Photo: Beware of pinkwashing: A new film reminds us it's what's inside that counts.

There is something wrong when a company that promotes itself as a champion in the fight against breast cancer refuses to remove cancer-causing substances from its products.

By Lisa Gue, Environmental health policy analyst

Environmentalists have learned to beware of corporate greenwashing — deceptive marketing campaigns that exaggerate the extent to which a company or product is environmentally friendly, sometimes to distract attention away from the less green aspects of the company's operations. Some classic examples of greenwashing involve companies spending more on advertising their green credentials than on actually greening corporate practices.

A new National Film Board documentary exposes a twin evil: "pinkwashing." This term describes "a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease" (see:

In the new movie, Pink Ribbons Inc, appearing in theatres this weekend, Montreal producer Léa Pool critically examines the explosion of the "pink ribbon" brand. A growing number of companies and products are involved one way or another in raising or donating money for breast cancer research. Now there's not necessarily anything wrong with that — it's a worthy cause to be sure and beneficiary organizations do important work. But there is something wrong when a company that promotes itself as a champion in the fight against breast cancer refuses to remove cancer-causing substances from its products.

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Pink Ribbons Inc profiles, for example, Revlon's Walk/Run for Women in the U.S. as well as Avon's Breast Cancer Crusade. Through sales of "pink ribbon products" and events, these corporate giants have raised millions for breast cancer research... and have capitalized upon this to promote a perception of their brands as being part of the solution to the cancer epidemic.

As we see in the film, a search of Avon and Revlon products in the Skin Deep database of ingredients in personal care products -. reveals product after product containing ingredients associated with cancer and other health hazards. (Try this at home!)

As part of our What's Inside campaign, the David Suzuki Foundation asked Revlon and Avon, among other manufacturers of fragranced cosmetics, to provide us with information about unlisted fragrance ingredients in their products. Neither Revlon nor Avon would provide us with a complete list of fragrance ingredients for the products we asked about. They wouldn't even tell us whether or not their fragrance mixtures contain phthalates or any of the 26 sensitizers that must be indicated in the list of ingredients for products sold in Europe (see: Failing the Sniff Test).

Unfortunately, they don't have to tell us that information. A loophole in Canada's ingredient-labeling requirements for cosmetics allows manufacturers to list fragrance ingredients generically as "parfum" rather than disclosing the specific chemicals used to produce or mask scents. Some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrance ingredients in cosmetics, including substances associated with health and environmental hazards.

If you agree that stinks, then take a moment to sign the David Suzuki Foundation's petition to cosmetic companies asking them to come clean on fragrance ingredients.

Cosmetics manufactures looking to rehabilitate their image should start by rehabilitating their ingredient lists to provide consumers with complete information and remove ingredients linked to priority health hazards like cancer. Hundreds of companies have already joined the Campaign for Safe Cosmetic's Business Network — but in the Campaign's listing of champions and innovators neither Revlon nor Avon make the cut.

Pink Ribbons Inc reminds us that pink or green, it's not the colour that companies drape themselves in, but what's inside that counts. The movie opens in Canadian theaters on February 3. View the trailer and check your local listings for show times.

February 2, 2012

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Jul 03, 2012
12:33 PM

Although I agree that cosmetics companies need to be more open about their ingredients and should be willing to share any information requested about that topic, as people of science I think we need to be wary about 'chemicals are scary and dangerous' type stories. Don't seem to be able to post a link at the moment, but if you are concerned about this issue I recommend searching for 'cosmetics' at the Sense about Science website.

Feb 06, 2012
8:38 AM

We are very happy to see the Pink Ribbons Inc. film come out. That is exactly why we started the Pink and GREEN Ribbon Health Campaign ( There seems to continually be a lack of connection between our health and the environment. We are what we eat, what we put on our skin and what we use in our homes and yards.

Feb 03, 2012
5:13 AM

I agree that when you have corporations involved in any type of research for diseases that effect people, that devastate their lives, it will be about profit and the bottom line. Yes, it is great that they donate money, but at what cost. They sell you products that may perpetuate the disease. A win-win situation for the corporations and the products they sell. It is up to us, as individuals, to check this stuff out before we use it. Stop buying it and maybe they will really 'green' the product. I have a very rare cancer called Pseudomyxoma Peritonea. There is very little known about this cancer. Very little awareness and funding to promote research. At this point there is no cure for this cancer. There is only a brutal surgical treatment with heated interperitoneal chemotherapy. It is up to me to research cosmetic companies and ingredients. I live in Germany so ingredients are listed. Canada needs to adopt this as well. Let the consumer make the choice of what they put or use for their hygiene.

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