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As one of the more visible organizers of breast-cancer rallies across the United States,
Avon talks a good game about “crusading” against the deadly disease, particularly when October rolls around. Yet the beauty firm has far to go before it walks the walk, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of health and environmental groups dedicated to eliminating toxic chemicals from cosmetics and personal-care products. Avon’s 20-year-old “Breast Cancer Crusade,” claims the organization, is one of the most egregious examples of “pinkwashing,” a term coined by Breast Cancer Action in 2002 to describe companies who promote pink-ribbon merchandise but continue to produce, manufacture, or sell products linked to the disease.

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Breast cancer affects more than 1 million women worldwide each year, with women in industrialized nations experiencing the highest rates of disease. In the United States, a woman has a one-in-eight chance of being diagnosed with the disease, and nearly 40,000 women die from it every year. Mounting research shows that breast cancer isn’t simply genetic. Environmental exposures to toxic chemicals through art, food, water, cosmetics, cleaners, plastics, and furniture are contributing factors in a large number of cases.

Although Avon claims it’s “in it to end it,” the firm continues to use chemicals linked to breast cancer and other diseases—including parabens, triclosan, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives—in its products, notes the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in an online petition. If Avon is serious about ending breast cancer, the group adds, it needs to “meet or beat” Johnson & Johnson’s recent pledge to rid its products of cancer-causing chemicals.

Although Avon claims it’s “in it to end it,” the firm continues to use chemicals linked to breast cancer and other diseases.

A paper in the June 17, 2011 issue of Environmental Justice cites Avon’s “Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer” campaign as one of the company’s most “poignant instances of pinkwashing.” Designed to raise funds for breast-cancer research, the initiative launched in 2001 with six shades of lipstick (“Courageous Spirit,” “Crusade Pink,” “Faithful Heart,” “Inspirational Life,” “Strength,” and “Triumph”) that may have contained hormone-disrupting ingredients linked to breast cancer. But that wasn’t all.

“Avon is one of the most recognizable corporate entities participating in the breast cancer awareness industry and according to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, more than 250 of Avon’s products listed in a database assessing the health risks of cosmetic products are listed in the ‘highest concern’ category due to the presence of hormones,” Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis write in the journal.

In 2005, Avon shareholders voted 95 percent to 5 percent against a resolution to reformulate, in a reasonable time frame, all its products to be free of chemicals banned by the European Union for known or suspected associations with cancer, genetic mutations, or birth defects.

And what of those ubiquitous Walks for Breast Cancer? The same Massachusetts group notes that the Boston Avon Walk has raised millions of dollars, but less than 2 percent of those funds have supported environmental research related to preventing breast cancer in Massachusetts despite its high rates of the disease. “Funds raised from breast cancer walks and runs undoubtedly serve to further treatment and early detection of breast cancer (which saves more women’s lives),” Lubitow and Davis say. “However, corporate entities marketing to cancer patients and their families develop brand loyalty, generate free advertising on the part of women who participate, and discourage questions about the role of chemicals used [in] consumer products in cancer incidence.”

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