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Etsy and the Problem with Pink. | Bethany Suckrow

Etsy and the Problem with Pink.

I love the month of October for a lot of reasons, but it’s also a month that I dread every year. While the leaves are vivid with color, retail stores everywhere are awash with pink, because it is “breast cancer awareness month.”

Most of you reading this know that I lost my mother to metastatic breast cancer in January, so it’s not my disregard for breast cancer awareness that bothers me about the pink ribbon. The reason I am so sick of the pink ribbon is because in my experience, the pink ribbon does more for the person that purchases it than those affected by the disease.

Nowhere is the problem with “pinkwashing” more evident than with Etsy and their “Tickled Pink” email and subsequent corporate cop-out.

Two weeks ago, Nicole Smith, a member of Etsy’s marketing team, curated an email full of sellers’ items clad in the ubiquitous pink “breast cancer awareness” ribbons. Though I have my qualms with the pink ribbon for all it does and does not represent, the email seems innocent enough until you click through each of the listings. Only 8 out 24 items listed in the “Tickled Pink” email actually claim to donate to the cause they tout, yet Nicole’s email encourages Etsy users to purchase the pieces as a way to “show love to the women in your life.”

In short, these Etsy sellers have happily capitalized on a sensitive issue, thoughtlessly tacking pink ribbons onto their products without supporting the cause itself. Etsy’s celebratory endorsement of the sellers’ deplorable opportunism only adds insult to injury. Since Etsy earns money from each item sold on their site, both they and their sellers are profiting from others’ pain, and from their consumers’ ignorance, because let’s face it – not everyone is going to read the fine print to make sure their purchase donates to the cause.

And herein lies the issue with pinkwashing, as Etsy has so finely exemplified for us :

When there is no charitable action behind the product – on the part of the seller or the buyer – it turns breast cancer awareness into a trendy parade of pink shit, making breast cancer awareness about the appearance of generosity, rather than actively making a difference in the lives of those in need. It gives consumers buying bags of pretzels and footballs and tennis-shoes – or in this case, mugs and iPhone covers – the feeling of having been generous, without their actually having to do anything.

But as Hila so aptly states,

“Consumerism is not ‘awareness’ about cancer; it’s consumerism. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

That realization alone is enough to make blood boil, but then there is Etsy’s dismissive and impersonal response to the criticism over their “breast cancer awareness” marketing tactics. For examples, see Nicole Smith’s tweet to Acacia, Mary Andrew’s forum response and quote for the Daily Dot. As if those responses weren’t bad enough, there’s Marie Kelly’s response to my forum inquiry, which makes it sound like I’m just another Negative Nancy trolling the internet. And then there’s Nicole Smith’s reply to my private message on Etsy, which although I can’t reveal its contents due to Etsy’s site policy, was nearly verbatim what Mary Andrews published publicly, with zero acknowledgement of my personal story as a daughter of a breast cancer patient or as an Etsy seller that actually donated a portion of my profits to my mother.

Etsy has had ample opportunity to express solidarity with those who have been directly effected by breast cancer and hold themselves accountable to their brand as a “community of artists, creators, collectors, thinkers and doers,” but instead, they have chosen to make excuses for themselves and label criticism as “negative reference to other sellers,” as if voicing our frustrations and concern equates to hate speech.

This, ultimately, is why I have lost faith in Etsy’s brand, and it is the reason why I am choosing to close my Etsy shop :

They have made it clear that my voice doesn’t matter, nor do Acacia, or Jane, or Hila, or anyone else that is disturbed by their actions.

I’m not just upset by their ignorant and insensitive attempt at marketing to those affected by breast cancer. I am angered by their continued disregard of the voices in their community asking them to be accountable for their actions.

Nothing says corporate cop-out like a deliberate blind eye to someone else’s pain.

I’ll finish this post by saying that Etsy and other corporations like them are only partially at fault. As consumers we have to acknowledge our responsibility in this issue by being active in our charitable efforts. The pink ribbon on your bumper, Facebook profile picture, sweater, cereal box, means absolutely nothing if you are not reaching out to the people around you.

True generosity is radically active.

It is not fluffy or pink or cutesy or marketable. It is not the over-sexualized saving of second base. It is not the color of your bra in a cryptic Facebook status. It is tangible, it is personal, it is scary, it is unnerving. It is ugly-crying on the couch with your friend as she (or he!) discusses their diagnosis.

If you know someone battling breast cancer, or any other terminal illness for that matter, then reach out. Make them a meal, run a marathon for them, hold a benefit for them, send them a card, cry with them, promise to care for their families when they are gone. THAT is how you support a breast cancer patient.


  • http://www.stuffaudreysays.com/ Audrey the Turtle

    Wow. I had never thought of this before, but from now on will definitely think twice about who I purchase “cause” items from. Thank you for your honesty, and for bringing this dilemma to our attention.

  • http://sayable.net/ Lore Ferguson

    And you.
    Proud of you.

  • Wanda

    Bethany I love this post. So true. I lost my mom to cancer and my 39 year old friend to cancer and I couldn’t have said it better “Make them a meal, run a marathon for them, hold a benefit for them, send them a card, cry with them, promise to care for their families when they are gone.” Thanks

  • http://twitter.com/Sophie_Novak Sophie Novak

    Bethany, I applaud you! Seriously! I love your heart and words!

