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Consumer Alert

Skip the breast cancer awareness gimmicks and donate directly

Any company can color merchandise pink or use a pink ribbon image, whether they donate all their proceeds to cancer charities or only a tiny percentage.Tony Cenicola/New York Times/File 2005

Breast Cancer Awareness Month, observed each year in October, has arrived, along with nearly endless opportunities to show your support by buying pink ribbons, totes, bracelets, cellphone cases, soup, rubber duckies, and even Swiffers.

“Cause-related marketing around breast cancer has really been transformative,” said Sandra Miniutti, spokeswoman for charity watchdog organization Charity Navigator. “But I do think it has become saturated.”

It might seem like a no-brainer to throw a $10 pink water bottle in your shopping cart and support a good cause. But let me urge you in the strongest terms: Think before you pink. In many, if not most cases, your charitable impulses will be better served by a donation than by a purchase.


First, it is essential to understand there are companies that have jumped on the pink bandwagon as a matter of marketing rather than mission, a practice often called “pinkwashing.” Any company can color merchandise pink or use a pink ribbon image, whether they donate all their proceeds to cancer charities or only a tiny percentage. Some companies make a flat donation not tied to sales; others put a cap on their total giving. Yet others give no money at all, claiming their products do good by some vague process of “raising awareness.”

“It’s important to really understand the terms of the deal before you make that purchase,” Miniutti said. “Make sure there’s a charity on the receiving end that you’d be supporting anyway.”

But what’s the harm? You can always make a direct donation in addition to buying that new pink coffee mug, right? Well, it’s not so simple. Psychology has shown doing a “good” deed can make people let themselves off the hook for future charitable works. Just slipping that beribboned tote bag over your shoulder might, in fact, make you less likely to donate directly.


The survivors, though: Your pink sneakers must be showing solidarity with them, right? Not necessarily. Many of the thousands of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year appreciate the proliferation of pink ribbons. But others downright loathe it; they find the ubiquitous pink infantilizing or reductive, or object to the use of their disease for marketing purposes.

Ultimately, Miniutti said, donations to carefully chosen charities are generally a preferable choice.

“If this is something you’re really passionate about, write the check,” Miniutti said. “That’s a better way to help.”

Have a consumer question or complaint? Reach Sarah Shemkus at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.