in later life.  To me – money donated to either research or education, should be simply that.  Companies and non-profit organizations should not profit off the backs of their supporters.

When companies and charities collaborate to fight breast cancer, is the relationship appropriate? There are many companies so determined to show that they “care,” and with charities and non-profits so eager to compete for donation dollars, charitable exposure, or the dream of finding a cure – do they fail to see how they align themselves, or take the time to really look at the proposed “pink product” and see if it has the proper environmental, and ethical standards to be used in fundraising campaigns? Take Breast Cancer Awareness month for example. Each October, Canada becomes a sea of pink –  everyone from your local grocer to large corporations sell items and donate partial or full profits to either research or awareness, but what if the products Canadian charities are aligning themselves with actually do more harm than good? What if the ingredients or the company’s practices can actually contribute to the development of (breast) cancer itself?

For example:

Your local grocer

“Buy a cupcake or cookie from our bakery, $1.00 of each sale will be donated to…….”

It’s a great idea in theory, however – the cupcakes, and cookies emblazoned with pink ribbons and frosting are filled with refined sugars, harmful food colourings, and bleached white flour.  All these ingredients are filled with chemicals that are linked to breast cancer.

Bottled water companies

Buy a case of our water, and $2.00 of every sale will be donated to………”

Water is life right?  For sure, but not when it comes in a plastic bottle that leaks Bisphenol A (BPA), which, since December 2010 has been declared a toxic substance in Canada.


“For every Johnson and Johnson product purchased we will donate 20% to…….”

Johnson and Johnson products contain toxic chemicals (like formaldehyde) in their Aveeno, Neutrogena, ROC, Clean & Clear, Purpose and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo – Only recently did the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics win a ruling causing Johnson & Johnson to phase out all harmful containments by the end of 2015. Many of the ingredients in Johnson & Johnson (as well as many other brands), contain toxic chemicals that can be linked to breast cancer.

There are always hundreds of major retailers ready to step up and fight this disease, with only one problem. The compounds or ingredients in the very products they sell, are often being investigated for cancer-causing (carcinogenic) potential – meaning, they may just be contributing the very disease they are trying to “cure”.  Is this a vicious circle, or clever market consumption and branding?

Businesses are not alone in the misguided direction of cause marketing, as it’s not an uncommon sight to see prolific Breast Cancer charities aligning themselves with perfume, automobile, energy drinks, and oil companies.

Sadly, breast cancer charities can occasionally be seen jumping on the “Breast Cancer Bandwagon.” Some charitable organizations can be scrutinized about how funds are raised, where the funds raised are going, and if their administrative practices are ethical.

At a silent auction with proceeds going to breast cancer, I once saw items such as tanning sessions, a Texas Mickey of rye, motor oil, and Avon Gifts baskets up for auction – were these generously donated? Yes. Are these proper items for this charitable auction? No.

Splash a pink ribbon on anything and people will think its philanthropy.

But I digress.

Herein lies another question….

Have charities begun to brand breast cancer in the name of education and awareness?  By slapping a logo on something, and driving the masses crazy to buy it, does this create charitable brand awareness or consumer greed?  Where does the line for cause marketing and educating exist? What creates the biggest impact on Canadians when it comes to learning about ways of reducing their risk of a disease that targets an average of 64 Canadians daily[ii] – is it a fashion line, a bracelet, a motivational speech by a survivor? Sadly, when it comes to awareness, statistics are un-measurable and not easy to prove. Thus creating even more scrutiny to consumers who are careful where their donations lie.

Developing a bold statement in the art of impact is a method some charities are using.  You’ve seen the “I Love Boobies” t-shirts and bracelets, or the “F- Cancer” t-shirts – all devised for the hardcore approach to awareness (heck – I even own a few of each myself), but does taking a “guerilla” approach really get people to take a look at cancer and think twice?  Many do wear these items because they want to support the cause, or share their feelings about this deadly disease, but are these pieces of ethically produced and designed (and they are that) actually an educational talking point? These shirts share your personal feelings, but can these shirts systematically change the way people shop, do their monthly breast exams, eat properly or exercise?  Has creating a fall fashion line in the name of a charity bring us one step closer to lowering the amount of breast cancer diagnosed in our country each year or reducing deaths caused by this devastating disease?

It’s such a slippery slope – this cause-marketing industry.  Sure it raises money, and awareness of a specific cause – it’s helped hospitals purchase new equipment, and researchers to find new correlations to genetic factors, but at what cost?

Are we ok with all the pink and branded products out on the market that cost billions to produce, so that they can generate millions for the corporations and charities, and at the end of it all, turn a profit of a couple hundred thousand in donations?

What am I asking?

I’m asking you to re-Think PINK. Know where your dollars are going, know where your products are coming from, listen for the ethical story, and if you feel it’s the right move then jump in – or send cash, and be a silent supporter.

Until next time.


[i] www.cbcf.org

[ii] www.cbcf.org

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