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What is Pinkwashing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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The term “pinkwashing” is sometimes used to describe products which are targeted at people who are concerned about breast cancer, with the “pink” being a reference to the pink ribbons used to symbolize breast cancer research. Pinkwashed products are often sold with claims that the purchase of the product will benefit breast cancer research or patients suffering from breast cancer, leading consumers to believe that they are making a sound ethical choice by purchasing such products. In fact, the truth is a bit more complicated, and some activists have urged consumers to “think before you pink.”

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world, claiming over half a million victims in 2005. It has also become a cause celebre in the developed world, with many charities working on breast cancer research, prevention, and treatment. This cancer has undoubtedly gained a high profile because breasts are a potent symbol around which organizations and researchers can rally, with researchers who work on other cancers often taking advantage of the groundwork being done in breast cancer to further their own research.

In response to the very public profile of breast cancer, some organizations began doing product tie-ins with various companies, adopting pink ribbons and the color pink in general as branding symbols to represent breast cancer. Early partnerships typically involved reputable organizations receiving a set percentage of the profits from the branded products sold, and many of these partnerships generated substantial sums for research.

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Realizing the untapped potential, more unscrupulous organizations started getting in on the action, and pinkwashing was born. In pinkwashing, products sold may generate only a small percentage of funds for breast cancer research, if at all, and the partner organizations may not be as reputable. Sometimes, a company doesn't even have an agreement with a breast cancer research organization, and it just sells products marked with pink stickers or pink ribbons to make consumers think that they are supporting breast cancer research.

Pinkwashing represents a very serious problem. Product tie-ins are a potential source of very valuable funds to legitimate research organizations, and the dilution of the market for such products means that researchers get less money to work with. For consumers, pinkwashing makes it hard to arrive at an informed choice when making ethical purchases. In some cases, pinkwashing is also used to brand products which are bad for human health, including products which contain suspected carcinogens!

Some activists have suggested putting an end to branded tie-ins altogether, and asking consumers to donate directly to breast cancer charities and research organizations. Others argue that the availability of such products makes it possible for people who would not normally donate to give to the cause. In other words, if you're going to purchase yogurt anyway, you might as well purchase yogurt that benefits breast cancer patients, but you might not send a donation independently.

When purchasing products which claim to give proceeds to charity, or when donating to charity, it is a very good idea to do your research. Numerous nations maintain a rating system for domestic and overseas charities which can be used to determine how reputable a charity is, and how much of your donation will go to the cause, rather than into the pockets of administrators.

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