Behind the Label: Avon’s Crusade Against Breast Cancer

Avon has long been a major player in the fight against breast cancer. But why do they continue to use chemicals that have been linked to cancer in its products?

Last week, Avon rolled out its latest effort at corporate transparency: Avon’s Calling, a blog focusing on issues related to social responsibility and the global cosmetic company’s three “pillars:” sustainability, philanthropy, and female empowerment.

While greater transparency is always a good thing, one has to wonder whether what the blog will do to mitigate criticism against Avon, particularly around its reported history of “pinkwashing” – promoting the fight against breast cancer with pastel pink ribbons, while continuing to produce products using chemicals linked to cancer. There are also accusations of greenwashing with Avon’s Hello Green Tomorrow initiative – though the campaign aims to “save the rainforest,” Avon utilizes palm oil in many of its products, which is a major cause of deforestation (though with its Palm Oil Promise, it is trying to source more sustainably). And then there are the numerous lawsuits recently levied against Avon, on everything from animal testing fraud to bribery of Chinese officials.

In short, it’s been a rough couple of years.

That aside, Avon’s dedication to corporate responsibility dates back to the days before CSR was a marketing buzzword. Founded in 1886, the company was created with the commitment “to meet fully the obligations of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of society and the environment in which it functions,” states Avon’s website. Today, it is one of the world’s leading cosmetics companies, with over $11 billion in annual revenue. The company is based on an affiliate business model, in which independent “Avon Ladies” sell products and earn commission on sales. Historically, this model helped to revolutionize female entrepreneurship by offering women a chance at financial independence during a time when it was unheard of.

The Good

The “pillars” of Avon’s corporate responsibility efforts – the empowerment of women, sustainability, and philanthropy – have been at the heart of Avon’s operations from the very beginning. One of the company’s largest ongoing projects is the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, which is aimed at funding research and access to quality care. Now in its 20th year, the project has donated more than $740 million to the cause, making it one of the world’s leading corporate supporters of the fight against breast cancer. Among the successes that Avon lists on its website:

  • Linking more than 15 million women around the globe to early detection programs and mammography screenings.
  • Educating 100 million women on breast health
  • Expanding into 55 countries
  • Enabling access to care for underserved populations
  • Providing $175 million to breast cancer research projects since 1999
  • Creating Love/Avon Army of Women, a program designed to accelerate the pace of prevention research by enlisting more than 350,000 women (potential study volunteers) for this effort.

Avon fundraises for these efforts through various methods, like hosting the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer series and selling Crusade Pink Ribbon fundraising products, which currently include pins, tennis bracelets, ear buds, scarves, and nail polish.

The Bad

Despite its philanthropic efforts, Avon has been criticized by researchers and advocacy groups for positioning itself as a leader in the fight against breast cancer, while continuing to use hormone-disrupting ingredients linked with cancer, like parabens, phthalates, synthetic musks, and triclosan, in its cosmetics and personal care products. The company has often been singled out by Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink™ campaign, which aims to encourage both companies and consumers to think more critically about breast cancer fundraising. The watchdog group coined the term “pinkwasher” in 2003 and has since addressed pink ribbon marketing by companies including Yoplait, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

Last year, an academic article in Environmental Justice furthered the debate. In the report, titled “Pastel Injustice: The Corporate Use of Pinkwashing for Profit,” authors Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis highlighted Avon’s “Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer” campaign, which promoted six shades of lipstick whose proceeds would be donated to breast cancer research. Citing the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, Lubitow and Davis stated that the lipsticks “may have contained ingredients that disrupt hormone functions (which is in turn linked to breast cancer)” and that according to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, more than 250 Avon products listed in a database “are listed in the “highest concern” category due to the presence of hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, and possible carcinogens.”

Soon after the publication of the Environmental Justice article, Lubitow and Davis published a related piece in Forbes on pinkwashing, lambasting it as “the co-optation of breast cancer symbolism by corporate actors who stand to profit from the use of breast cancer awareness imagery.”

Breast cancer is useful for corporate cause marketing campaigns because it is a disease that many people are intimately familiar with (currently, one in eight women in the US are diagnosed with breast cancer) and it is associated with beloved family members and friends … In addition, women control somewhere between $0.70 and $0.85 of every household dollar spent, so marketing in relation to women’s health is a logical business move. 

The Forbes article again spotlighted Avon cosmetics, but this time, Avon responded. Tod Arbogast, Avon’s vice president of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility, sent Forbes a letter disputing claims about the cancer-causing effects of hormone-disrupting ingredients like parabens. Arbogast stated that “scientific bodies have extensively studied the safety of parabens” and “not a single government-scientific body has determined that parabens are unsafe,” but that Avon has eliminated parabens from “some products where there are safe alternatives.”

Soon after the letter was added to the original article as an addendum, Lubitow and Davis bit back with a letter of their own, disputing Arbogast’s claim that the health effects of parabens have been adequately studied and reinforcing their previous claim that “chemicals that cause cancer or have been linked to cancer have no place in consumer products.”

While we applaud the efforts to reduce the presence of toxic chemicals in Avon products, we maintain that continuing to build brand recognition through breast cancer cause-marketing while continuing to sell products that are not completely free of toxic chemicals is a harmful contradiction.

The Questionable

Avon’s track record in the world of corporate responsibility hasn’t just been impressive – it’s been groundbreaking. As one of the first major corporations to make issues like sustainability, philanthropy, and female empowerment exist at the core of their business, Avon has set a CSR standard that has been followed by many of the companies that have proceeded it.

But as we noted in the recent Behind the Label: Tommy Hilfiger, there’s a difference between donating to good causes and doing good business. It’s common to separate noble corporate responsibility goals from profit-driven business practices, and indeed, that is what Avon continues to do by utilizing cancer-linked chemicals in their products. Sure, spending more to produce products with natural ingredients may result in less profit, which may mean less money for philanthropy. But perhaps a world that is freer from cancer-causing toxins will be a world where less of that charity is needed. I hope that’s one issue that the company will address on Avon’s Calling.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.