8. Taking Action Against Pinkwashing: An Interview with Breast Cancer Action’s Karuna Jaggar

Breast Cancer Action (BCAction) in the San Francisco Bay area was one of the first breast cancer organizations to raise concerns formally about the cancer industry and profiteering in the name of breast cancer. In 2002 Breast Cancer Action started the Think Before You Pink® (TB4UP) campaign, which calls for transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions. As part of the Think Before You Pink campaign, BCAction coined the term “pinkwasher.”

pinkwasher is a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures, and/or sells products linked to the disease.

Over the years “Pinkwasher” has become a common term used to describe the hypocrisy and lack of transparency that surrounds Breast Cancer Awareness Month and fundraising. I’ve been following BCAction’s TB4UP campaign since its inception, and the campaign has called out some of the most egregious forms of pinkwashing from body care products with known carcinogens or reproductive toxins, to the use and manufacture of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) found in many dairy products and linked to cancer. This year TB4UP is focusing, for the second time in its history, on the largest and most visible breast cancer organization in the world, Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. I interviewed BCAction’s executive director, Karuna Jaggar, about Think Before You Pink and its current campaign.

Question 1. Why does BCAction focus on pinkwashing?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the pink ribbon is one of the most successful branding campaigns of the 20th century. Corporations realize large profits by linking their products to a pink ribbon. However, many of these companies, including cosmetic and car companies, are themselves contributing to breast cancer. Breast Cancer Action believes that instead of profiting from breast cancer, these corporations, if they want to make a difference, should be taking action to prevent women from getting sick in the first place.

Question 2. How many pinkwashing campaigns has BCAction created so far?

This is the 10th year of our annual Think Before You Pink® campaign. In the past, we have successfully targeted cosmetic giant Avon; car manufacturers Ford, Mercedes, and BMW; and Yoplait yogurt maker General Mills. This year, our Raise a Stink! campaign targets a perfume commissioned by Susan G. Komen for the Cure that contains chemicals of concern. Here is a timeline of BCAction’s TB4YP campaigns.

Question 3. What is BCAction’s criteria for creating a pinkwashing campaign? 

Each year we evaluate the most egregious pinkwashing examples and select one campaign to draw public attention to the broader issue of pinkwashing. Despite occasional use of the term “pinkwashing” by others to refer simply to pink ribbon marketing campaigns, the term is used specifically to call out the hypocrisy of companies profiting from their affiliation with breast cancer while at the same time producing, manufacturing and selling products that are linked to the disease. It is these entities, that fail to follow through on their self-proclaimed commitment to the cause of breast cancer, that we target for our TB4YP campaigns. Our goals for these campaigns include:

(1)  Changing corporate behavior to demand accountability from specific companies that purport to care about breast cancer;

(2)  Educating consumers about pinkwashing and spreading the word about our “Critical Questions for Conscious Consumers: Think Before you Buy Pink”;

(3)  Raising awareness so that “pinkwashing” corporations aren’t able to exploit good intentions by positioning themselves as leaders in the struggle against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.

Question 4. Tell me specifically about BCAction’s 2011 “Raise a Stink!” Campaign.

This year the giant of the breast cancer world, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, released their commissioned perfume, Promise Me, which they are selling to raise awareness of, and money for, breast cancer. There are a number of chemicals in Promise Me that are not listed on the label—in fact only by independent testing of Promise Me did BCAction discover that Promise Me contains chemicals that are: (a) regulated as toxic and hazardous, (b) have not been evaluated for safety with humans, or (c) which have demonstrated negative health effects. See our fact sheet and video.

Two chemicals of primary concern are Galoxolide and Toluene. Galaxolide is a synthetic musk that works as a hormone disruptor and is found in blood, breast milk, and even in newborns. Toluene is a potent neurotoxicant linked to a variety of demonstrated negative health effects. Toluene is banned by the International Fragrance Association, yet it appears in Promise Me perfume. We have responded with this year’s TB4UP campaign, Raise a Stink!

Raise a Stink! urges Komen to recall Promise Me perfume; to sign a Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing; and to adopt the highest standards when it comes to the products and partnerships they promote.

We ask the public to join us in urging Komen to put patients before profits by taking every precaution when it comes to the ingredients in the pink ribbon products they promote. Our goal is 10,000 letters by the end of October. You can help us urge Komen to use their influence to make sure that companies that are selling pink-ribbon products are taking active steps to ensure their products do not contribute to an increased risk of breast cancer.

