By now, many people know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s kind of hard to ignore all the pink ribbons splashed across storefront displays and stadiums. In recent years, corporations have started participating in annual pinkwashing campaigns, events and product placement tied to Breast Cancer Awareness Month and ostensibly raising awareness and money for the cure. But many of the most visible companies slapping pink ribbons on their products also have the most to hide when it comes to carcinogenic materials, toxic ingredients and rampant anti-woman attitudes and practices.
This corporate pinkwashing hypocrisy happens every year. Back in 2008, watchdog group Breast Cancer Action took on Yoplait, whose ubiquitous pink foil lids raise money and awareness. But Yoplait yogurt (and other General Mills dairy products) contained recumbent Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), the synthetic version of bovine somatotropin (BST), which the European Union and Canada have banned citing possible human and animal health impacts. (Dannon later followed suit and also phased out the use of rBGH/rBST.) In 2010, Susan G. Komen for the Cure partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose chicken contains unsafe levels of carcinogens. Last year, it was discovered that the organization's pink ribbon-branded Promise Me perfume contained hormone-disrupting chemicals like galaxolide. While many of these toxic products have since been pulled thanks to pressure from activist groups and public outcry, it doesn’t stop major conglomerates from trotting out the same ridiculous tricks every October.
This year is no different. For every well-intentioned campaign meant to raise awareness about the need for breast cancer research and funding, branded products still contain cancer-linked chemicals and toxins. Athletic teams look like they’ve bathed in Pepto Bismol, yet their high-profile athletes are still being accused and convicted of egregious sex crimes. Food manufacturing giants use packaging full of cancer-linked chemicals, yet partner with breast cancer organizations to funnel money toward research. Can you spot the biggest losers in this year’s depressing lineup of toxic pink products?
1. Taste the Hypocrisy
Since 2011, the Breast Cancer Fund has been actively campaigning Progresso to phase out the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in its soup cans. BPA is a known endocrine disruptor, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, obesity, and attention and developmental disorders. Even though soup giant Campbell began phasing out the chemical earlier this year, Progresso persists in using an epoxy resin containing BPA to line its cans. Despite this, Progresso rolled out pink ribbon can labels for the month of October. Those lids you should save so parent company General Mills can donate to cancer research? They’re coated in cancer-linked chemicals.
Gretchen Lee Salter, policy manager at the Breast Cancer Fund, says being transparent about packaging is crucial for companies hoping to court critical consumers. Companies including Amy’s Kitchen and Trader Joe’s have pulled back the curtain to reveal the chemicals in their packaging, and natural foods company Eden Foods has gone the extra mile to explain to consumers why effective but chemical-free packaging can be a challenge to find.
To Salter, it’s shocking that Progresso has dug in its heels and stopped corresponding about BPA and chemical transparency. “Their statements are inadequate,” she said. In regard to other companies, she notes, “[It’s] utterly surprising how much [packaging transparency] has caught on. It speaks volumes and it should.”
2. Sugar-Coated Campaign
Progresso isn’t the only General Mills brand to give the side eye this month. A laundry list of other items, including sugary snacks, processed cereals and whipped yogurts that are also part of this year’s Save Lids to Save Lives campaign have one thing in common: sugar. Sugar alone doesn’t necessarily cause health problems, but researchers have started to point to definitive links between high sugar intake and obesity, diabetes, and even some types of cancer.
Health and science journalist Gary Taubes wrote about sugar for the New York Times Magazine in 2011. In “Is Sugar Toxic?” he explained, “In animals, or at least in laboratory rats and mice, it’s clear that if the fructose hits the liver in sufficient quantity and with sufficient speed, the liver will convert much of it to fat. This apparently induces a condition known as insulin resistance, which is now considered the fundamental problem in obesity, and the underlying defect in heart disease and in the type of diabetes, type 2, that is common to obese and overweight individuals. It might also be the underlying defect in many cancers.”
Bottom line: Better to be safe than sorry. A steady diet of processed, sugary foods hardly justifies any financial benefit that might come from mailing in a few pink lids for charity.
3. Skin-Deep Charity
Thirteen-year-old Talia Castellano recently made headlines when the young makeup blogger appeared as a guest on “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” Castellano has been battling two forms of cancer for the last several years and says, “I love and adore makeup, using it as my wig and having so much self-confidence to go out to the grocery store without a wig.” CoverGirl not only brought Castellano on the show and gave her $20,000, they even made her an honorary Cover Girl.
