pinkwashing yoga: how yoga brands capitalize on breast cancer awareness month

pinkwashing yoga: how yoga brands capitalize on breast cancer awareness month

October is breast cancer awareness month and you know what that means: stores are crammed with pink products emblazened with the familiar pink ribbon logo.

The yoga industrial machine has jumped on the pink bandwagon. Major yoga brands, including Manduka, Prana and Toesox, have released a slew of pink yoga products available only for the special month of October.

Here’s a brief introduction to the pink products on the market this month, including what they’re made of and how the money will allegedly be used. But first, a quick history of the pink ribbon campaign and how October came to be known as breast cancer awareness month.

The Beginnings of Pink

There are several different stories of the origins of the pink ribbon campaign. The most common story, as told on ThinkBeforeYouPink.org was launched in the early 90s as a collaboration between Self Magazine and cosmetics company Estée Lauder. Ribbons have long been considered a symbol of solidarity and in the 80s had ascended with the red ribbon AIDS awareness campaign.

While working on their annual breast cancer awareness issue in 1992, Self saw potential for a ribbon campaign, as was the fashion at the time. They approached Charlotte Healey, a 68 year old woman who had been making and selling peach coloured ribbons to commemorate the women in her life that she’d lost to breast cancer.

When approached by Self, Healey turned down their offer and said she wanted to keep her efforts grassroots. Self consulted with their attorneys who suggested that they just choose another colour.

They picked pink. It was playful, life-affirming and feminine. It conveyed hope and vulnerability. Pink is everything that cancer is not.

pink-ribbon-productsWithin a year, there were 15 brands (including, most notably, Avon) who had picked up the pink ribbon. By the mid-90s, hundreds of corporate brands were participating in the campaign. Twenty years later, the number of companies is staggering. As you’ve probably noticed this month, pink ribbon branded things had extended beyond innocent little motifs and jewelry, with entire lines of products: clothes, cleaning products, cosmetics, alcohol, packaged food.

It had also increased profits for the companies who marketed pink ribbon stuff, as breast cancer was a hot commodity. While the companies claimed to be raising awareness of breast cancer, in reality breast cancer was raising the public profile of the company.

The pink ribbon has become an international symbol of breast cancer awareness. Now, in 2013, the pink ribbon schtick is getting old. After 20 years of this campaign, breast cancer researchers are no closer to finding a cure. The American Cancer Society estimates that 40,000 women in the US will die from breast cancer in 2013, and over 200,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease. The rates continue to rise.

In their 2004 campaign, Breast Cancer Action focused their efforts on educating people about how ineffective and vague breast cancer fundraising has become. Nobody can prove how much money is raised each year or where the money goes. With no concentrated efforts and millions of dollars unaccounted for, “the cause” wasn’t any closer to “ending” breast cancer.

And yet the pink ribbon and October campaigning continues. Many people are tired of the campaign. Breast Cancer Inc has taken over the cultural landscape and many people, particularly those affected by cancer (breast and otherwise) find it difficult to watch.

Marketing For a Cause

The pink ribbon campaign is a prime example of cause marketing. As the name suggests, “cause marketing” is a form of marketing which links a company or corporation to a particular social cause. Gayle A. Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, outlined three objectives of cause marketing in a recent Psychology Today article:

(1) build a reputation as a good corporate citizen, (2) deepen employee loyalty through employee matching and cause related volunteerism, and (3) increase sales.

Pink ribbon marketing might have reached its tipping point in 2010 with KFC’s pink bucket of fried chicken – not exactly known for its healthy ingredients, some of which may contain carcinogens. Similarly, many of the cosmetics companies, cleaning product corporations and car manufacturers make products that contain known cancer-causing agents.

Breast Cancer Action coined the term pinkwashing to call out “companies or products which feature a pink ribbon without donating more than a negligible or token amount of money to a charity or with no transparency regarding where the funds are going.” Pinkwashing also “describes the use of a pink ribbon on products with known or suspected links to cancer.”

pink-yoga7

Pink Your Practice: Yoga Mats & Gear

Yoga consumers love raising money for a good cause, and the capitalism-friendly pairing of yoga products and breast cancer awareness is a natural development in the dominant yoga culture narrative. The underlying message of the pink ribbon narrative has to do with upbeat, forced positivity and naive magical thinking. Not unlike the narrative that mainstream yoga culture sells.

