Pink Ribbons, inc a review of the film

I remember the first time it really hit me. It was at the 3rd World Conference on Breast Cancer held in Victoria, Canada in 2002.  I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the exhibition hall, and there it was, the sea of pink.

The third world conference wasn’t like the first one initiated in Kingston, Canada in 1997 by Janet Collins who features in the film. In Kingston, it was all about environmental and occupational causes, primary prevention, and cutting edge science. The speakers were iconic in terms of their work on prevention and it was attended by campaigners whose names were recognisable from the radical campaign material we eagerly received from Canada and the US.

At the third world conf, there was an issue with the funding sources, many of the previous speakers from the scientific community weren’t invited, and the campaigners stayed away.

Those of us interested in prevention and environmental exposures met together and decided to spend our time drafted a resolution. The resolution urged governments to ban proven and suspected carcinogens and take a precautionary approach to breast cancer.

Although initially adverse, the conference organisers used the resolution as a basis for the conference press release.  But we were branded. It was the last time I was invited to speak and I was mysteriously dropped from the international advisory group. I felt like, a troublemaker.  But at least I was in good company.

On that balcony, looking at the sea of pink, I first had an image of pink ribbons used like blindfolds to prevent women from seeing the harsh realities of the disease, and like a gag to silence any dissent.  But as Judy Brady (author and activist) points out in the film: “If it were a conspiracy then we could expose it and people would be aware but it’s not, it’s business as usual”.

In less than a decade, we seem to have gone from groups like the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition and the Women’s Community Cancer project shown marching to draw the line at 1 in 8, to woman running in pink feather boas, wearing t-shirts with the pharmaceutical company logos on the back. Rather like that infamous slogan says, running for the cure sponsored by the cause. What the hell happened?

Barbara Ehrenreich, author and activist, puts this into some perspective in the film:

“I think, the fact of the whole pink ribbon culture was to drain and deflect the kind of militancy we had as women who were appalled to have a disease that is epidemic and yet, that we don’t even know the cause of.

We found sisterhood from other women and looking critically at what was going on with our health care. The sisterhood is now supposed to be supplied by the runs and races for the cure, I mean what a change, we used to march in the streets, now you’re supposed to run for a cure or walk for a cure…”

The author of the book Pink Ribbons inc, Samantha King, suggests that the big players in the cancer establishment have boards of directors with representatives from the pharmaceutical, chemical, and the energy industry and its almost impossible to separate the people who might be responsible for the perpetuation of this disease from those who are responsible for trying to find a way to cure or even better, to prevention it.

It’s obvious that emotions like anger, dissent, disbelief and questions about exposures at work, home or in the wider environment don’t seem to sit well with this festival of pink.

 “Actually anger is helpful, depending on what you do with it, I think if people actually knew what was happening they would be really pissed off, they should be”. (Barbara A. Brenner, campaigner)

We could say that the pink ribbon industry has identified its audience well. The premise being that breast cancer only affects, middle class, ultra feminine, white women, because this is the demographic that industry want to sell pink products too.

A question is posed in the film that while millions of dollars have been spent studying the same populations – white, largely middle class women – this research does not translate to the many African, Asian and African American and racially diverse women getting the disease. We know their outcomes aren’t as good as their white counterparts. Yet so little is spent on finding out why. Are they not the right demographic?

Along with the socio economic aspect of breast cancer, the racial, cultural, environmental justice aspect and the occupational inequalities of those who are exposed at work, are at best not addressed, or at worst neglected, unfunded and largely ignored.

Samanatha King reflects: “It wasn’t until Reagan came to power that we saw explicit policies designed to shift responsibility for health and welfare from the government towards private entities, philanthropic organisations along with the encouragement specifically for corporations to participate in that.” Or as Reagan says: “A buck for business if it helps to solve our social ills”.

This is all starting to sound scarily familiar!

The pinkwashing isn’t as insidious here as it is in the states, where pink sells everything for handguns to petrol.

The term pinkwashing is used to describe companies associating with a cause that people care about to basically increase their sales and market pink products.  Breast cancer is the ‘poster child’ of cause marketing.

The irony is, that many of the products sold, specifically cosmetics, perfumes, plastics, and petrochemical based products contain ingredients linked to breast cancer. These products contain chemicals that when put with cells in a laboratory situation, cause breast cancer cells to proliferate.

It is hypocrisy to use carcinogens in products and at the same time be advocating for a cure in another way”, says Jane Houlihan from Environmental Working Group.

We need to ask questions about how the money raised is being spent.

The annual research spend in the UK by the NCRI’s government and charity members is £500m (2010) .  Although breast cancer does get the highest proportion of research money at 20% , only 3.4% of the total budget is spent on prevention overall.

When looked at sceptically, research requires investment and the end product has to be profitable and marketable. There is no profit in prevention or removing carcinogens from the environment, or home or workplace.

One of the most thought provoking things for me in the film was a comment from one of the women attending the Plastics Automotive Industry focus group in Windsor, Ontario given by Dr. Jim Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith.

The participant said it was the first time she had ever heard that they are finding ingredients in plastics that are mimicking the female hormone, oestrogen, she felt that this message needed to be put out loud and clear.

Despite all the information that is out there on Endocrine Disrupting Chemical’s (EDC’s) it is still not reaching those who need it most. These women were given no health and safety training, or safety data sheets despite working in the plastics industry for decades.

Jim Brophy thinks that: “The evidence is overwhelming – on the impact environmental and occupational exposures have on this disease – very little of the resources are going to looking at pesticides, combustion products, plastics, petrochemicals, and solvents, many of the things that millions of women are being exposed to everyday either in the general ambient environment or their workplaces”.

Yet “Women die from breast cancer just because they are women. …the most important risk factor for breast cancer is being a woman” (Dr. Olufunmilayoi Olopade).

The impact of the warlike terminology used in connection with breast cancer is insightfully commented on by the stage IV breast cancer support group. There are very few of these groups in the US, even fewer, if any here in the UK, given survival rates here flag so far behind other EU countries and the US.

It is particularly poignant as they point out, there is no stage V for breast cancer. One group member reflects, its a tragedy as you’re like an angel of death when you walk into a regular breast cancer support group , they are learning to live and your learning to die.

One of the members sums it up nicely: “We are human beings we are not just a pink ribbon”.

While the film doesn’t seek to undermine those who gain hope, strength and a sense of community from the pink ribbon fundraising, it does ask some strong critical questions about the industry and the pink ribbon brand. Maybe you should too?
Helen Lynn

So what can you do?

Go and see the film.

Follow the money you raise, ask questions about how it is spent. Try and get into positions of power where you are one of the ones deciding how it is spent.

Follow the example of the Toxic Links Coalition in San Francisco who each year in October organised a toxic tour and visited the branches of the worst polluters in their financial district.

Organise a workplace group to examine what you are exposed to at work. Do it Yourself  research 

Check what’s in the products you buy – to check out cosmetics ingredients go to

Don’t accept the blame, if 50% of breast cancer cases have no known cause then it ain’t your fault.

Read the book – Pink Ribbons, Inc by Samantha King.

Check out the Tools for Action on Pink Ribbon Blues Blog 

Remember we can’t shop our way out of this epidemic.


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