Shareholders Want Avon to Walk the Walk
UPdate spring 2005

Runs for the Cure, Walks for the Cure, Pink Ribbon Campaigns - many cosmetic companies are prominent in raising funds for breast cancer research. But often these same companies market cosmetic and body care products with ingredients which are known, probable or suspected carcinogens. 

Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a nonprofit education and advocacy group in the US, is using shareholder activism to convince Avon to walk the walk, and eliminate phthalates and parabens from their products. BCA argues that these chemicals can contribute to breast cancer. 

BCA members bought shares in Avon. Prior to the 2004 shareholders meeting, they filed a resolution that Avon study the feasability of removing parabens from its products.  At the meeting in May 2004, 8.7% of shareholders voted in favour of the resolution.  This means the issue can be reraised next year, and puts pressure on Avon to act. 

One week prior to the meeting, Avon responded to a resolution filed in 2003 by  shareholder members of Breast Cancer Action. The resolution asked that Avon study the feasibility of removing another chemical group, phthalates, from their products. Avon has now pledged to remove dibutyl phthalates (DBP), one of the phthalates of greatest concern, from their products.

Recent studies show that both parabens and phthalates may be linked to cancer. Parabens are chemical preservatives that have been identifies as estrogenic and which disrupt normal hormone functioning. Estrogenic chemicals mimic the function of the naturally occurring hormone estrogen. Exposure to external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.  Evidence suggests that young females with developing breast tissue are particularly vulnerable to the increased breast cancer risk associated with exposure to external estrogens.
Phthalates are common components of fragrances.  A study by the US Center for Disease Control in 2000 found phthalates in the bodies of all persons tested. What shocked scientists was that women 20 to 40 years old, the childbearing age, had phthalate levels up to 20 times higher than average. Phthalates are known to cause a broad range of birth defects and lifelong reproductive impairments in laboratory animals which were exposed to these chemicals in the womb and after birth. Phthalates are also known to be hormone-mimicking chemicals, many of which disrupt normal hormonal processes, raising concern about their implications for increased breast cancer risk. 

Avon is not the only company that supports breast cancer research while marketing products containing known, probable or suspected carcinogens. Revlon sponsors an annual 5K Run/Walk for Women that in part funds the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program. Yet a recent study from the Environmental Working Group, Skin Deep ( which rated products from 1-10 (10 indicating the highest amounts of hazardous ingredients), found over 80% of the Revlon products tested rated 7.2 or higher. 

Mary Kay, whose web site proclaims that the company’s charitable foundation is ”committed to eliminating cancers affecting women,” does not make it easy for consumers to find out if its products contain potentially harmful ingredients. In 2004, Mary Kay was a vocal opponent of a bill in the California legislature which would have upheld the public's right to know about carcinogenic and reproductive toxins in cosmetics and personal care products. 

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see also: Cosmetic Companies Will Follow European Anti-toxic Standards