There’s a lot more to say about the culture of breast cancer and the pink ribbon campaign – check out Breast Cancer Action’s website or watch the documentary, Pink Ribbon, Inc.

But without further ado, here are the pink yoga products from some of yoga’s major brands, as well as what they’re made of and where the funds go:

Manduka
Products: 3 yoga mats, 4 towels in different sizes and shades of pink (retail value: $16 – $68)
What they’re made of: the PROlite mat is  “manufactured through a process that ensures no toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere. The Pro series mats are certified safe for human contact by OEKO-TEX, an environmental certification agency in Europe for the textile industry.” The towels are made from “a synthetic material, engineered for performance & durability, and is recyclable” although the specifics of this material aren’t disclosed.
Where the funds go: 10% of sales go to BreastCancer.org (which received four stars from Charity Navigator and scored well for transparency and accountability)

Prana
Products: Henna E.K.O. mat (retail value: $50)
What they’re made of: “Thermal Plastic Elastomer” (better known as thermoplastic elastomer, a blend of synthetic plastics and rubber – EcoYogini breaks down why TPE yoga mats aren’t a good eco choice, although they are non-toxic)
Where the funds go: 10% of sales go to support the Keep A Breast Foundation – best known for their controversial “I Love Boobies” bracelet campaign in 2010, the foundation aims to increase breast cancer awareness among younger generations rather than funding research. All of their financial information is available on their website.

Three Minute Egg
Products: Thrive Eggs, hot pink rounded yoga blocks (retail value: $39 for two “eggs”)
What they’re made of: undisclosed
Where the funds go: According to their website: “10% of our gross sales from this Egg will go to support organizations assisting people working to thrive and survive with breast cancer. Last year Three Minute Egg® donated over $1000 in cash and product to various organizations.”

YogiToes
Products: pink “skidless” yoga towels available in two sizes (retail value: $68)
What they’re made of: 80% polyester, 20% nylon with 100% silicone nubs (the Ribbon rSkidless is made from 8 recycled plastic bottles, 50% recycled polyester, 40% new polyester, 10% nylon)
Where the funds go: 10% goes to BreastCancer.org (website product page includes downloadable pdf, guide to reducing risk of breast cancer)

ToeSox
Products: yoga socks, available in Hot Pink, Light Pink and regular pink (retail value: $10 – $15)
What they’re made of: 90% Organic Cotton 10% Spandex
Where the funds go: buy 2 pairs of “sox for a cause” and $2 goes to Keep A Breast foundation

Gaiam
Products: Pink Ribbon Breast Cancer Yoga Mat and Pink Ribbon II (retail value: $20 – $21.98)
What they’re made of: PVC (which contains toxins and isn’t recyclable), but “free of Phthalates DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, and DNOP”
Where the funds go: “$1 from the sales of each mat will be donated to fund Breast Cancer Research.”

(note: Jade also makes a pink yoga for breast cancer awareness, but at the time of this writing it had been removed from the website.)

pink-yoga9If practicing on a pink yoga mat really matters to you and you buy into the breast cancer industry brouhaha, the Manduka pink Pro Ecolite is probably the best deal. With your purchase, $7.80 will go to BreastCancer.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources and support to people with breast cancer.

By all means, avoid the dubious claims of the Gaiam and Three Minute Egg products, who don’t reveal where the funds will go. Gaiam’s keyword-loaded pink yoga mat, sickeningly bright pink and marked with a huge pink ribbon logo, is especially tasteless.

Big Pink Meets Big Yoga

In general, though, it’s disappointing to see yoga companies participating in breast cancer awareness month, which is proving to be more of a brilliant marketing trick rather than an effective movement.

The pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness and research fundraising is being taken less seriously as a “cause.” A growing number of people are critical and angered by it, particularly those who have been affected by the disease. As a cancer surviver and blogger at After Five Years writes:

We are getting something out of pink that keeps us buying it… Big Pink massages our psyches and covertly rewards us on a deep and unconscious level, so much so that we are willing to ignore the fact that continuing to buy ‘awareness’ will kill us.

Big Pink neatly hides the frightening little facts of metastatic disease behind a pink curtain, instead showing us only skewed happy statistics that calm our anxiety about the disease. The conglomerate needs to make us believe pink is working and is good for us, so that we want more. Pink is a social lubricant for talking about all that scares the shit out of us about the disease.

