Breast cancer nonprofits may not benefit from ‘pink’ products

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but could the products we buy to support breast cancer research actually be contributing to the problem?

The claim made by sources, such as a GOOD magazine online editorial, is that breast cancer awareness marketing is both misleading and hypocritical. Consumers are being urged to consider the reality of where their money is going.

The article states that the practice of “pinkwashing,” or making pink items during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, greatly increases sales for companies who not only donate a very small portion of their proceeds to cancer research but also use potential cancer-causing agents in their products.

Butler University associate professor of management Lawrence Lad said he believes that there is much depth to the issue. A starting point is looking at the relationship between nonprofits and corporate sponsors.

“It really smacks at the cause if there’s companies involved that may be causing the problem,” Lad said. “They’re not being transparent.”

He said he attributed part of the reason for the misleading information to this complicated relationship.

“What you don’t want to do as a nonprofit is to ever be constrained to not be able to speak out against one of your sponsors,” Lad said.

Butler business ethics professor Richard McGowan said he cautions against immediately forming a negative opinion of the company because, even if misleading, the definition of supporting research is very exact.

“If the claim is that money is being used to fight breast cancer, that is unethical and deceptive,” McGowan said.

However, as long as even a small fraction is being invested into research, these companies are safe from an ethical standpoint, he said.

“Even if only one cent is going to fight breast cancer, the claims are still truthful,” McGowan said.

Both Lad and McGowan said they believe that there is much research to be done in order to solidify the claim that the ingredients being used in various products are undeniably linked to cancer.

“There isn’t always that cause and effect,” Lad said. “There’s still enough uncertainty, because we don’t know exactly if it’s a genetic cause or an environmental cause.”

Lad said another problem with corporate sponsorship is that it often gets in the way of such research.

Instead of battling all the causes of cancer, such as the environment, genetics, diet and lifestyle, a nonprofit focuses on the select few that would not harm the image of its corporate sponsor.

“Even if you want to find out the answers about how much of these environmental factors cause any problem, you’re in a whole other area of research way beyond the scope of what your association was about,” Lad said.

When it comes to the ethical side of the issue, McGowan said he puts a lot of focus on a company’s obligation to truthfully market its products and the consumer’s choice to purchase them.

“It’s an unethical practice only if there is a cancer-causing agent and there is no warning,” McGowan said.

“Even with the labels, only a select amount of people read [them],” Lad said. “That’s the assumption: that an educated population will pay attention to what’s going on.”

Large corporations have a strong ability to protect their interests, which is why Lad and McGowan said they both agree that the demands for more transparency must start with the consumer.

“I don’t think the nonprofits or the companies themselves start with the intent to mislead,” Lad said.

Because the message often gets lost, he said he does agree that the consumer must independently assess the value or truthfulness of the claims being made.

“We like to believe that companies are doing things for the right reasons or that nonprofits are doing things for the right reasons,” Lad said. “Sometimes, citizens have to pay attention and ask questions and try to get to the bottom [of the issues].”

Lad said he believes that if this issue continues being publicized, the nonprofits will have to think twice about the message they are sending and their long-term goals.

In order to promote their cause, nonprofits must become more rigorous and selective about the corporate sponsors they accept.

“[Nonprofits] will be more reluctant to take money from those sponsors that are controversial, because they’re not going to look authentic with their real genuine donors,” Lad said. “There’s a big part of the population that chooses not to be engaged. “

McGowan said it is all up to the consumer.

He said, “An informed citizenry has purchasing power that can influence and change the kind of products that are being put forward to ensure that they benefit the cause.”

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