31 years ago, a ribbon sparked a cause and movement. In 1991 Charlotte Haley designed and distributed a salmon-colored ribbon to raise awareness about breast cancer, a disease which her grandmother and sister suffered. Two years later, Haley’s grassroots effort and handmade ribbon morphed into a national campaign when Evelyn Lauder, founder of the Estée Lauder Cosmetic Companies and a breast cancer survivor, established the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to help design what has now become the iconic bright pink ribbon.
Estée Lauder Companies went further and became part of a collaborative group of breast cancer fundraising organizations and corporations. The powerful coalition took breast cancer awareness to a new level by establishing October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month and branding the international education and information campaign with pink merchandise.
This month, we see pink merchandise everywhere during what’s now called “Pinktober.” The modest ribbons, tee shirts and hats of the original movement have been dwarfed by all manner of blush, rose and fuschia products ranging from unique jewelry to even a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. The corporate coalition can take credit for raising significant donations, but advocates say that increasingly, pink merchandising is less about the cause and more about the coffers of pink product producers.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in all women, behind lung cancer. But Black women have the highest rate of death from breast cancer. Earlier this month, American Cancer Society researchers reported that even though Black women have a 4% lower incidence rate than white women, they have a 40% higher breast cancer death rate.
That data is personally devastating to me. My beloved aunt succumbed to breast cancer back when the options for diagnosis and treatment were few. My childhood friend Donna was the first young person I knew to die from it. Several of my closest Black friends have survived after months of grappling with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hair loss. My best friend from high school, still so dear to me, successfully beat back a second early-stage recurrence of the disease five years ago — only to have it return again this year.
Maybe that’s why “Pinktober” sends me over the edge. I don’t have time for the subterfuge, the extensive pink hyping of products and services allegedly in the name of the cause. Do not misunderstand me — the money raised this month directly funds research centers and treatments for women and men who have breast cancer. What bothers me is the annual “pink shell” game — a con perpetrated by merchandisers who pink up their profits by donating a paltry 5 to 10% of their product’s purchase price while they pocket the rest. Or, the companies who promote breast cancer awareness but are not transparent about chemicals in their products possibly linked to cancer-causing properties, which the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action calls “pinkwashing.”
This is my annual plea: Don’t be blinded by the rose-colored light. Support the companies that give 100 percent of the pink merchandise profits to breast cancer research. I’ll give a shout out Ralph Lauren’s pink pony oxford shirt and Bobbi Brown’s lipsticks and other 100-percenters. Avoid the pink peddlers perpetuating a morally indefensible scam: “Think Before You Pink.”