Question 5. How has Komen responded to your concerns?

In their written letter to us, Komen has not publicly acknowledged specific threats of harm from Promise Me. However in the same letter, Komen sought to reassure us that they are working with the manufacturer to reformulate Promise Me “to remove any doubt about the ingredients.” While this can sound like a promising step [no pun intended], we are deeply concerned that the current formulation of Promise Me continues to be sold, and women who have already purchased the perfume are not informed about the potential health risks. Furthermore, without adopting a principle of precaution, given that Komen is standing by the current formulation of Promise Me, there is nothing to insure that the future formulation will not contain similar or even worse chemicals.

Question 6. How is this campaign similar to, or different from, pinkwashing campaigns BCAction has done in the past?

Any organization that claims to be working to end breast cancer must adopt the highest precautionary standards to protect women and men from suspected health threats. Our campaigns targeting pinkwashers call for transparency, accountability, and ultimately a recognition of the precautionary principle’s common sense stand, “better safe than sorry.” While our Think Before You Pink campaign has a much broader focus than Komen, pinkwashing has reached a new low this year with Promise Me perfume. We believe that this year’s campaign has enormous potential to move mountains by urging the giant of the field to throw their weight behind prevention through precaution.

I want to be clear that we recognize many of Komen’s contributions to the breast cancer movement. Thirty years ago, Komen was part of a larger movement of activists working to bring attention to, and resources for, breast cancer. Indeed, today, breast cancer is largely destigmatized and there is enormous awareness. I also want to note Komen’s capacity to go out and get women motivated, to bring women together, and help women feel a sense of community. At the same time, we are concerned that Komen’s oversimplification of the issues in many ways impedes progress. In urging Komen to adopt the highest standards, we are calling on Komen to use their influence and power for prevention through precaution. Women’s lives are at stake. I encourage your readers to turn outrage into action and send a letter to Komen.

Question 7. This is the SECOND time Komen has been the focus of one of BCAction’s campaigns. Tell me about the Pink Buckets.

In 2010 Komen launched a marketing campaign with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), who was selling pink buckets of chicken to raise money for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Breast Cancer Action questioned how Komen and KFC could justify pairing up to encourage people to buy pink buckets of chicken supposedly to put an end to breast cancer forever. Fast food in general is unhealthy, and much of it is marketed to low-income communities, which disproportionately suffer from poor breast cancer outcomes and other problems that may be aggravated by an unhealthy diet.

At the time of the “Buckets for a Cure” marketing campaign, KFC was embroiled in a law suit related to their chicken’s high levels of PhIP, a byproduct of the grilling process listed on the state of California’s list of carcinogens. People were being encouraged to buy carcinogenic grilled chicken, which also raises the risk of heart disease and breast cancer in the name of raising awareness of, and money for, breast cancer. It was a clear case of pinkwashing. Our “What the Cluck?” campaign resonated with the public and and was picked up by many media sources. It certainly raised the level of awareness about pinkwashing.

Question 8. What was Komen’s response?

I have to note that I am particularly disturbed that with both What the Cluck? and Raise a Stink!, Komen responded by putting the responsibility for personal health on the consumer rather than on the business or industry. This insistence that consumers have access to the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe and have the ability to act on that information reveals a disturbing lack of insight and understanding related to social inequities in this country. Instead of partnering with corporations that sell unhealthy food, we believe that Susan G. Komen for the Cure should use its influence to ensure that their partners or their products do not contribute to the breast cancer epidemic.

Question 9. It seems to me that it is especially egregious for a breast cancer organization raising money in the name of a cure to create partnerships with companies that manufacture questionable products when it comes to public health. Is there anything the public can do to keep such things from happening in the future?

Our current Raise a Stink! campaign urges Komen to sign our Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing. Essentially, having brought the problems with their perfume to their attention, we have encouraged Komen to use this opportunity to audit, if you will, their other partnerships and to take a principled stand to work with their current and future partners to end pinkwashing.

Despite all the money raised in the name of breast cancer today, too many women are diagnosed with breast cancer, too many women are dying, and we still don’t know enough about why. To ensure that women are not unnecessarily put at increased risk, we follow the precautionary principle as it relates to breast cancer. When there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing a product or chemical may increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, precautionary measures should be taken even if direct cause-and-effect relationships have not yet been established scientifically. It may be years until a complete understanding of environmental  research is  validated. We believe that when there is suspected risk, even in the absence of complete scientific consensus, we must adopt the highest standards:  when in doubt, leave it out! Please join us by sending a letter to Komen and asking 10 friends to commit to sending a letter as well.