Castellano’s inspiring story is perfect PR for a company that isn’t exactly known for its non-toxic ingredients. In fact, many products made by Procter and Gamble, the skincare and cosmetics giant behind CoverGirl, Max Factor and Pantene brands, contain what is often known as the toxic trio: parabens, formaldehyde and phthalates. The Breast Cancer Fund recently persuaded Johnson & Johnson to phase out its use of carcinogens and toxins in its various lines of skincare and beauty products. Procter and Gamble, Estee Lauder and Unilever were all encouraged to follow suit.
Instead of responding to calls to remove carcinogens from its products, this month P&G partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to raise money for early detection awareness campaigns. P&G will donate $1 to NBCF for every breast exam pledge that Facebook users create. Much like Castellano’s heartwarming story, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with awareness and prevention. But once again, the company leading the charge is one that peddles products full of cancer-linked toxins. Maybe this partnership would be a bit more credible if the money spent on early detection campaigns was instead used to find alternative non-toxic ingredients for Procter and Gamble’s widely available cosmetics.
4. Pinkwashing Sexual Violence and Misogyny, NFL-Style
Do pink ribbons and jerseys on the field mean football stars care about women’s health? As Maura Kelly wrote in the New York Daily News, it seems unlikely. Though the National Football League is in its fourth year of plastering stadiums with pink dÃ©cor and giving players and coaches pink apparel to wear throughout October, their anti-women actions during the other 11 months of the year might make women’s health and safety advocates raise an eyebrow or two.
“It’s hard to take this over-the-top effort seriously, given that the NFL sure doesn’t have a reputation for being terribly concerned about women—or their bodies,” Kelly wrote. She went on to list a number of the sexual violence and assault charges brought against high-profile NFL players in the past few years, including Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger’s multiple sexual assault accusations—which have barely been acknowledged by Roethlisberger or the League—and NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor’s 2010 rape conviction, which put him behind bars for 16 years.
Those are only a few of the most recent domestic and sexual assault charges brought against players in the NFL, an organization that largely seems unconcerned with the violent off-field actions of its players. In 2010, quarterback Brett Favre was fined just $50,000 for failing to cooperate with an NFL probe into sexual misconduct allegations for texting explicit photos to sports reporter Jenn Sterger—an amount that would have taken Favre just three minutes to earn based on his $16 million contract that year. Earlier this year, the Miami Dolphins released receiver Chad Johnson from his contract after he was charged with domestic battery. Even research shows that NFL losses correlate to increased reports of domestic violence. A 2011 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that violence against women spikes 10 percent higher than average when a pro football team loses a home game.
Jeff Benedict and Don Yeager’s 1999 book Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL may be dated but it's still relevant. Surveying the 1996/1997 season, Benedict and Yeager found that one in five NFL players had been charged with at least one serious crime, many involving sexual abuse or assault. This is common knowledge among NFL regulators, yet violent players are kept in the league so long as they can score on the field. While the crimes of few shouldn’t diminish the good work of many, when 21 percent of your players have been charged with crimes involving excessive violence and sexual misconduct, it’s a pretty clear indicator that the NFL isn’t exactly a bastion of pro-woman activism. Donning a pink jersey a few times a year doesn’t mean much without a look towards more comprehensive attitude changes in the wide world of sports.
5. Drink For Pink?
Plastic water bottles are just one more carrier of the toxic chemicals found in most plastics. A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that more than 70 percent of consumer plastic products from baby bottles to bags—and including those labeled BPA-free—released estrogen-mimicking chemicals even before being exposed to conditions like sunlight, dishwashers or microwaves that often cause additional chemical reactions. Why buy questionably packaged water when H2O from the tap is free from leeching chemicals and a free public service?
That’s a question that remains unanswered. This year, Susan G. Komen for the Cure partnered with several bottled water companies, including LaCroix Sparkling Water and Evian. Neither distributor would offer statements about the safety of its bottles. Perhaps even more problematic, bottled water company Athena was founded by a breast cancer survivor and hawks pink-label bottles especially designed for the October awareness campaign. While all donate proceeds to breast cancer research, it remains unclear how selling a product full of cancer-related chemicals should be seen as shopping for the cause.
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