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When pink stinks: the questionable partnerships of the Komen Foundation

"The foundation looks more like part of the problem than a means to a cure."

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It's October, the month we associate with trick-or-treaters dressed as monsters and pop-culture icons, days getting shorter, and pink ribbons adorning all sorts of things we can buy — shoes, cleaning products, food containers, booze, you name it.

The pink ribbons are brought to you by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, founded in 1982 by Nancy Brinker, whose sister, Susan Komen, had recently died of breast cancer at age 36. Since its founding, Komen (originally the Susan G. Komen Foundation) has become synonymous with the quest to eradicate breast cancer through its ubiquitous pink ribbons and the annual Races for the Cure held in many cities.

But for a growing number of observers, the foundation looks more like part of the problem than a means to a cure for a disfiguring, sometimes-fatal disease that according to fatal statistics strikes 1 in 8 women. Komen licenses the right to apply pink ribbons to the products of for-profit companies.

Some of those products, however, contain carcinogens, or carcinogens are involved in the manufacturing process. Examples include: plastic water bottles containing the chemical BPA; manufacturers of automobiles, whose exhaust contains carcinogens; and fast-food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose partnership with Komen ended after considerable public criticism. Komen licensed a perfume, "Promise Me," that contained four chemicals that scientists believe are involved in causing cancer. Just a few weeks ago, natural-gas-industry supplier Baker Hughes announced it had teamed with Komen to sell pink drill bits for fracking, a process that uses chemicals that are known carcinogens.

Purchasing the use of Komen's pink ribbon to place on products associated with carcinogens has become known as "pinkwashing." That practice was the subject of the 2011 film Pink Ribbons, Inc., which helped spread the news of Komen's questionable practices. In 2012, Komen made the ethical and political error of discontinuing Planned Parenthood funding used to provide low-income women with mammograms. That decision was reversed after public outcry, but not before further attention was drawn to Komen's pinkwashing practices.

More concerning is that all the billions that Komen has raised in its 32 years (most recently, Komen took in $339 million in 2012-13) haven't found a cure or a means of prevention for breast cancer. In 2014, nearly 300,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and about 40,000 will die from the disease. Meanwhile, Nancy Brinker's salary in 2013 was $684,717, well above what's typical for nonprofit executives.

Komen seems to have tacitly acknowledged that its emphasis on a cure may be misplaced. In recent years, it has promoted breast-cancer "awareness" and optimism for patients ranging from the newly diagnosed to those who are terminally ill. The language of breast-cancer patients' "fight" against the disease deflects responsibility away from 32 years of not finding a cure, while subtly placing the onus on women with breast cancer. If a patient dies, is it because she didn't fight hard enough? What if, instead, the system failed her?

What if Komen hasn't looked for the cure in the right places because doing so would be expensive, inconvenient or embarrassing? While Brinker's intentions were surely laudable when she established the charity, Komen seems to have strayed far from its original mission. It now seems to be a marketing firm specializing in pinkwashing.

There are those who argue that more women die of heart disease than breast cancer. Unlike heart disease, which many may avoid through diet and lifestyle, breast cancer is not so easy to sidestep. Obesity is a factor, as are early menstruation and genetic predisposition. But many women with breast cancer have few or no risk factors. The environmental factors are the elephant in the room. Far too often, environmental factors can be linked to companies that sport that pink ribbon.

Pink ribbons are a smokescreen that can distract consumers (and most purchasing decisions are made by women) from what may really be going on. Komen has claimed mea culpa so many times, but how can a nonprofit that claims it is dedicated to stopping breast cancer get behind such blatant offenders as KFC and the fracking industry? The millions of people who give to Komen expect that it knows better than to allow cancer-causing businesses to pinkwash their business practices.

Carol Peterson is a Pittsburgh-based author and historian who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.

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