Will we cure cancer by — buying stuff? Feel-good pink products — from yogurt cups to teddy bears — are now ubiquitous, promising to send a portion of what you spend on your purchase towards funding cancer research. But many environmentalists concerned about over-consumerism and product safety are raising questions about whether all these pink product purchases are in fact a positive step for human health.

That’s why campaigns like Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink are getting more attention. Started in 2002, Think Before You Pink, by its own description, “calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fund-raising, and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions.”

After all, it’s a lot easier to simply spot a pink ribbon on a product than it is to figure out exactly how much you spend on a purchase will go towards cancer research. Buy a pink ribbon Swiffer, for example, and a mere two cents gets sent to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, points out Kate Dailey in Newsweek: “I would have to buy 500 Swiffer wet thingies to make a $10 donation.”

The often puny donation amounts that allow companies to “pinkwash” their products serve more as a marketing ploy than as a real tool for combating cancer, according to Barbara Brenner, the executive director of Breast Cancer Action. “Nobody who buys this stuff is stupid,” Barbara tells Newsweek, “But they’ve been told by corporate America that buying solves the problem.”

Even more disturbing is the fact that some pink-ribboned products contain substances that have been linked to — cancer! In Newsweek, Brenner points to four questionable product categories cashing in on the pink craze:

Cosmetics companies that use substances that have been tangentially linked to breast cancer; automobile companies (Ford, for example, which has its Warriors in Pink breast cancer awareness program) since there are toxins coming out of the tailpipe; dairy companies using bovine growth hormone rbGH; and alcohol manufacturers who cash in on pink “when we know that too much drinking” can lead to breast cancer, says Brenner.
Brenner isn’t alone in pointing out this irony. Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, discusses the problem of cancer-linked ingredients in cosmetics in her book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. The same companies that refuse to take cancer-linked ingredients out of their products are the ones cashing in on the cancer research-linked pink ribbon marketing!

Does this mean that you should avoid all pink-ribbon products? Not necessarily. After all, Breast Cancer Action’s campaign is called THINK Before You Pink, not DON’T Pink — and the campaign site even has a handy PDF of questions to think about before pinking. Certainly, money for cancer research is needed — but think carefully before you buy to make sure the pink product you’re picking up is actually doing more good than harm. I for one would much rather buy organic yogurt from my farmers market than pick up a pink-lidded Yoplait cup. And that’s even after Yoplait made its yogurt free of cancer-linked rBGH — after Think Before You Pink activists put pressure on the company.

So if you’d like to donate $10 to fight breast cancer, don’t buy 500 Swiffers. Instead, consider donating that money directly to groups like Breast Cancer Action, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and Environmental Working Group — all of which work to limit environmental exposures that put people at risk for breast cancer. That way, more money will go towards reducing the number of people who get cancer in the first place, less to companies cashing in on a do-gooder campaign.

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