Startling Truth Behind “The Pink Ribbon”
Updated: Jul 9
Did you know the breast cancer "Pink Ribbon" was co-opted by Estee Lauder from a woman who was starting a grass-roots movement?
During the month of October, hundreds if not thousands of products, from cars to toilet paper, are emblazoned with pink ribbons, or colored pink, or otherwise sold with a promise of a small portion of the total cost being donated to support breast cancer awareness or research.
Originally, in the early 90's, 68 year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer, handmade peach-colored loops in her dining room. (In honor of Charolette, we chose peach as our web background color).
Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth.Haley was then approached by Self magazine and cosmetics empire Estée Lauder in 1992, to use her ribbons in a breast cancer awareness campaign. She refused. She had no desire to be part of a marketing effort to help corporations sell more products. So the company changed the color to pink, to circumvent Haley's efforts to stop them.
This story is featured in the documentary film Pink Ribbons, Inc., co-created by National Film Board of Canada producer Ravida Din, after she came across Barbara Ehrenreich’s feminist essay "Welcome To Cancerland." Watch Pink Ribbons, Inc. in full here.
“I had been treated for breast cancer,” Din said. “My sister had, too, and she sent me the article and said, ‘You must read this.’" It gave Din an epiphany.
Ehrenreich’s article led Din to read Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbons, Inc. : Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.
Digging into her feminist past, and informed by her own experience of the disease, Din felt compelled to follow these women’s lead in taking a critical approach to the breast cancer campaign industry.
“The question I was intrigued by was, ‘How did we get to this kind of breast cancer culture that privileges shopping [as a solution] as opposed to getting angry and asking for change?’"
In this interview, Din notes they soon realized Pink Ribbon campaigns were inextricably linked to the environment and questions of ethics. While the film does not intend to paint a black-and-white picture, it does raise women's awareness of lifestyle choices that put them at risk for cancer. These include the toxic, cancer-causing chemicals used in the very cosmetics, beverages and foods marketed with the Pink Ribbon.