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Taking a closer look at what’s behind those pink ribbons

AT THIS YEAR’S Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a documentary aired that changed how many people perceive the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness. Pink Ribbons, Inc. questions the motives behind every pink ribbon item we’ve ever worn, sparking public interest in anti-pink ribbon campaigns. The Fulcrum caught up with Angela Wall, Think Before You Pink campaign communications manager, to discuss her thoughts on “pink washing” campaigns.

“The Think Before You Pink campaign began in about 2002 in response to growing concerns amongst women who were either living with breast cancer—or supporting and caring for women with breast cancer—[and] were deeply concerned about the way in which pink ribbons were used as a money-making device when a lot of the products they were attached to were known [to have] carcinogens in the ingredients,” says Wall.

Many initiatives launched by Think Before You Pink target the hypocrisy of corporations using the pink ribbon when their products are known to contain carcinogenic ingredients. Wall explains it’s also difficult to track the money made by corporations from pink ribbon products and how much is used for treatment and research for a cure. The organization has created a list of critical questions consumers should ask themselves before purchasing a product.

“One of the key questions is: Do you know where this money is going? Is it going to provide the services that you want it to provide?” says Wall

“The pink ribbon isn’t trademarked so anybody can, and does, slap a pink ribbon on a product and then say, ‘Proceeds from this goes toward breast cancer,’” she says. “But if it’s not stated specifically, proceeds could go toward a fine paying for a website that says, ‘Be aware of breast cancer’, which is doing nothing to actually change or turn the tide of the epidemic.”

Although people may believe they’re doing their part by buying a pink product, Wall explains the pink ribbons are not effective in helping cure breast cancer.

“I think the concern we have around pink ribbons is that [they] actually distract us from the realities and the real issues that are going on around breast cancer,” she says.

The Think Before You Pink campaign believes more can be done for breast cancer research than what’s happening right now.

“We are aware that we have a problem around breast cancer and a breast cancer epidemic. The problem with awareness is that [it only] identifies the problem. It doesn’t do anything to actually change it. What we need now is less awareness and more action,” explains Wall.

Helping to create action is the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. The film highlights what has and hasn’t been done for breast cancer research and prevention. National Film Board producer Ravida Din, a breast cancer survivor herself, approached the movie’s director Léa Pool. Pool had been surprised to learn that so little progress has been made toward curing breast cancer despite how much effort and funds go into pink ribbon campaigns.

According to Wall, we can do more than we think. The Think Before You Pink campaign has toolkits available to anyone, which teaches people ways they can help and what they can do to get involved.

“The thing that people do is to think, ‘Oh, I can do a walk or a run,’” she says. “But not everybody wants to do a run, so the Think Before You Pink toolkit is perfectly poised for students on campus who want to organize on their campuses to actually do something and take more substantial and political action rather than a personal act of walking or running.”

Ultimately, what Wall and the campaign would like to see is change—change with respect to how the pink ribbon is used and how breast cancer is researched, prevented, and treated.

“Unfortunately, most pink ribbons are launched [with] large marketing campaigns behind them,” says Wall.

“From the position of breast cancer [action] it’s not doing any good when the actual product [we’re] buying is increasing the risk of a woman developing breast cancer…. so we would argue it’s not a case of it’s all okay. What is okay is that women really want to do something about to turn the tide on this epidemic. We need to be very aware where our money is going.”

—Natalie Tremblay and Sofia Hashi