Cutting the Ribbon: Ending Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s Economy of Pink

In the spring of 2010, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed was a pretty shitty summer that got shittier when I had to return to college for my senior year, three hours away from her and my family as she went through treatment after treatment, struggling against a disease that will claim the lives of approximately 40,000 women in 2014. It is not something I talk lightly, or even openly, about. To watch a family member struggle, and to feel helpless in alleviating their pain and heartache, is a burden I wish on no one.

Prefacing that, I must tell you: I hate October, and what we know as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

(That is to say, I do not hate efforts made to raise awareness for breast cancer, though I do question, in 2014, how much more “awareness” do we really need?)

No, what draws my ire is the “economy of pink” that we are surrounded with for the month of October. We drape pink ribbon through the aisles of our grocery stores, we dye our city’s canals pink (it never comes out right. Ever.), energy drink companies hock special Breast Cancer-related pink lemonade flavors, and professional and collegiate athletic teams wear pink-tinged gear, all for some reason. There are allusions to “portions of all proceeds” being donated towards “research,” pleas to “join us in the fight,” and challenges to “show your support.”

What we’re being sold on is not providing direct support to programs working towards a cure for cancer, but instead supporting the pocketbooks of those that have created the culture of pink. Launched in 2002 by the group Breast Cancer Action, the Think Before You Pink project has worked hard to dispel that culture, providing consumers with evidence as to where their dollars go when they support these companies in their “support.”

EXAMPLE: In 2010, Dansko shoe company sold pink ribbon clogs. Consumers likely thought that a portion of their purchase of pink ribbon clogs went to a breast cancer program. However, purchase of the pink ribbon clogs was not connected to Dansko’s donation—none of the portion of the sales went toward their already set donation of $25,000 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. No matter whether or not you bought the clogs, their donation was the same.

Companies, such as Foot Locker, also state that a portion of the profits earned off of pink products are donated to various organizations that support the fight against breast cancer. What they do not make known is that they have set a cap on how much of their proceeds they will actually donate, be it $250,000 or $2,500. And, of course, they do not inform their consumers when they have hit that cap, meaning people will continue to purchase the pink items thinking they are contributing to the “fight.”

The NFL itself has recently come under fire after light has been shown upon their “Crucial Catch” program, a program that actually spreads misinformation regarding breast cancer to its female viewers (shocking, I know, that the NFL is out of touch with issues that actually affect women). While the NFL sells the idea that “early detection is key,” studies exist that show early detection does not in fact save lives, along with leading to patients being over-diagnosed, and that the health programs pushed by the NFL and its “Crucial Catch” program actually spread information that is harmful to women.
Outside of the “Crucial Catch” program, the NFL also forces players to wear gear that is highlighted pink during their October games, under the guise of “raising awareness.” Fans can purchase similar gear directly from the NFL’s online shop. When clicking on an item, its description reads, “100% of the NFL’s proceeds from Pink product sales go to the American Cancer Society. For further information, please visit www.NFL.com/Pink.

If you follow the link to www.NFL.com/pink, it takes you the homepage for the “Crucial Catch” program, with some basic statistics on breast cancer and a link to donate directly to the American Cancer Society. At the bottom of the page, it reads,

All NFL Pink product is produced by official NFL licensees. As NFL licensees, such companies pay a royalty (% of wholesale sales) to the NFL when selling officially licensed products to retailers worldwide. The NFL receives payment of that wholesale royalty once licensees sell their respective NFL licensed products to distributors and retailers (i.e., the royalty is not based on retailers’ consumer-facing prices in-store or online).

What does this mean? For every $100 in pink gear sold, $12.50 goes back to the NFL. Of that $12.50, it donates $11.25 to the American Cancer Society and keeps the rest. The remaining money from that sale is then divided up between the company that makes the merchandise and the company that sells the merchandise, which, get this, is often the NFL and its individual teams. And, of that $11.25 that goes to the ACS, only 71.2$ actually goes towards research and programs. [www.businessinsider.com]

Couple that with the knowledge that the machines used in the early detection screenings the “Crucial Catch” program pushes are made by GE, an NFL corporate partner, it is easy to see how your time and dollar could be put to better use.

The NCAA’s football teams, along with several female programs, also deck their players out in pink gear, primarily under the guise of “raising awareness” and “showing support.” The official NCAA shop does not sell pink gear, and the largest retailer that does, www.cbssports.com, makes no mention of any financial support being provided to breast cancer research or programs, instead saying only, “Support pink ribbon culture and show your team’s part in the battle against breast cancer with pink ribbon T-Shirts, Hats, Sweatshirts and Accessories… Get ready for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and order your pink hat, T-Shirt, hoodie or pink ribbon bracelet and have it shipped with our low $4.99 3-day shipping.”

Now with low $4.99 3-day shipping!

The list of corporations that exploit the goodwill and dollars of its consumers in the name of “support” goes on and on, including Kohls, Living Essentials, LLC (the maker of 5-Hour Energy, which will donate only 5%, or approximately $.11, to the Living Beyond Breast Cancer program), and even KFC (whose grilled chicken includes a byproduct listed as a carcinogen in the state of California).

Instead of choosing to support (with your dollars, because in the end financial support is the only thing that will effectively make a difference towards curing cancer) these corporations, take the time to research local organizations in your area that are doing amazing, hands-on work to actually provide care and support to women, men, and their families fighting breast cancer in your area.

One such program here in Indiana is 100 Voices of Hope at the Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. In Chicago, there is the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, which works towards eliminating the gap in health care available to women who are without insurance or are living in low-income areas through advocating for increased funding to programs that provide free screenings for uninsured women, along with working with legislative officials to actively affect policy and improve healthcare for women of all race, ethnicity, and economic background.

For your hometown, www.GuideStar.org/NonprofitDirectory.aspx provides a simple and detailed listing of organizations in your area with which you can actively help in making a difference.

It is on all of our shoulders to stop buying into the economy of pink, while educating ourselves in how our money given in “support” is actually spent. It might be too much to hope that an organization like the NFL would succumb to actual social pressure, but perhaps next October, with dollars better spent, we, as the brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and friends of breast cancer patients worldwide, can began to show the business community what support actually means.

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