Girl Scout Cookies and Rainforest Destruction: Teens Working to Break the Connection

Why two Girl Scouts are campaigning against Girl Scout Cookies — and how their efforts have taken America by storm.

Four years ago, Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen were doing research for their bronze award project. Their subject of choice was the endangered orangutan and the threats it faces from deforestation. They discovered a little-publicized fact about Indonesian rainforest destruction: Acres upon acres of orangutan habitat are being cleared for plantations to produce palm oil, an ingredient in about 10 percent of consumer products. Madison and Rhianon decided that their goal would be to raise awareness about palm oil and its impact on endangered species.

Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen

If that had been the end of it, the project would have been commendable. But the girls’ focus shifted when they found that the Girl Scout Cookies they sold every year contained palm oil. Suddenly, they weren’t just working toward a badge; they were campaigning to change one of the country’s most well-known nonprofits.

Now fifteen and sixteen, Madison and Rhiannon have partnered with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to bring their message to a wider audience. Their PR efforts paid off in May with a front-page Wall Street Journal story, followed by a flurry of TV interviews on ABC, CBS, and Fox News (yes, even Fox).

The responses from Girl Scouts USA have been more defensive than sympathetic. In early May, for instance, RAN and Change.org helped Madison and Rhiannon launch a social media campaign to put pressure on the Girl Scouts administration. After about fifty messages had been posted on the Girl Scouts Facebook page, GSUSA deleted the comments and added a statement assuring viewers that “our bakers source palm oil exclusively from members of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil.”

The claim is true but misleading. RAN calls the RSPO “more of a pay-to-play organization than a serious watchdog group:”

There is a very important distinction between RSPO membership and RSPO certification. RSPO certification is a seal of approval that is given to palm oil grown on a plantation that has been certified through a verification of the production process by accredited certifying agencies. In theory, the “certified sustainable” palm oil (RSPO oil) is traceable through the supply chain by certification of each facility along the supply chain that processes or uses the certified oil.

RSPO membership, however, does not require companies to follow sustainability guidelines. In a letter to GSUSA CEO Kathy Cloninger, RAN explained,

[RSPO} member companies have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights — all of which are prohibited in the RSPO principles and criteria. In essence RSPO membership does not ensure that deforestation, orangutan extinction, and climate change are not found in Girl Scout cookies.

For instance, one RSPO member, IOI Group, is illegally operating a palm plantation on the ancestral land of the Long Teran Kenan people, in Malaysian Borneo. A court ruled that the plots in question were, indeed, on indigenous land, but the conflict has not yet been resolved, and the RSPO has failed to take decisive action against IOI.

Returning to the Girl Scouts, the organization’s executives did finally meet with Madison and Rhiannon while the girls were in New York for their media interviews. The meeting was a step forward, with GSUSA leaders verbally agreeing to address concerns about deforestation and human rights abuses.

The bakers of Girl Scout Cookies began using palm oil in 2006, in an effort to rid the cookies of trans fats. (Palm oil is the cheapest “healthy” oil.) A spokesperson for the Girl Scouts has insisted that the group has little or no say in the cookies’ ingredients — it’s up to bakers. But if GSUSA demanded a recipe change, the bakers would have to comply, or else lose the Girl Scouts business. With 200 million boxes of cookies selling per year, the idea that GSUSA has no influence is a bit hard to believe.

Part of the mission of the Girl Scouts is to empower girls to “make the world a better place,” and the idea seems to be working. Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen are making a difference; they’ve already brought as much attention to the palm oil-deforestation issue as any environmental group has so far. Their biggest challenge, ironically, is getting the Girl Scouts leadership to follow its own credo.

This story should serve as inspiration for any young person who hopes to spark positive change. If and when Girl Scouts USA does make its cookies rainforest-friendly, the impact will be huge. And two teenaged girls will be responsible.

How to get involved: Sign up for RAN’s Girl Scouts e-mail list here. Learn how you can take action online and offline.  

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One thought on “Girl Scout Cookies and Rainforest Destruction: Teens Working to Break the Connection

  1. Thank you for enlightening us on this subject. It always amazes me how the younger people
    can spot the “obvious” (that the rest of us don’t) and bring attention to it.

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