Question 10. Is there anything else you would like to add? 

We need less pink and more action. We need action that changes the ways the breast cancer industry does business; action that regulates toxic substances; and action that holds corporations responsible for the ingredients in their products that increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. By joining together to take action that benefits the health of all women, not just ourselves individually, we can prevent future generations of women from receiving a breast cancer diagnosis.

Less pink, more action—because action speaks louder than pink!

Komen’s response about Pinkwashing in The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “We need to raise money and we’re not apologetic about it.”


Click Here for Breast Cancer Action’s 2011 Think Before You Pink Toolkit!







For more consciousness raising essays, check out “30 Days of Breast Cancer Awareness.”

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4 comments to 8. Taking Action Against Pinkwashing: An Interview with Breast Cancer Action’s Karuna Jaggar

  • Wonderful posting and interview!

    I was one of those many people who sent a letter to Komen about the perfume and received the form letter that made me want to puke. No authentic acknowledgment from the Komen organization.

  • What an important post with some great information about the valuable work that is being done by BCA. I particularly took notice of the statement under question #6 that said, “Any organization that claims to be working to end breast cancer must adopt the highest precautionary standards to protect women and men from suspected health threats.”

    I applaud BCA for being such a viligant watch dog in attempting to hold corporations accountable. Less pink more action-because action speaks louder than pink! Gotta love that!

  • Nancee

    I also sent a letter to Komen with my concerns regarding “Promise Me” perfume. I received the following letter in return.

    In response to the following letter I wrote back and said that I felt it appalling that they did not recall the perfume and take the current perfume off store shelves! Women and girls are using that toxic scent while manufacturers of the stink are reformulating the perfume to be distributed in 2012.

    Bad news!

    From: news
    To: quiltcat26@sbcglobal.net
    Sent: Tue, October 11, 2011 7:00:31 PM
    Subject: Your email to Susan G. Komen for the CureR

    Thank you for your email to Susan G. Komen for the Cure® about the Promise Me fragrance. The fragrance was designed especially for Susan G. Komen for the Cure by TPR Holdings, which is donating $1 million to Komen annually for breast cancer research, education, screening, and treatment programs. The funds raised through the sale of the perfume will be put to good use in the pursuit of that goal.

    Our first concern is always the safety and well-being of women and men facing this disease. To that end, our partners’ products are subject to review by our Medical and Scientific Affairs team, which evaluated the perfume’s ingredients, the latest research, and guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    According to our research, the ingredients found in Promise Me are within fragrance and cosmetic industry standards, and at these levels have not been shown to elevate breast cancer risk in people. At Susan G. Komen for the Cure, we support evidence-based medicine, that is, decisions based on current facts and knowledge. In addition, we make this information available to our constituents, respecting that they are intelligent consumers who make informed decisions about the use of products based on evidence. As new research and new findings are published, we will certainly take them into account.

    Nevertheless, at Komen’s request and to be sensitive to these concerns, the manufacturer agreed to reformulate the perfume. The last batch of the perfume was manufactured in May of this year; we expect manufacturing and sale of the reformulated product to begin in early 2012. We do not intend to ask the manufacturer to recall or remove unsold products.

    Komen has always believed that ending cancer requires research about how it begins and how it might be prevented, which is why Komen has invested more than $65 million to prevention research and an additional $7 million supporting 18 projects investigating environmental estrogens, pesticides, steroid hormones, and nitrites/nitrates and their relation to breast cancer.

    We’re also taking action for clarity and consensus around the direction that environmental research should take in the future, which is why we requested – and are funding – a $1 million study by the Institute of Medicine to answer that question. We expect IOM’s recommendations in December, along with IOM’s assessment of evidence-based strategies for individuals to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

    Komen is strongly committed to addressing breast cancer through science, advocacy and community and global outreach to achieve our mission to end breast cancer, forever.


  • This really opened my eyes. I’ve been a fan of BCA’s Think Before You Pink site for years, but it didn’t even occur to me to question the ingredients in the perfume – how infuriating that Komen endorses it!

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

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Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

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Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

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Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today