  • Jane Flanagan

    Bethany, this is an amazing post, truly moving. I remain livid that Etsy did not respond to either you or Acacia with the substantial and compassionate response that both your posts deserve.

    The few times this week that I’ve clicked through from a blog or site to find a product on Etsy that I might otherwise favourite or buy, I’ve quickly exited the site. I don’t intend to punish makers so wholly unconnected with Etsy’s behaviour, but it will be a long time before I can stomach buying anything through their site again, if at all.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      I’ve thought about this, too, Jane. I don’t want to punish those sellers that have nothing to do with this issue. My best idea is that we purchase Paypal-to-Paypal, which I’ve had more than one customer do with me before. You can still purchase their items, but totally avoid letting Etsy be the middle-man.

  • http://www.eloranicole.com/ elora nicole ramirez

    I have chills. Bethany – this is beautiful and moves people to action. Thank you. Love you, girl.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1466200307 Jessica K. Sullivan

    AMEN Bethany!

  • http://twitter.com/primesaut Danielle P.

    “True generosity is radically active.”

    YES. So many times YES. Thank you for writing about this issue in such a heartfelt way.

  • Aileen

    It’s been an interesting shift, and a bizarre conflict of my heart and mind, to see the culture surrounding us decide that it’s trendy to “appear generous” as you so simply stated.

    My heart aches for you and for everyone that feels pink salt poured into them each October. I understand the feeling of wanting to scream “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND” to people – and companies – whose only real connection to a cause is their own interest in looking good to others.

    Consumerism…consumes. Whether it’s merchandise for awareness months, or expensive shoes or glasses flashing a brand name that equals some donation, somewhere, it’s up to us to know our hearts. We all step forward each day and decide how far we’ll go to know what we’re buying, and why – and if that why lines up with capital t Truth.

    Usually I attempt a smile, and if I know them, see if their step in the way of generosity has room to turn into a life of it…you know. Ask them to do good, be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (Tim 6:18-19). There are some beautiful opportunities out there.

    Much love – and may our hearts never stop having the ability to ache.

  • Rachie

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! I’m so proud of you and I love you very much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/acacia.warwick Acacia Warwick

    Bethany you’ve summed it up so beautifully. My original post was pretty snarky and angry, but you and Jane and Hila have brought such loving, thoughtful responses to the issue that it has become an issue about love and care over craven marketing. I am immensely proud of where you all have taken it.

  • Meredith

    Bethany, this is very thoughtful and well said.

    I work at a college with students who want to be engaged in service and social justice. One thing we teach them in orientation is an “awareness, action, advocacy” framework. In short, the goal for our student leaders is to move people from simply learning about an issue to taking action on it, and from taking action to becoming an advocate–someone who brings other along with them for that cause. The goal is advocacy, and awareness, at best, is just a first step. And of course, we try to balance being gracious with the people we meet, helping them take the next faithful step for them, and challenging others to keep moving along, not letting ‘awareness’ become an excuse for inaction.

    One thing I find particularly frustrating about Etsy’s responses is their rhetoric of ‘awareness’ and attitude that all awareness is equally good, even if it never prompts people to any meaningful action.

    Ok, this is getting long; I’m sorry. Thank you for what you wrote. It’s really got me thinking.

  • Jenny

    Amen!!! Thank you for making such a bold, thoughful, loving statement!!

  • Kristy

    I feel responsible now for having read this. I always admire your thoughts and the way that you present them. Keep them coming please :)

  • http://twitter.com/Drebelle Andrea Beltran

    Bravo, Bethany! Way to raise awareness, an way to stand your ground. Sharing this. Big hug.

  • Brian

    I don’t think that there is any father that could be prouder of his daughter than I am of you.
    And I know mom joins me in this. I love you Beth.

  • Hila

    Thank you for writing this Bethany. I’ve spoken so much about this issue on twitter and my blog over the the past few days, but I’m still angry – the sense of outrage on behalf of people like you and Acacia hasn’t worn off. I’m glad, because I should feel angry about this – we should all feel angry about it. And I’m even more angry at the lack of proper and compassionate response from Etsy. Which leads me to put my money where my mouth is and not support their website from now on. Of course, there are so many wonderful sellers on Etsy who have also been outraged by this, and whom I want to keep supporting. The only solution I can come up with is to support them separately from Etsy and purchase through either Paypal to Paypal, or their stand-alone sites and shops. It’s sad that it’s come to this, however, it’s more important to recognise that we are all responsible for keeping organisations and businesses ethical, and when we see something that crosses the line (and which is not properly addressed by the business), our own behaviour speaks volumes too.

  • val dering rojas

    Just shared on Facebook.

  • Sally Nash Boyd

    Thank you for posting this. I will admit to blindly following the crowd and buying products that say the proceeds are going to a support the charity it mentions but then realizing, foolishly, that the money isn’t going where it should.

    You’ve opened my mind to look and research more carefully before throwing money at the cause.

    I will follow your lead and be more cautious before I buy something supporting a “cause.” I will think of walking to support a cause or buying a card or making a meal to take to a family who is in need.


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