Are you really shopping for the cure?

Cause marketing. Sounds wonkish, doesn’t it? But you’ve probably encountered this type of marketing more than you think. Ever heard the phrase “shop for the cure”?

Cause marketing occurs when a company gives a portion of its profits to a charitable entity. It’s presented as a win-win relationship, because cause marketing not only benefits the charity, but it’s also a boon to the company’s public image and its sales. Cause marketing tends to be directed toward women, because they’re the main consumers of smaller-scale goods such as groceries, cosmetics, and household appliances.

Breast cancer is the poster child of cause marketing. As one of the most common cancers to strike women, breast cancer affects most women’s lives in some way.  Because of this, many companies market products with the promise to give a portion of the proceeds to help women with breast cancer. Often these products (or their packaging) are pink, a color that has become a recognizable symbol for breast cancer causes. But many advocates are urging women to take a closer look before we “go pink” — it might not be as pretty as we think.

A significant problem with many of these breast cancer marketing campaigns is that corporations are benefiting from them far more than cancer research is. In 2002, Eureka donated $1 to breast cancer research for every WhirlWind LiteSpeed vacuum cleaner it sold. Not only is a dollar less than 1 percent of the cost of a vacuum, but Eureka capped its contribution at $250,000, regardless of how many vacuums the campaign helped to sell. Similarly, since 1997, Yoplait has clamored for consumers to purchase its pink-lidded containers of yogurt and mail the lids back to the company. For each lid received, Yoplait donates 10¢ to the battle against breast cancer.  You would have to eat three containers of Yoplait every day during the four-month campaign to raise $36 for the cause. These two corporations are not alone in leading consumers to believe that their purchases are more beneficial to the cause than to the corporation’s profit margin.

In addition to being misleading, some breast cancer–focused cause marketing is actually dangerous to women’s health. Cosmetic companies have been very public in their desire to sell products for the cause, but they have not been as strident about making their products safe. For example, in 2009 a bill was introduced in the California state legislature (AB 2012) regarding the public’s right to know about carcinogenic and reproductive toxins in makeup. The Mary Kay corporation was a vocal opponent of the bill.  Many of the very same cosmetics that women purchase “for the cure” contain chemicals that researchers have long suspected of contributing to breast cancer, such as phthalates (thay-lates), chemicals commonly found in nail polish, facial moisturizers, and hand lotions. While phthalates are generally strongly regulated by our government, they are not restricted in beauty products, because cosmetics aren’t subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Likewise, estrogen-mimicking chemicals known as parabens (pair-a-bens) are the most widely used preservatives in the country, especially behind the cosmetics counter. But studies have confirmed that there is a link between breast tumors and parabens.

Despite these studies, the American Chemical Council (ACC), a group funded by the cosmetics industry, maintains that phthalates and parabens are safe, and opposes efforts to require greater safety testing for consumer products like cosmetics.

Cosmetics companies should stop using these potentially cancer-causing ingredients because safer alternatives are available. In the meantime, we need to stop companies from selling us toxic products under the guise of helping cure cancer. “Pink-washing” a product won’t save anyone’s life if the contents aren’t safe.

What you can do

✦            Read the fine print. If you can’t tell where the donation is being directed to, or how much of the proceeds are going to charity, you might want to rethink your purchase.

✦            Ask who benefits. Be sure that your pennies are winding up where they can do the most good.

✦            Make sure your makeup kit is safe by using the searchable product guide at the Environmental Working Group’s online report, Skin Deep.

✦            Go to Breast Cancer Action’s website and send an email to cosmetic company executives, asking that they remove harmful chemicals from their products.

Cathleen Witter is Cochair, Younger Women’s Task Force, National Council of Women’s Organizations. Excerpted from the book Fifty Ways to Improve Women's Lives © 2009 by the National Council of Women's Organizations. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

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