Exploring Pinkwashing: Questioning the Wisdom of Buying for a Cure

By Rachel Walden — July 11, 2011

A new article in the journal Environmental Justice provides a compelling overview of a topic we have covered several times here – pinkwashing, or the pink-drenched efforts of corporations to be seen as doing something about breast cancer at the same time as their products or practices are possibly contributing to the disease.

In Pastel Injustice: The Corporate Use of Pinkwashing for Profit, authors Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis provide an introduction to the concept of pinkwashing, talk about environmental factors in breast cancer, and explain the problem of having corporations generate public goodwill from pink-themed breast cancer campaigns. They argue:

Funds raised from breast cancer walks and runs undoubtedly serve to further treatment and early detection of breast cancer (which saves more women’s lives). However, corporate entities marketing to cancer patients and their families develop brand loyalty, generate free advertising on the part of women who participate, and discourage questions about the role of chemicals used in consumer products in cancer incidence.

The authors go on to call pinkwashing a form of social injustice, and decry the focus solely on cancer treatment rather than on prevention. In critiquing the “buy something pink” model of responding to breast cancer, they outline how this approach excludes both many types of women at risk for cancer and prevention efforts that don’t focus on finding “a cure.”

Questions about disease causation, feelings of anger, frustration, or sadness do not meld with the dominant imagery of women who have conquered—or must be made to feel that they can conquer—the disease. Notably, this mainstream image is effectively a white, middle class model which excludes women of color, who are not only less likely to survive the disease than white women, but who may not connect with the hegemonic model of survivorhood that centers on fundraising walks (some of which require $1,800 as a baseline for participation), and which are heavily populated by white women.

Thus, women’s time, energy, and passion are diverted from efforts to prevent the disease and reduce its occurrence, and instead are focused on raising money (often by spending money on pre-assigned pink ribbon products, and cloaking themselves entirely in pink clothes with corporate logos). Everyone is told to keep their eyes on the prize: the elusive cure. This lost time and money, and more importantly, the physical pain and emotional hardship that families and communities endure with every breast cancer diagnosis is not accounted for or honored when we seek only ‘‘the cure.’’

This article is bound to be somewhat controversial, provoking questions of whether small amounts of certain chemicals are likely to cause any harm, whether additional safety studies or regulations are needed, and how much influence environmental exposures have compared to other risk factors. Whether campaigns to buy pink products or focus primarily on treatment are the appropriate way to focus our energies on breast cancer, though, is certainly something worth thinking about and discussing. The article is available online for free.

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