It’s October, which means it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month ­­– or as we like to call it Breast Cancer Business Month – where hundreds of companies try to gain consumer loyalty and boost sales by pinkwashing their products.

Pinkwashing, a term coined in 2002 by Breast Cancer Action, is a way to describe, “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 that are linked to the disease.”

It also represents a trend that causes many breast cancer patients/survivors to want to turn a blind eye on all the pink promotions taking place – with the knowledge that many companies are doing so more to make a buck than actually support the cause.

The first use of the pink ribbon in connection to breast cancer awareness was by the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 1991, as they passed out pink ribbons to all breast cancer survivors and participants of the Komen New York City Race for the Cure. The pink ribbon was then adopted in 1992, as the official symbol for Nation Breast Cancer Awareness Month, derived from the popular red ribbon for AIDS awareness. 

It's easy to understand why so many brands want to get involved with the Breast Cancer Awareness industry. Nonprofits raise approximately $3 billion a year for breast cancer, and there are more than 1,400 breast cancer-related charities to partner with. In 2010, a study by Cone Cause Evolution found that 93% of customers would switch to cause-supporting brands if given the choice. 

Because the pink ribbon is not licensed or regulated by a corporation, the meaning of the pink ribbon remains vague and is therefore, commonly abused by companies that donate little or none of their revenue to breast cancer research or supporting organizations. Some products have a pink ribbon to show that they are “healthy,” but have zero contributions to breast cancer. Others say their ribbon “supports breast cancer programs,” even if the company’s contributions are not tied to the product purchases.

Many companies that sell pink ribbon products say that a percentage of each sale is donated to a breast cancer program, but which ones? How do you know really know where your money ends up? If we can’t find out how much of our purchase supports a breast cancer program, the chances are our money won’t be reaching them. What we also aren’t aware of is that some companies even put an arbitrary cap on their maximum donation, so once that amount is met, it’s solely the company’s profit. 

Ethical controversies also lie within beauty companies, such as Estée Lauder and Avon, who have donated millions to breast cancer research and awareness. According to reports, their products are filled with toxic chemicals linked to increasing cancer risk and can actually interfere with breast cancer treatment. 

With these known facts, amongst many more, it’s important to “think before you pink.” If you truly want to contribute to the cause, the most secure way to do so is by donating directly to a breast cancer organization of your choice. Or better yet, reach out to a woman you know fighting the disease and offer some heartfelt support.

To read more about pinkwashing, check out Think Before You Pink – a project that Breast Cancer Action created in response to the growing concern of pink ribbon products on the market.