Pink Ribbon Culture? Who Benefits? Not People with Breast Cancer

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Debbie says:

soupKaruna Jaggar of Breast Cancer Action has harsh words for what she calls “pink-ribbon culture.” See #6 for her definition of the stronger term “pinkwashing.”

Jaggar lays out the numbers:

Each year, 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Up to one-third of all breast cancers will metastasize (spread beyond the breast into the rest of the body); it is metastatic breast cancer that kills women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts. And each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer, despite all the awareness and pink ribbons.

She gives a good history of the (admirable) roots of the pink ribbon, and goes on to list ” six ways that pink ribbon culture distracts from meaningful progress on breast cancer.” Here are two of them:

2. Corporations exploit concern about breast cancer for profit. Each October, marketers take advantage of people’s sincere concern about breast cancer to make money and generate good publicity. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything, and they do—from handguns to garbage trucks, from perfume to toilet paper. But there is no transparency or accountability about where the pink ribbon money goes. Sometimes no money at all from the purchase goes to a breast cancer organization. But even if the company does make a donation, most of these promotions ultimately benefit corporations far more than they help women living with and at risk of breast cancer.

6. Some pink ribbon products are linked to causing breast cancer. Years ago, Breast Cancer Action came up with a term for this, pinkwashing: the outrageous corporate practice of selling products linked to an increased risk of breast cancer while claiming to care about (and profiting from) breast cancer. This year, we are challenging two giant agricultural companies who are using leftover wastewater from oil corporations to irrigate their citrus—while also using pink ribbons to sell them.

(To be clear, I have no reason to believe that Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup causes cancer; I just love the Warhol-ish absurdity of the photo at the top of this blog.)

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Dana Bolger at Feministing (who has previously profiled Jaggar), takes a moment to highlight just how far pink-ribbon October culture can go:

I wish I could say pinkwashing has reached new heights here (get it), but this is nothing new. Last year, Massachusetts cops introduced pink handcuffs (because where do women get better healthcare than… in prison?). And the year before that, Susan G. Komen teamed up with a fracking company to give us pink drill bits (and oh yeah also carcinogenic toxins).

Yep, that’s right, the U.S. military, known far and wide for its concern for human life (women’s or otherwise).  Jaggar shares an image at the link to her article of a pink handgun sold as part of a “breast cancer awareness kit.”

If you wear a ribbon as a memory of your own breast cancer experiences, or to honor someone you love, or to increase your own awareness of the scope and depth of the issue,  I support you, and I feel sure Jaggar and Bolger do so as well. Its the shameless co-optation of a loving symbol to shore up a deeply anti-human set of corporate goals and objectives we despise. It’s the eagerness to embrace a symbol while doing nothing for people with breast cancer (not all of whom are women), and doing nothing to clean up the toxins we deal with every day.  Perhaps worse, it’s the tacit permission for people to substitute shallow “awareness” for real, engaged concern.