'Pinkwashing' -- 5 Companies' Questionable Claims to Promote Breast Cancer Awareness

Yes, Pinktober again. From soup to cars, companies are boasting their commitment to promoting breast cancer awareness. But some companies' commitment is mere lip service, also called "pinkwashing."

Breast Cancer Action, which coined the term and sponsors an annual Think Before You Pink awareness campaign, defines it as:

A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.

Aligning corporate altruism to the cause isn't surprising, with one in eight women at risk. And it doesn't hurt that women hold the majority of household purchasing power.

No good deed goes unpunished
One of the most committed companies for over 20 years,  Avon Products (NYSE: AVP  ) (NYSE: AVP  )  sponsors global walks for the cure in October, and has raised a total of $780 million over the years. But the company has been tarred with the pinkwashing brush. Ingredients such as parabens and phthalates listed as carcinogens to avoid have been used in some of their products, although Avon has been phasing them out since 2002.

The company is in what Wells Fargo analyst Chris Ferrara calls, "...the beginning of a very long turnaround after years of prior mismanagement."  Despite the PR goodwill its walks generate, it still has an image problem as your mom's cosmetics brand as Fellow Fool Rich Duprey notes, and unfortunately still has miles to go to change that image..

(Source: avoncompany.com)

Competitor Estee Lauder (NYSE: EL  ) has also been a leader in the fight against breast cancer . Former Estee Lauder executive Evelyn Lauder co-created the 'pink ribbon' as a symbol for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation she founded in 1993. To date, the campaign has raised $48 million.

Last year the company  promoted a pink lipstick and clutch duo, of which 20% of proceeds would go to said Breast Cancer Research Foundation. But as ecouterre.com, an ecology-themed blog, wrote,"The rosy-hued wares are chock-full of reproductive toxins, hormone-disrupting chemicals, and carcinogens." 

That misstep hasn't kept Estee Lauder's stock from rising 282% in five years and expanding into more international markets each year. Wells Fargo thinks it has the best prospects for significant margin expansion and growth in the sector, and I agree, due to its position as a higher end cosmetics brand. .

Campbell Foods (NYSE: CPB  ) didn't get off scot-free either when it marketed pink labeled soup cans in 2008 and pledged to donate $325,000 to breast cancer research. Its cans and other manufacturers' were tested by the Breast Cancer Fund and found to contain what they considered high levels of bisphenol A (BPA). The Breast Cancer fund says BPA is, "the estrogenic chemical linked to breast cancer in lab studies."

In 2012, the company agreed to phase out BPA in cans, but USA Today reported in an Oct. 9 article on BPA that no news on a timeframe for a phaseout has been released.

Campbell Soup's stock has risen 60% in the last five years, but has pulled back  on declines in their US Beverage and Foodservice businesses. However, its acquisitions of healthy food companies Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics should boost revenues going forward and the stock offers a 3.10% yield.

In 2010 Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM  ) featured pink buckets of fried chicken, Buckets for the Cure, with $1 million guaranteed to be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. What they didn't advertise were NIH National Cancer Institute recommendations that people avoid meats cooked at high heat, like fried chicken. The company has since turned its charitable efforts to the organization World Hunger Relief.

Yum! Brands is the world's largest restaurant chain based on sheer numbers: 39,000 locations, of which 80% are franchised. Every day, somewhere in the world, Yum! Brands opens another 5 restaurants.. Since 2001 the company has attained 13%-plus EPS growth annually, and for full year 2012 attained a 22% return on invested capital, with revenues of $13 billion.

Ford Motor Co (NYSE: F  )   has fallen prey to pinkwashing charges as its cars' exhausts emit carcinogens. This is despite the fact that its annual Warriors in Pink campaigns have generated over $120 million to fight the disease, and 100% of Warriors in Pink merchandise net proceeds go to various breast cancer charities

Ford has been a reliable performer since the depths of the recession, up 746%. It brought back its dividend, now at 2.4%, and trades at a reasonable trailing earnings multiple of 11.01. Going forward, positive catalysts like growing sales in China, possibly outstripping Toyota, mean more upside.

The Foolish takeaway
Yes, these mostly well-meaning companies have been charged with pinkwashing. Yes, they manufacture some products that are or may beunhealthy. And yes, they are good value buys for a portfolio, save Avon. These aren't the companies that should make responsible investors see red in Pinktober.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misstated that General Mills products contained rBGH. That section has been removed. The Fool regrets this error.

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