By Evelynn Chen, Communications Intern
As a final project for their Health Science II Honors class, six students from Apex High School in North Carolina took collective action directed at The Estée Lauder Companies and subsidiary brand Becca Cosmetics.
The junior students—Emily, Gabriella, Jaden, Kate, Kate, and Reese—wrote a letter to the cosmetics giant, co-signed by their classmates, calling out a Becca Cosmetics pink ribbon marketing campaign for their product, “Ultimate Lipstick Love Breast Cancer Awareness.”
The group of students reached out to Breast Cancer Action (BCAction) in April of this year with the goal of making a difference in the realm of breast cancer. BCAction staff worked with the students and offered educational resources outlining our stance on breast cancer, corporate accountability, and pink ribbon marketing culture.
From writing social media posts to putting together care packages, students suggested a variety of methods by which they could help address the breast cancer crisis. But upon learning about our organization, pinkwashing, and mainstream pink ribbon marketing culture, they decided to target a local pinkwasher with a mini-Think Before You Pink® campaign of their own. With this in mind, BCAction staff provided the students with our Think Before You Pink Toolkit and Four Questions to Ask Before You Buy Pink, resources to guide their research.
Pinkwasher: (pink’-wah-sher) noun. 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.
Although the students had initially set out to target pink ribbon products and marketing campaigns local to Apex, North Carolina, they quickly found problematic, empty awareness pinkwashing campaigns from nationally known brands. Their research began by “following the money”—looking into what percentage of profits raised from pink ribbon products were actually going to breast cancer causes—for pink ribbon products from Estée Lauder, Becca Cosmetics, Clinique, Jo Malone, and Pilot Corporation.
In the letter to The Estée Lauder Companies, the students called for accountability and cited concerns about Becca Cosmetics’ pink ribbon product, “Ultimate Lipstick Love Breast Cancer Awareness.” They found that only 20% of the product’s purchase price was donated to the Breast Cancer Research Fund (BCRF) between September 20, 2019 and June 30, 2020. The lipstick also contains a potential cancer-causing carcinogen in the ingredients.
The students presented their project to classmates at the end of the semester. Peers were asked to sign-on to the letter if they also believed that pinkwashing and the exploitation of consumers’ goodwill was unacceptable. They gathered signatures from eleven of their peers.
Upon joining BCAction as the Communications Intern, I conducted extensive onboarding research on the organization’s history, stances, and Think Before You Pink® campaigns. I was astounded by the lack of accountability and transparency of the pink ribbon products on the market. I was also inspired by BCAction’s advocacy, activism, and fearless call-outs of shameless pinkwashers.
As part of my research, I discovered the origin of the pink ribbon—a now widely-recognized symbol and marketing tool for the breast cancer movement. The Estée Lauder Companies, which first co-opted the pink ribbon from Charlotte Haley’s peach ribbon, has had a long history when it comes to breast cancer “awareness.” Although the company built its brand around commitment to breast cancer, it has, at best, offered little to tackle the root causes of the breast cancer epidemic. And at worst, Estée Lauder has contributed to the breast cancer crisis through inclusion of chemicals of concern in their products, which may potentially increase risk of breast cancer and interfere with treatment.
One of the many BCAction campaigns I researched was the 2017 “Knot Our Pink Ribbon” campaign aimed at Estée Lauder for their role in establishing and perpetuating the pink ribbon as a widely-recognized marketing symbol for breast cancer awareness—now a multibillion-dollar industry. Since 1992, the company has raised over $99 million in the name of breast cancer research, awareness and education, but after almost three decades of pink ribbon “awareness,” there has been little progress from Estée Lauder to work towards breast cancer prevention. Unsurprisingly, they continue to place corporate interest above consumer health.
BCAction’s Think Before You Pink® campaigns have also taken on other companies and organizations in the cosmetics industry. In 2003, BCAction launched the “Cosmetics: Philanthropy or Hypocrisy?” campaign directed at multinational beauty corporations including Avon and Revlon. With this campaign, BCAction became the first breast cancer organization to identify parabens and phthalates as a source of concern for breast cancer.
In 2015, our Think Before You Pink® campaign, “Poison Isn’t Pretty,” targeted the Personal Care Products Council and American Cancer Society. Their Look Good Feel Better® program offered free beauty workshops and complimentary makeup kits to women undergoing cancer treatment—and the products they offer contain chemicals linked to increased cancer risk!
People living with and at risk of breast cancer deserve better than flagrant displays of hypocritical pinkwashing by corporate giants. The commercialization of breast cancer must end. And consumers need to stop jumping on the pink ribbon bandwagon. It trivializes the harsh realities of breast cancer risk, recurrence, treatment, and sometimes, even death. Breast cancer isn’t a trendy social cause. It’s up to us—as consumers and, most importantly, as activists—to hold pinkwashers accountable! We will not stand by the continued commodification of pink ribbon products and the blatant exploitation of this health crisis for the sake of corporate profiteering.
The Breast Cancer Action team is proud of the Apex student group’s research and commitment to address the breast cancer crisis through systemic change and fearless corporate accountability.
The students’ full letter to The Estée Lauder Companies and subsidiary Becca Cosmetics is posted below.
May 25th, 2021
Dear Fabrizio Freda,
Like millions of people in the United States, we are people concerned about the breast cancer epidemic. We are sending this letter to your company because we believe you are marketing a product in the name of breast cancer that may actually contribute to the disease, and you are profiting more than you are giving back to the breast cancer community. This makes your company a pinkwasher. Breast Cancer Action, an organization working to achieve health justice for all women living with and at risk of breast cancer coined the term pinkwashing, which is when a company or organization claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product at the same time it produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.
As a company which claims to care about breast cancer, we call upon your company to support breast cancer prevention through precaution. We urge you to adopt the highest standards by taking active steps to ensure that your products do not contribute to an increased risk of the disease. We invite you to stand with us and all women living with and at risk of breast cancer by making an official commitment to end this epidemic.
In order to eliminate pink hypocrisy and instead ensure that all companies that sell products in the name of breast cancer are standing by their stated commitment to women, we are urging your company to do your part to work to end the epidemic. We call on your company to do more than put a pink ribbon on your products—we call on you to ensure that your products do not put women at increased risk of this disease.
Emily (full names and contact information shortened)
Apex High School
Health Science II Honors Class of 2022