Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pink Stink

OK, before I embark on this rant I have a disclaimer to make about something I haven’t discussed much yet: perfume.  Perfume and fragrance are absolutely terrible for us. When you see fragrance listed as an ingredient, no matter how clean the rest of the ingredients are, you should probably put that product back on the shelf and run. Because of trade secret laws, fragrance can literally contain hundreds of different chemicals. Because there are effectively no laws protecting consumers against harmful chemicals in personal care products, these chemicals can be anything. Phthalates are huge in fragrance, and that’s just one category of known carcinogens. AND, there can be dozens of phthalates in dozens of combinations causing who-knows-what chemical reactions….it’s a mess. Perfume itself? Oh, man. An undiluted chem-fest.

So now here’s the disclaimer: I wear perfume. I know, I know! Hypocrite, right? Right. But I don’t wear it very often, and I don’t put it on my skin, I put it on my clothes. I know, that only mitigates how much exposure my skin receives, not my lungs. And, I am automatically exposing other people to these chemicals when I wear it. Stop lecturing me, I get it!  (Nag much?) But here’s the thing. I’m a girly girl. I like perfume, it makes me feel good. This life is hard enough, and I am POSITIVE that I have worse habits than the occasional spritz of perfume. (Seriously, I know this for sure.)

But October is nearly upon us like a pink pillow to the face. Some of us see those ribbons and just groan. (Last night we got pizza and it came in a pink box. Really, Hungry Howie’s? Do you not have a calendar?) That damn ribbon has become not just a symbol, but a logo. A logo for all things marketing based, but worse than that, it’s disguised as charity. Literally billions of dollars in profit are made from products just because a pink ribbon is on the packaging or the product, and a fraction of proceeds raised goes to breast cancer-type organizations. Some orgs are really worthwhile and do a lot of good (like the Pink Daisy Project, see my link!) and some, well…..aren’t.

My concern here is the companies who slap a pink ribbon on a personal care product and then market the living hell out of it to women, knowing full well that these products contain harmful chemicals. It’s called “pinkwashing.” It’s the practice of marketing products under the banner of breast cancer awareness (and/or fundraising) while engaging in practices that promote cancer. Some of these companies are the “leaders” in women’s issues, or at least they claim to be. And I am not denying that they donate a lot of money to breast cancer organizations. (I do have an issue with some of those organizations, but that’s another topic.)  I wonder at what cost.

Companies like Avon, Revlon, and Estee Lauder claim that they are dedicated to “breast cancer awareness” which is a term with no real meaning outside of marketing.  Think about it. What does “breast cancer awareness” mean? Everyone is aware it exists, and that the pink ribbon is its symbol. Most people know that it strikes one woman in eight, and most people know someone who has had breast cancer. That’s it. That’s the extent of the awareness. People aren’t really aware of the real facts of breast cancer, and it’s not Avon’s or Estee’s goal to really educate them. It’s their goal to sell products, and the pink ribbon does that really well. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, except I have a problem when deceptive measures are used, and I think the pink ribbon tends to indicate that deceptive measures are being used. (I think of it more as a red flag than a pink ribbon. But that’s just me.) The whole concept is called “cause marketing.” I think that the main thing to remember is that while there is a cause, the primary goal is marketing. When we buy pink, we think we’re doing something charitable, but we’re primarily doing something profitable. We need to always remember that.

Before I go any further, let me take a minute to thank all of the consumers who are trying to do something good by participating in these marketing campaigns. I get that consumers have good intentions, and if the companies’ intentions were as good, then I would have no problem with cause marketing. But the contract is one-sided. If you look at the fine print, the for-profits are making out pretty damn well. The nonprofits are doing just fine, too, because remember that they have financial goals too. You know who doesn’t seem to be faring so well in this whole campaign? The fight against breast cancer. We are no closer to a cure than we were ten years ago, or even better screening, or treatment options for most breast cancers, especially metastatic breast cancer. What we do have is a lot of hype and misinformation; a lot of false beliefs and a lot of denial. We like to think we have hope, but that really depends on one’s perspective.