Pink ribbon marketing is being taken less and less seriously with each passing year. By buying into the hype, the leading yoga brands are displaying a lack of integrity and critical thought. Let’s hope that many of these yoga product companies opt of breast cancer awareness month in 2014.

  1. This article seeking to push yoga companies away from supporting breast cancer charities, such as Keep A Breast, saddens us. We are proud to be a part of the yoga community and take our partnerships very seriously as they are an integral part of our story. We love and appreciate the basis of this article urging consumers to educate themselves and to be aware of brands that use the idea of giving back as a brilliant marketing trick rather than an effective movement.

    Yoga and Keep A Breast have a very deep and meaningful relationship and our partnerships with brands like prAna are a way for us to reach more people in an authentic way.

    Our yoga mat with prAna came out in February of 2013, well before breast cancer awareness month and since then we have participated in events such as Wanderlust in Tahoe alongside prAna to bring our education to festivalgoers and supporters. We have curated a microsite, videos, and blog posts about yoga and its tie to health and support with prAna’s ambassadors.

    We encourage your readers to visit our “Get Educated” section of our site and learn how yoga can be a complementary holistic approach to breast health and breast cancer recovery. http://www.keep-a-breast.org/get-educated/yoga/

    Thank you

    • hi KAB, thanks for your thoughtful response! educating people about the nature of breast cancer is an important endeavor and Keep A Breast seems to be doing it with integrity and skill. i’m glad to hear that you and prAna have a good, strong relationship. prAna does a good job of being transparent and aware with their breast cancer products.

      thanks also for letting us know about your yoga educational component, it appears to be solid and useful. it’s great that you’re willing to engage in dialogue without getting defensive.

  2. Hey Roseanne,

    Thanks for an informative post about the history of the “Pink” movement. It is a sad fact that many prAna employees have been touched buy breast cancer either directly or indirectly and that was the driving force for us to partner with Keep A Breast Foundation (they are also a local NGO her is SoCal). It looks like the good folks at Keep A Breast just replied so first let us say that it has been a pleasure working with them year round to help educate our international following. We feel that education is the key component especially for a younger demographic which is exactly who KAB targets in their outreach efforts. It continues to sadden us that their has not been more progress towards a cure but we also wonder how the increase of negative environmental chemicals/pollutants is affecting women who are increasingly developing breast cancer…? KAB’s sister site “NonToxicRevolution” speaks directly to this issue further attempting to help people focus on leading a chemical free life.

    Some feedback if we might;

    “Major yoga brands, including Manduka, Prana and Toesox, have released a slew of pink yoga products available only for the special month of October.”
    A: Our Pink ECO Mat supporting KAB is available year round and not just in October

    “Here’s a brief introduction to the pink products on the market this month, including what they’re made of and how the money will allegedly be used.”
    A: KAB’s financial information is readily available on their website”

    “The underlying message of the pink ribbon narrative has to do with upbeat, forced positivity and naive magical thinking. Not unlike the narrative that mainstream yoga culture sells.”
    A: Yes we love to be upbeat. No we do not force positivity on anyone but doesn’t positivity = a good thing? We are not sure how “naive magical thinking” enters the conversation.

    “Prana”
    A: We actually spell “prAna” in this manner to distinguish it from the Sanskrit term

    “Products: Henna E.K.O. mat (retail value: $50)”
    A: The mat is actually called “Henna E.C.O. Yoga Mat” and can be found at http://www.prana.com/henna-e-c-o-yoga-mat.html?color=Pink (shameless product plug 🙂

    We hope this helps and we thank you for addressing a sensitive subject so that many in the yoga community can continue the conversation!

  3. Hi Roseanne,

    Thanks for this article. There’s nothing more depressing as a breast cancer survivor than to see brands profiting from my disease and crafting it into their own marketing campaign.

    Cancer is a dark, terrible, disfiguring disease. The pinkwashing of my disease to create an upbeat, positive picture of something deeply terrifying and complex beyond the shape of a ribbon is deeply upsetting to myself and many other people affected by cancer. The image these corporations create is so far from reality as to be offensive.

    The mainstream loves a pretty picture. Cancer is anything but pretty, “feminine ” and pink. And the companies that sell these ribbons are so removed from the real issues.

    If you want to support cancer patients, don’t profit from us. Campaign for a carcinogenic free environment . Expose the public to the grim reality of cancer, so people can learn to be more empathetic to the discrimination and suffering many cancer patients face.

