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Komen Foundation: Selling Us for the Cure

(Photo: Melissa Gira Grant)

It's not a shocking sight, but given what we now know about the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure, it should be. It's a tiny ceramic pink ribbon adorning an automated dryer at a nail salon. Its shape and hue lend an almost healthy air to the machine, hinting by way of two decades of savvy marketing on the part of the Komen Foundation that by drying my nails here, I'm somehow doing something “for the cure” – certainly not that I could be exposing myself to cancer-causing toxins.

There's no indication on the machine or anywhere in the shop that bringing my business here moves any money toward cancer research. There's just the notice on the machine itself that its hot air and UV light will evaporate the hardening and drying agents in nail polish. What's in those agents? In too many nail salons, toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate – chemicals dubbed “the toxic trio” by the women's health watchdog group the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance. In a survey of major cosmetics brands, they found that some still use these chemicals in their nail polishes – despite evidence that the agents are linked to elevated cancer risk in women.

What to make of the pink ribbon on the machine, then? Because it certainly can't speak back.

That's the chief problem with Komen Foundation's reliance on all things pink, says Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action.

“Cause marketing really works for companies, and, in fact, studies show that people will buy something if there's a pink ribbon on it.,” said Jaggar. “It brands them as a compassionate company, even beyond that individual product.” What the pink ribbon doesn't ensure is that the company profiting from what seems like a positive association with curing breast cancer isn't also profiting from products that are proven to put women's health at risk.

The practice is called “pinkwashing.” Some marketers might say it's just the cost of taking corporate money for charitable work, but advocates say it is never worth losing their ability to hold corporations accountable for women's health. In the recent controversy surrounding the Komen Foundation's decision to deny Planned Parenthood hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for low-income women's breast cancer screenings, those advocates gained traction when the public joined them to say, “No, we must not let outside interests steer an organization against its own mission in order to satisfy someone else's bottom line. And we will put our money on the side of our politics.”

Given how the Komen Foundation does business, it shouldn't have been a surprise when it succumbed to right-wing pressure to divest from Planned Parenthood. Now, Komen's partnerships with corporations whose products pose cancer risks are coming under hotter fire. Says Jaggar: “What we're really being asked here is, does the end justify the means, given the vast amounts of money that Komen are raising. But what we are talking about is, is anyone willing to raise money when that money comes from products or companies that are willing to contribute to the breast cancer epidemic – or even profiting from it?”

As a result, Breast Cancer Action refuses to accept funds from any business or person who stands to profit from breast cancer, whether via increasing women's risk through selling toxic products, or through the manufacturing of the drugs sold to women as treatment. This way, said Jaggar, “We can work to ensure that the balance of power is moving in favor of patients. We can put women's health first.”

Getting corporate partnerships probably would have been harder for Komen back when it started its work, says Miriam Zoila Pérez, a writer and reproductive justice activist who serves as secretary of the board of directors for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. While consumers these days can hardly choose which waffles to buy in the freezer aisle without confronting breast cancer-related marketing, women's other sexual and reproductive health concerns – contraception and abortion, in particular – get much less attention or support.

“What's Komen's done is to depoliticize breasts,” Pérez says, “and now, by distancing themselves from Planned Parenthood, they're distancing themselves from the other parts of women's health: vaginas” – the politics of which are still understood to be incompatible with a box of frozen yogurt pops.

It's possible that Komen's recent unpopular defunding move, rather than representing an aberrant act on the part of charity, signals instead that Komen's business model simply anticipated a larger shift within philanthropy to what's now heralded by some as “philanthrocapitalism,” or, as the subtitle of the eponymous book puts it, “How the rich can save the world.” Fast Company magazine's Co.Exist blog offers another succinct, if overly peppy, definition in its own editorial mission: “[We are] focused on groundbreaking innovation, innovation that’s going to change the way we live and the resources we use. We’re for brash and creative solutions, that make everyone rich while helping the people of the world lead lovely, clean, and fulfilling lives.”

This is the heart of the pink-ribbon pitch for organizations like Komen: corporations can still get rich – or richer – by doing “good.” Komen is hardly alone in embracing this approach. The (RED) campaign for AIDS funding resulted in a scarlet flood of branded gear – Gap jeans, Apple iPods, Starbucks coffee. While $18 million was raised for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, participating corporations spent over $100 million on ads to promote their participation.

Raising brand profiles to the exclusion of providing actual socially responsible dollars is just one fallout of cause marketing. The corporations behind the brands can work at cross purposes with the causes they claim to promote. While consumers are told that buying TOMS shoes will impact global poverty by subsidizing the cost of a second pair of shoes destined for the Global South, TOMS production cost for the subsidized pair of shoes still exceeds what it would cost to send the money abroad so people in need can purchase the shoes locally and begin to shift more wealth into the hands of people who are most impacted by economic injustice, rather than back into TOMS.

While cause marketing's takeover of formerly philanthropic efforts can lull consumers into believing that their purchases might make a difference, the philanthro-sales technique sometimes does more harm than good, bringing corporations and social change organizations into a partnership that ultimately compromises organizations' missions. For example, Komen has been eager to accept corporate funds from the likes of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, but Eli LIlly also happens to be the sole producer of rGBH, a bovine growth hormone which, when it ends up in our dairy products, is known to increase cancer risks. What's more, while Komen tells their supporters that the foundation's partnership with the drugmaker is in service of finding a breast cancer cure, Eli Lilly – which also manufactures cancer treatment drugs – might profit from such a cure, or perhaps even prefer that it not be found.

Worse, it appears that Komen has gone one step further to provide cover for corporations. Eli Lilly once manufactured a synthetic estrogen known as DES, which the National Cancer Institute says has led to increased breast, vaginal and cervical cancer risks in both women who took DES during their pregnancy and in their children. “It's shocking,” says Breast Cancer Action's Jaggar, “but you go to Komen's web site, and they list DES, along with underwire bras and abortion, as having no link to breast cancer. They are DES deniers – not doubters, but deniers.”

By bringing corporate interests, donor dollars and organizations working for social good into a tight relationship, cause marketing and attempts at philanthrocapitalism may end up making charities even more dependent on corporate contributions, and risk – as we see with Komen – contradicting charities' own stated missions. This isn't a new problem for philanthropy, with its roots in the United States in the industrial monopolies of the last century.

“Nonprofits are already very entrenched with capitalism,” says Pérez. “It's already not an ideal system, with this money coming in from rich people and from corporations as a way to save on their taxes.” But when individuals give smaller donations directly to the organizations, they aren't just giving charitably (or getting a tax write-off) – they are also preserving the independence of people working for social good.

In fact, says Jaggar, Breast Cancer Action is funded primarily through gifts from individuals. Soliciting small donations from the people who are most impacted by a charity's cause, and who also stand the most to gain from realizing its mission, is becoming more common across nonprofit organizations, even those whose constituencies are far from wealthy. Grassroots and member-supported fundraising methods are also increasingly popular. Says Pérez, “There's a lot of hope in the small donation model, which we saw on a large scale in the Obama campaign and in MoveOn's early work – there's an interesting trend, if people are able to get closer to the work that they care about, and the work they want to support through these microfunding and even crowdfunding models: you don't have to be Bill Gates with a million dollars to have a big impact on the things you care about.”

And if charities can raise enough funds from their own membership base, it might also mean they don't have to accept Bill Gates' money.

“People know we are carrying the voices of women,” says Jaggar, “because we get our funding from these women.”

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