There are a lot of products with which I take issue, but today I mainly want to discuss a perfume. As I said before, perfume is packed with chemicals that do bad things to our bodies, including causing cancer, screwing with our endocrine and reproductive systems, and respiratory systems, among other things. It practically assaults the whole female setup. Now get this:

The Susan G. Komen Foundation has commissioned a perfume. I swear, I am not making this up. It’s called “Promise Me” and the proceeds will go to the Komen Foundation. (Don’t even get me started on that. Seriously.)

Really, Komen? Really? Do you know how many breast cancer patients are going to get a bottle of Promise Me this October? Because we get it all. Somebody eventually finds every pink ribbon item and buys it for us, no matter how ridiculous or inappropriate. (Pink ribbon bras. Seriously. I’ve seen it.) Not to mention the fact that smell is particularly sensitive for women in chemo. This product takes insensitivity to a brand-new low. (The first person to buy me a bottle of Promise Me is going to drink it. I Promise You.) But mostly, I am so disappointed in the lack of responsibility. Are we willing to sell anything in order to make a dollar? (Um…duh. YES.) It’s sad and infuriating that we are selling carcinogens to fight cancer. There should have been someone, in some meeting, who raised their hands and said “Uh…this may not be such a good idea. Let’s slow down for a minute here and think this through.”

"But Cassie," you say, "what's your problem? You wear perfume. Why can't they market a perfume with a ribbon on it? If it makes money that goes toward ending breast cancer, isn't it a fair price to pay? It's not meth, here. We're talking about perfume!" And that's a reasonable point. However, here's my problem: It's pinkwashing. Simple as that. I wear perfume knowing the risks, and that the risks are mine to take and manage. Komen claims to be an advocate for women's health, and this product goes against women's health. I represent only myself. My goals are personal goals. When I wear perfume, I don't give the impression that I'm trying to change the world. When someone purchases a bottle of Promise Me, they are doing so under the impression that they are having a positive effect in the fight against breast cancer. They aren't. In fact, many of the ingredients in the pretty bottle of pink perfume are known carcinogens. And that's deceptive. And that's my problem.
Not all products (personal or otherwise) with the ribbon are bad. Cause marketing is not all bad; there is, after all, usually a cause involved. But read the fine print. Often, a company will pledge a flat amount to one of the breast cancer orgs whether they sell any of their pink ribbon stuff or not. It’s a gamble for them, but not really much of one. The pink ribbon sells, so if they pump product into the market with a ribbon, it’s going to sell. But frankly, that means your purchase really doesn’t make a difference. You know what does make a difference? A donation. Find an organization you support (breast cancer or otherwise) and donate the money instead. If you want to do it to support an individual person, donate in their name and send them a card. (I would rather get a notice of donation than a pink-ribbon snuggie any day of the week.) That way you know that 100% of your donation goes directly to the organization you support. And if you're worried about personally putting an end to the pink ribbon madness, and thereby being the cause of the collapse of the pink empire, please don't. Not that many people read my blog.
Some interesting reading:


  1. I agree. I am sick and tired of seeing companies exploit causes for their profit. "A portion of proceeds goes to fight breast cancer/AIDS/save the whales!!" We as consumers need to stop and think "What does this mean exactly?" It could mean they are donating $1 to the cause and keeping millions.
    What is worse is when they promote products that go against their marketing "cause". That whole breast cancer perfume thing is crazy. It would be like an organization that promotes casual unprotected sex to have AIDS Awareness as their new cause. (Ok that is stretching it, but I'm trying to make a point here!)

  2. I don't think your comparison is a stretch at all, I think you're right! Think about the partnership between Komen and KFC. KFC is not part of a healthy diet, and unhealthy eating habits lead to cancer, (and other serious health problems,)it's that simple. I'm not preaching about lifestyle here, I am preaching about standards. Komen's should be higher. People would be OUTRAGED if these same standards were applied to HIV/AIDS fundraising. (And thanks for the comment & for reading!)