Which pink ribbon products make the biggest impact?

Every October, as pink-ribbon products blossom throughout store aisles, consumers face a thorny issue: Will the money I pay for this product really help in the fight against breast cancer or am I just falling for a marketing gimmick? The dilemma has been made sharper by a backlash against "pink-washing," or the use of the pink ribbon by corporations to sell more products with little or none of the resulting funds going to a charity (I detailed this growing problem on DailyFinance last year).

At stake is the millions of dollars spent annually on pink-ribbon products that actually go toward a charity. While no one tracks overall contributions to breast-cancer research through such products, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the largest U.S. breast-cancer foundations, expects to bring in $50 million from pink-branded products this year. That's a significant chunk of money for the group, which during its last fiscal year raised $171 million from its series of running races. The donations from pink-ribboned products enables Susan G. Komen to fund research grants, says Cristina Riccio Kenny, manager of corporate relations for the foundation.

Komen aims to disclose exactly how sales of pink-ribbon products from its roughly 200 corporate partners benefit the foundation, says Kenny. Its website lists both its corporate partners and their pink promotions, as well as companies that have donated more than $1 million to the group.

"Cause marketing generates a significant amount of funds that we can use for research," says Kenny. "It's important to give people different options" for giving, whether it be in the form of a direct check to a charity or through the purchase of a pink-tinted KitchenAid mixer, which contributes about $35 to Susan G. Komen for a $350 purchase.

Where Does the Money Actually Go?

That may very well be true, but if a consumer wants to know their money is going 100% to help breast-cancer research, she should send a check directly to a charity, says Angela Wall, the communications manager of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group that's been critical of pink-washing and publishes the site Think Before You Pink.

"What we hear is, 'What harm does it do?'" Wall says. "I flip it around and say, 'What good is it doing?' The thing about the pink ribbon being everywhere is people think we have breast cancer covered now, and it's not. Forty thousand women die from this disease every year."

Wall believes the breast-cancer research industry needs an audit to track where the money from pink-ribbon purchases are going and what research is being funded by it. In the meantime, Wall advises consumers to be vigilant consumers when it comes to buying pink products.

That means to read a label carefully and to be wary of products that don't fully disclose how the purchase will benefit breast-cancer research. Take Sunstar's GUM-brand soft-picks, which are selling pink-ended toothpicks this month with a pink-ribbon on the package that alerts consumers, "A portion of product sales will be donated to breast cancer research," without disclosing on the packaging exactly how it will benefit a charity. Instead, it directs consumers to its website, which says that donations to Breastcancer.org are capped at $15,000. In such cases, it's unclear whether the donation cap has already been reached, and thus whether a purchase will actually result in a contribution.

When More Pink Means More Green for Breast Cancer Research

While not all pink-labeled products smell like roses, there are some products that contribute significant percentages of their retail price to breast-cancer foundations, such as the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Consumers can also check out Charity Navigator's reviews of the top 20 breast-cancer charities, which together raise over $1 billion annually in contributions.

Harveys' Seatbelt bags, for instance, is selling $138 "Get Checked!" handbags that donate $75 per bag to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Harveys is hoping to match or exceed its 2009 donations, which totaled $22,275, according to a spokeswoman. So far, sales of the bag have raised more than $10,000 and the company will continue to produce and sell it after October, she notes.

RumbaTime, which sells colorful rubber watches, is another retailer selling a pink product that will benefit breast-cancer research beyond October. Its $20 pink watch will donate $8, or 40% of its purchase price, to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation this month, and $4, or 20% of the price, in following months. RumbaTime expects to donate at least $10,000 from sales of the pink watch during the course of a year, according to a spokeswoman.

Another fashion product from Coach, the luxury bag maker, is selling a $328 Mia Leather Maggie bag with rose-colored leather that will give about $65 per bag to the BCRF. Coach said it's too early to say how much toward the charity sales of the bag will raise, although last year the Coach Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to the organization, according to a spokeswoman.

The bottom line: research pink purchases this month before committing money. Being informed only helps the end cause, says Komen's Kenny. The controversy over pink-ribboned products "means that people will scrutinize the programs out there, so they will understand the donations, and that's a positive," she says. "The more we talk about breast cancer the more early detection we'll see and the more lives we'll save."
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