    The pink ribbon campaign does very little. Like many corporate marketing campaigns, it is several steps removed from reality.

    I do not feel any sense of support when I see these ribbons.

  4. Hi Roseanne,

    Thanks for your article and for showing our Pink Ribbon II Yoga Mat. Cancer is a horrible disease and one that we certainly don’t take lightly as a company, which is why we’ve decided to support breast cancer research via our Pink Ribbon financial donations.

    As the folks at prAna have already pointed out above, I’m afraid your post contains some errors that may give your readers a distorted view of our Pink Ribbon products:

    1.The website descriptions for both of our PInk Ribbon yoga mats clearly state that the donation goes to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which also received a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator. Can you please correct this in the text above?

    2. Our Pink Ribbon products are available all year, not just in October.

    3. I’m sorry to hear you don’t like the color of the mat. We love it and the words of inspiration printed on it! And since pink is the color most closely associated with breast cancer awareness, it was the clear choice for speaking to this issue. I’ll also quickly point out that it is almost the exact same color as your website logo, so you must not hate it that much 😉

    I hope this response is helpful. We love that our yoga community is so compassionate, and we’re happy to be able to call on them to help us support important causes like breast cancer research and awareness.

    Gaiam

    • hi gaiam ~ thanks for commenting. it appears that you’ve updated your website since i did my research on oct 29, as on that date the Breast Cancer Research Foundation wasn’t listed (and it looks like a hasty update, as the text contains a typo and has the wrong name for the organization: “$1 from the same of each mat is donated to The Breast Cancer Foundation”).

      if you don’t mind, i’ll leave the text in my post as is.

      i appreciate you and prAna being willing to get involved in the conversation, but pointing out minor factual errors is deflecting from my main point here: breast cancer awareness month and related pink products are losing credibility in the popular cultural consciousness. they undermine the seriousness of the disease and insult survivors.

      • Hi Roseanne,

        Nope – That information has been available in the Details section all along, just not in the short blurb at the top. Thanks for pointing out that typo though! I’ll let our web team know about it and we’ll get the info corrected. I hope you’ll do that same on your site for accuracy’s sake, as the “dubious claims” text above is a misrepresentation.

        If you’d ever like to reach out to us for information about any of our products or company policies before you write about them, please contact us at marketing@gaiam.com or call us at 1-877-989-6321.

  5. Thank you Roseanne for brining attention to this topic which needs the spotlight shining on it even more.

    I used to work at one of the more prominent breast cancer foundations around and everything you wrote is credible.

    I should add the Gran-mommy of all cancer foundations the Susan G. Komen Foundation is still embroiled in the scandal when it decided to cut the $600 000 + funding to Planned Parenthood, a beacon in women’s health and female health awareness. Founder Nancy Brinker was a “Bush Ranger”, one of the highest fund-raising titles for the Republican Party, a party which has come out against funding and research and accessibility for women’s health time after time.

    Non-profits these days are like any other private-sector company. Fund raising brings in profits and covers overhead especially the rather high salaries of some of the executive directors… and companies benefit but slapping on a pink ribbon on all their products as a form of community involvement and PR. The reality is that the illness has now become a gimmick at the expense of women who really are struggling with self-image issues, issues of paying bills after they’ve taken extended sick leave, and issues of being able to take care of themselves especially after invasive surgical procedures which are often coupled with long-term effects like lymphedema.

    I’d like to see these companies who “go pink” instead put their money where their mouth is and actually fund medical programs for real women who have lived through breast cancer, offer them support in the aftermath for instance. In recent years, health economists have been unanimous that breast cancer funding for research has been way overblown with respect to the actual rates of incidence and mortality especially, in large part to the aggressive marketing campaign of breast cancer and going pink, particularly when you compare it to the incidence rates of other illnesses which hit women harder, like heart disease and lung cancer for instance.

  6. Thanks Roseanne for writing this very important post. It is extremely disappointing that companies are discouraging (and subtly shaming) the general public in being critical and thoughtful about the validity of purchasing something just because it is pink.
    Yes cancer is a terrible disease, no one is questioning this, but it is equally important to take a step back and encourage people to donate their time and money where it will have the most impact.

    Pink Ribbons Inc (documentary) forever changed how I viewed the pink campaign. I strongly strongly encourage those interested to watch. (Here is the trailer: http://www.nfb.ca/film/pink_ribbons_inc/trailer/pink_ribbons_inc_trailer )

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