Stern Advice-How to shop during Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Reuters

By Linda Stern

NEW YORK, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Every October, my book groupdrops its strictly literary agenda and spends a weekend shoppingat outlets on the Delaware shore.

We love the fall weather, but there's another reason for thetiming. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, andthe malls sell pink cards for $1 each that get us 20 percentdiscounts on purchases and raise money for breast cancerresearch.

So we get to save money and feel warm and fuzzy. Yet Iwonder how much good we are doing. With everything from chewinggum to flashlights to bicycles branded with bright pinkcoloring, I want to make sure I make good choices, especiallybecause two people I loved dearly have died of breast cancer inrecent years.

The "pink" campaign, started in 1990 by the then-titledSusan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and now called Susan G.Komen for the Cure, has been criticized by anti-cancer andconsumer advocates such as Breast Cancer Action in San Franciscoand in the 2012 Canadian film "Pink Ribbons, Inc."

Critics claim some companies "pinkwash" their products andcontribute little to the fight against breast cancer. Others saythat, after 30 years of pink branding, everyone is aware ofbreast cancer and raising awareness further isn't really goingto help cure the disease.

But the campaign is not all bad. That outlet mall companysays it has sent more than $10 million to 20 different breastcancer organizations in the last 19 years. (The amount of moneycontributed to breast cancer causes has been put as high $6billion a year, although specific figures for contributionsrelated to October promotions are not consolidated and tallied.)And because the donations are subsidized by merchants that offerdiscounts to shoppers, it's not as if we are paying extra forunspecified donations.

So I'll probably buy more of those pink cards and shop withmy pals again this year. But I'll consider these guidelines as Ido:

- First, do no harm. The worst-case pink-shopping scenario,according to Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast CancerAction, is buying something pink-branded that may becarcinogenic.

"Does the purchase actually contain chemicals that put awoman or someone she loves at risk for breast cancer?" she askedin an interview.

It's not so easy to determine which items (often cosmetics)include dangerous chemicals, and Jaggar's group doesn't helpwith specifics. But before you buy pink-branded cosmetics, youcan run them through the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deepdatabase () to see which ones have chemicals that have been listed by theEnvironmental Protection Agency or others as carcinogenic orproblematic in other ways.

- Don't pay extra for nothing. Some companies paint theirproducts pink in a self-described effort to raise awareness forbreast cancer, but don't actually donate money to the cause. Forexample, Card.com sells a stored-value Visa-branded card thatcharges a $5.95 monthly fee, is pink-branded for breast cancerawareness, but sends nothing to breast cancer charities.

Card.com as a company has contributed directly to the BreastCancer Research Foundation, the firm's chief marketing officerJeremy Geltman said late on Wednesday. He said his firm is newand developing a plan under which the number of cardholders oftheir breast cancer awareness card would be directly linked tofuture donations. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is awell-rated charity, according to Charity Navigator. Visa was notavailable for comment.

- Ask questions. You may not want to hold up the line at theregister while you question the cashier, but you can check thewebsites of companies selling the pink things you areconsidering purchasing to see how their programs work. Jaggar'sgroup runs a "Think before you pink" campaign that offerssuggested questions on its site (). For example, is there a cap on the amount the company willdonate this year? Has it met its cap? Obviously, there's noreason to buy one more T-shirt if the T-shirt company hasalready maxed out its annual contribution. Don't forget the evenmore obvious question: What percentage of this purchase will goto a breast cancer charity?

Check, too, with the Better Business Bureau (), which warns shoppers every year about pink-branded scams.

- Know your charities. If you go to the independentcharity-rating site Charity Navigator () and search for "breast cancer" you will find more than 125organizations listed, only 27 of which are vetted for items suchas financial management.

They are not all created equal. Some spend the bulk of theirmoney fundraising, have poor financial controls and highly paidexecutives. Some focus on research, others on putting outpreventive care messages. Some have highly rated operations, butfunnel money in ways that might not fit your own socialobjectives - supporting (or not) Planned Parenthood's breastcancer testing facilities, for example.

If you're going to buy products because they donate to thesecharities, make sure the organizations they donate to are onesyou would support.

- Make your own donation. Instead of indirectly giving byshopping, you can make your own tax-deductible contribution toyour favorite breast cancer outreach and research charity. Ithink that is what I'll do this year. After my book groupweekend, I'll add up all the 20 percents that I save and write acheck.

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