What Happens When Two Girl Scouts Take On The Dirty Palm Oil Industry

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Palm oil is what companies often use to replace more unhealthy oils like canola. But harvesting palm oil can get nasty--companies plow through wilderness to get at the oil, displacing endangered wildlife including pygmy elephants, orangutans and Sumatran tigers along the way. In the past, companies that buy palm oil  have turned a blind eye to the practices of the industry. This includes the Girl Scouts. The non-profit's famous cookies are made with the stuff, much to the chagrin of two hard-charging Scouts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva. They've been working for years to change the organization's ways, but just recently, the battle heated up.

Tomtishen and Vorva, both 15, have spent the past few years working with the Rainforest Action Network on a campaign to remove palm oil from Girl Scout Cookies. Originally, the pair took on the cause to earn their Girl Scouts bronze awards, which is given to girls who demonstrate a commitment to helping others and improving both the community and the world. Rhiannon and Madison earned their awards--but they haven't heard anything from the organization about cutting out palm oil since a brief conference call three years ago.

The issue came back to the forefront recently when the Girl Scouts of the USA took down a number of Facebook comments on their wall imploring them to move away from palm oil as part of a social media day of action. The organization then changed its privacy settings so that users could only respond to wall posts--but couldn't start posts themselves. We asked the Girl Scouts of the USA for comment.

"Most were either links that ended up spamming our Facebook page or people who weren't responding in the right thread," says Michelle Tompkins, external communications consultant at the Girl Scouts. "There is still a forum for people to comment on palm oil." People can now comment on the issue--but below a statement from the Girl Scouts explaining that their bakers exclusively source palm oil from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO is not exactly the most exclusive organization in the world. Members need only pay a $2,000 membership fee and work towards the nebulous goal of using "sustainable palm oil," according to RAN.

The Girl Scouts of the USA say that they would consider talking to the girls--but only without RAN. "We have not heard directly from either girl in a long time. If the girls would come to us and set up a meeting, we would consider doing that. We would be less likely to meet with the girls and an affiliated organization," says Michelle Tompkins, External Communications Consultant at Girl Scouts of the USA. There is concern, it seems, that the girls are just being used as pawns: "It's just because this is about the girls, and we're so proud of them. They're doing exactly what we want them to do. We want them to be heard but we want it to be them who are being heard."

Kellogg's, the parent company of one of the Girl Scout's bakers--Little Brownie--recently agreed to buy "green palm" certificates for its palm oil, at least partially because of the noise made by Madison, Rhiannon, and their supporters. These certificates fund the growth of palm oil from land that hasn't been deforested since 2005, but Kellogg's doesn't yet directly purchase its palm oil. Instead, it still relies on controversial RSPO members like Cargill.

Ideally, Tomtishen and Vorva want the Girl Scouts to swap out palm oil for canola oil or another healthier substitute. This shouldn't be too difficult. The Girl Scouts only started using palm oil about five years ago because of the health issues surrounding hydrogenated oil (that's what they were using previously; its not like cookies are healthy to begin with) and because palm oil is an "alternative oil which provides quality and taste which our consumers really expect of us," according to Amanda Hamaker, manager for product sales at the organization.

No one ever said rainforest destruction wasn't delicious. But the Girl Guides, the British sister organization of the Girl Scouts, have already switched out palm oil for canola oil. Admittedly, the British aren't exactly known for their food, and the Girl Scouts of the USA do have to keep the money-making cookie machine rolling--the cookies bring in $700 million a year. A negative change to the cookie formulation could mean disaster.

Update: Ashley Schaeffer, Rainforest Agribusiness Campaigner at RAN tells us:

"How great that Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) has finally agreed to meet with Madi & Rhiannon...To be perfectly clear, the two scouts approached Rainforest Action Network for help after three years of being ignored by GSUSA. Michelle Tompkins: I think it's a bit disrespectful to say Madi & Rhiannon are 'being used as pawns'; (ed. note: this was not a direct quote) this suggests that as young women they have not chosen their own strategic partnerships wisely. In reality, their choices in the past year have led them to finally get your attention and will hopefully inspire you to do the right thing for your girls. That’s what I call leadership. Please remove rainforest destruction from Girl Scout cookies by next cookie season to celebrate your 100 Year Anniversary."

Fast Company
Ariel Schwartz
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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