By Linda Stern
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Every October, my book group drops its strictly literary agenda and spends a weekend shopping at outlets on the Delaware shore.
We love the fall weather, but there's another reason for the timing. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the malls sell pink cards for $1 each that get us 20 percent discounts on purchases and raise money for breast cancer research.
So we get to save money and feel warm and fuzzy. Yet I wonder how much good we are doing. With everything from chewing gum to flashlights to bicycles branded with bright pink coloring, I want to make sure I make good choices, especially because two people I loved dearly have died of breast cancer in recent years.
The "pink" campaign, started in 1990 by the then-titled Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and now called Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has been criticized by anti-cancer and consumer advocates such as Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco and in the 2012 Canadian film "Pink Ribbons, Inc."
Critics claim some companies "pinkwash" their products and contribute little to the fight against breast cancer. Others say that, after 30 years of pink branding, everyone is aware of breast cancer and raising awareness further isn't really going to help cure the disease.
But the campaign is not all bad. That outlet mall company says it has sent more than $10 million to 20 different breast cancer organizations in the last 19 years. (The amount of money contributed to breast cancer causes has been put as high $6 billion a year, although specific figures for contributions related to October promotions are not consolidated and tallied.) And because the donations are subsidized by merchants that offer discounts to shoppers, it's not as if we are paying extra for unspecified donations.
So I'll probably buy more of those pink cards and shop with my pals again this year. But I'll consider these guidelines as I do:
- First, do no harm. The worst-case pink-shopping scenario, according to Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, is buying something pink-branded that may be carcinogenic.
"Does the purchase actually contain chemicals that put a woman or someone she loves at risk for breast cancer?" she asked in an interview.
It's not so easy to determine which items (often cosmetics) include dangerous chemicals, and Jaggar's group doesn't help with specifics. But before you buy pink-branded cosmetics, you can run them through the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/top-tips-for-safer-products/) to see which ones have chemicals that have been listed by the Environmental Protection Agency or others as carcinogenic or problematic in other ways.
- Don't pay extra for nothing. Some companies paint their products pink in a self-described effort to raise awareness for breast cancer, but don't actually donate money to the cause. For example, Card.com sells a stored-value Visa-branded card that charges a $5.95 monthly fee, is pink-branded for breast cancer awareness, but sends nothing to breast cancer charities.
Card.com as a company has contributed directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the firm's chief marketing officer Jeremy Geltman said late on Wednesday. He said his firm is new and developing a plan under which the number of cardholders of their breast cancer awareness card would be directly linked to future donations. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is a well-rated charity, according to Charity Navigator. Visa was not available for comment.
- Ask questions. You may not want to hold up the line at the register while you question the cashier, but you can check the websites of companies selling the pink things you are considering purchasing to see how their programs work. Jaggar's group runs a "Think before you pink" campaign that offers suggested questions on its site (http://thinkbeforeyoupink.org/?page_id=13). For example, is there a cap on the amount the company will donate this year? Has it met its cap? Obviously, there's no reason to buy one more T-shirt if the T-shirt company has already maxed out its annual contribution. Don't forget the even more obvious question: What percentage of this purchase will go to a breast cancer charity?
Check, too, with the Better Business Bureau (http://watchyourbuck.com/2013/10/02/think-before-you-purchase-pink/), which warns shoppers every year about pink-branded scams.
- Know your charities. If you go to the independent charity-rating site Charity Navigator (http://www.charitynavigator.com) and search for "breast cancer" you will find more than 125 organizations listed, only 27 of which are vetted for items such as financial management.
They are not all created equal. Some spend the bulk of their money fundraising, have poor financial controls and highly paid executives. Some focus on research, others on putting out preventive care messages. Some have highly rated operations, but funnel money in ways that might not fit your own social objectives - supporting (or not) Planned Parenthood's breast cancer testing facilities, for example.
If you're going to buy products because they donate to these charities, make sure the organizations they donate to are ones you would support.
- Make your own donation. Instead of indirectly giving by shopping, you can make your own tax-deductible contribution to your favorite breast cancer outreach and research charity. I think that is what I'll do this year. After my book group weekend, I'll add up all the 20 percents that I save and write a check.
(Linda Stern is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. The Stern Advice column appears weekly, and at additional times as warranted. Linda Stern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; She tweets at http://www.twitter.com/lindastern .; Read more of her work at http://blogs.reuters.com/linda-stern; Editing by Douglas Royalty)