Clearing and burning of peat forest for palm oil production in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Despite a high-profile campaign that caused one of the world’s largest food companies to adopt a comprehensive zero deforestation policy, Girl Scout cookies still aren’t necessarily free of rainforest destruction and social conflict, say the two girl scouts who launched the protest seven years ago.
Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen set out as 11-year-old Girl Scouts in 2007 to earn an award by raising awareness about endangered orangutans. In the process they learned that the palm oil being used in Girl Scout cookies wasn’t being sourced with any environmental safeguards, meaning that the product they were selling to raise money for the organization was directly contributing to the destruction of orangutan habitat. That discovery led the girls to launch a campaign to get Girl Scouts of America to commit to sourcing more responsibly produced palm oil.
The campaign found a groundswell of support, with Vorva and Tomtishen winning a raft of accolades and eventually culminating in Kellogg Company, whose subsidiary Little Brownie Bakers bakes Girl Scout cookies, establishing a zero deforestation policy for palm oil sourcing. That policy was widely heralded by environmentalists, who say it will provide a strong signal to palm oil producers to eliminate forest clearance from their supply chains.
But does that mean Girl Scout cookies are now free of deforestation? Vorva and Tomtishen say “no” because ABC Bakers, the other company that bakes Girl Scout cookies, still lacks a zero deforestation policy.
“ABC Bakers has not yet adopted similar policies, so some Girl Scout cookies still contribute to human rights abuses and the destruction of the endangered orangutans’ habitat,” the girls told Mongabay.com, adding that attempts to reach out to the company have gone nowhere.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to speak with anyone at the company, as they have informed us that all communication must go directly through Girl Scouts USA.”
Reached by Mongabay.com, ABC Bakers declined comment on the matter, referring to the palm oil policy on its web site. Like many other companies, ABC Bakers currently relies on a certification system set up by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multistakeholder body that sets criteria for greener palm oil production. But ABC Bakers doesn’t actually use certified palm — instead it buys Green Palm certificates representing RSPO-certified palm oil. Green Palm aims to enable companies to support certified palm oil without actually having to go through the cost of sourcing it directly. However while RSPO certification includes a number of social and environmental criteria, it doesn’t explicitly exclude deforestation or conversion of carbon-dense peatlands for oil palm plantations.
Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Girl Scouts USA also stood by its sourcing policy.
“When baking Girl Scout Cookies, Girl Scouts’ licensed bakers are committed to creating the best-tasting treats using the healthiest ingredients available. Girl Scouts’ licensed bakers continue to believe the use of palm oil is necessary to ensure shelf life, offer customers the highest quality, and to serve as an alternative to trans fats,” a spokesperson for the organization told Mongabay.com. “Because the world’s food supply is intricately tied to the use of palm oil, we believe promoting sustainable manufacturing principles is the most responsible approach for Girl Scouts and Girl Scout Cookies. Girl Scouts and its licensed bakers source palm oil exclusively from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization of growers, buyers, manufacturers, conservationists, and interested parties who are striving to make sustainable models the best practice.”
Vorva and Tomtishen. Photo courtesy of Project ORANGS.
However that isn’t enough for Vorva and Tomtishen, nor some activist groups that have supported the girls’ campaign.
“The ‘Green Palm’ logo currently printed on boxes of Girl Scout cookies is in reference to a scheme through the RSPO called Green Palm Certificates which represents a small step in the right direction of acknowledging the serious consequences caused by Conflict Palm Oil production, but ultimately is a form of greenwash that does not mean the palm oil included in Girl Scout cookies did not contribute to deforestation, human rights abuses, orangutan extinction and climate pollution,” Laurel Sutherlin of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) told Mongabay.com.
“What’s needed now is for Girl Scouts USA and ABC Bakers to adopt and implement truly responsible palm oil purchasing policies that demand full traceability of the oil they use back to its source so Girl Scouts can finally sell cookies with a clean conscience that they are not unwittingly contributing to the extinction of iconic wildlife like the orangutan.”
Calen May-Tobin of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) added that ABC Bakers and Girl Scouts USA seem to be lagging behind in committing to stricter palm oil standards.
“After nearly 7 years, it’s disappointing that the Girl Scouts USA refuse to follow the lead of so many companies (including one of its own bakers) and fully address the deforestation that’s lurking in its cookies,” he said. “In the last sixth months company after company has pledged to go beyond the RSPO and creating momentum for truly deforestation- and peat-free palm. As these companies move ahead, Girl Scouts USA is falling behind simply by standing still.”
Destruction of orangutan habitat in Malaysia for palm oil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
If Girl Scouts USA and ABC Bakers decided to commit to zero deforestation palm oil, it would effectively mean either buying from one of the palm oil companies that has established a zero deforestation policy, like Indonesia’s Golden-Agri Resources, or waiting until segregated “certified sustainable palm oil” (CSPO) hits the market sometime in the next couple of years. In the meantime, Vorva and Tomtishen say they will continue their campaign, despite being recently sidelined by Girl Scouts USA.
“In September 2013, we received an email from the Vice President of Communications at Girl Scouts USA who informed us that the organization believed it was an appropriate time to end our working relationship and that after investing hundreds of hours of staff time in this issue, they needed to move on to new initiatives. Since then, our attempts to get in touch have been ignored,” the girls said. “Our plan is to continue speaking out about this issue until all Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil that is rainforest-safe.”
“We’d urge everyone to join us by sending a letter to the Girl Scout USA asking them to ensure that both of the bakers follow the same deforestation-free guidelines to ensure that Girl Scout cookies don’t contribute to human rights abuses and deforestation.”
Vorva and Tomtishen making an appeal to Michelle Obama in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of ProjectORANGS.org.