The unsustainable choices of Girl Scout’s Cookie Program undermine the purpose of a beloved, long-standing American custom.
Attention, Girl Scouts.
When visiting over the holidays, my great-grandmother “Gramalita” would impart three things: her tamales recipe for New Year’s, all-consuming hugs and the reminder, “lo barato sale caro,” which translates to, “the cheap comes out expensive.” I never anticipated that her advice would apply to a celebrated annual tradition of more than one million American girls, including me: the Girl Scout Cookie fundraiser.
Without a doubt, Americans love cookies. And Girl Scout Cookies are a favorite. In 2019, Americans bought more Girl Scout Cookies in three months than Oreos all year.
During the three month selling season, Girl Scouts (GS) peddle approximately 200 million packages of cookies, generating nearly $800 million for the national organization. That profit margin is the culmination of GS national headquarters opting for cheap ingredients, cheap packaging and cheap prizes to incentivize sales. As my Gramalita warned, the real cost of these decisions comes at a high price—and in the end, we will all pay for the environmental damages.
On Oct. 18 of last year, an opportunity arose that could prove to be a pivotal moment for Girl Scouts. The nonprofit received an $84.5 million dollar donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Where will they invest?
The production of palm oil is causing some of the world’s most precious rainforests to disappear faster than a box of Thin Mints.Lindsey Allen, the Rainforest Action Network
The intent of the Girl Scout Cookie Program is an honorable one: to preserve their leadership programs, to provide grants to girls and troops with financial barriers and maintain camps across the country. Their website corroborates what is already known by scouts nationwide: “Every package is filled with leadership and life lessons.”
But one lesson remains unlearned. Polluting the planet that young scouts will inherit contradicts what Girl Scouts recite in their pledge and are expected to embody. Upholding the Girl Scout Law means “mak[ing] the world a better place.” The unsustainable choices of today’s Cookie Program undermine the purpose of a beloved, long-standing American custom.
This was not always the case. Girl Scout Cookies were first baked by hand as early as 1917. In homes across the country, scouts and their parents whipped up simple sugar cookies folded in wax paper.
The original recipe was printed in a July 1922 edition of American Girl Doll magazine:
- 1 cup of butter, or substitute
- 1 cup of sugar
- 2 tablespoons of milk
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- 2 cups of flour
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
By the 1930s (just as my Gramalita was Brownie-scout age) Girl Scout Cookies evolved into a more commercial business. The most recent—and most harmful—culprit of mass production is the addition of palm oil 17 years ago.
This environmentally damaging and socially irresponsible oil is inextricably linked to Girl Scout Cookies. In the 2022 informational brochure The Sustainable Palm Oil Toolkit, the Girl Scouts define palm oil as “a type of edible vegetable oil that you wash and cook with—just like olive, canola, sunflower and coconut oil.” Not exactly.
Unlike alternatives, the palm oil industry is rife with credible evidence of deforestation and labor abuse.
Despite this, production has skyrocketed. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, demand in the U.S. has risen 900 percent since 1999. Today, oil palm plantations span a portion of the Earth’s surface equal to the size of New Zealand. About 85 percent of those plantations are in just two countries: Malaysia and Indonesia. The Sustainable Palm Oil Toolkit argues that, “Oil palm trees need less land than other vegetable oil crops,” since alternatives require four to 10 times the space to render the same crude output.
The Girl Scouts reiterate this position in press releases in an attempt to promote the conclusion that palm oil does not pose a threat to forests. But unlike on other vegetable oil farms, it is common practice for palm farmers to torch forests to expand their land, emitting greenhouse gasses and putting further pressure on endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger.
“The production of palm oil is causing some of the world’s most precious rainforests to disappear faster than a box of Thin Mints,” said Lindsey Allen of the Rainforest Action Network.
If that isn’t enough to light a fire under the Girl Scouts, there are other troubling repercussions.
In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to palm oil. The labor-intensive industry employs somewhere between 3.7 million and 8 million workers. That discrepancy itself points to poor labor oversight—so it is perhaps no surprise that NGO research uncovered that thousands of those workers are coerced.
The Girl Scouts prefer a sugar-coated version. According to their Sustainable Palm Oil Toolkit, “Millions of farmers and their families work on oil palm farms and this allows them to provide basic essentials such as food, clean water, housing, and a car. It also allows many of the smallholder (small-scale) farmers to send their children to school.”
The United Nations International Labor Organization reported that instead of going to school, nearly 1.5 million children aged 10 to 17—the same age as most Scouts—work in Indonesia’s agriculture industry. And a 2018 study found that more than 33,000 kids are working in Malaysian plantations. The conditions these children are subject to can be deplorable. The evident exploitation in this trade should be enough to warrant change in Girl Scout policy.
Change couldn’t come soon enough. NGOs cite that palm workers often lack access to latrines or clean water. Plantation officials will seize workers’ passports to dissuade escape. Daily quotas set by plantation owners can be unachievable, forcing workers to put in more hours than permitted by law. Hazardous pesticides and fertilizers, some of which are banned elsewhere in the world, are employed without proper protective equipment.
The problems are particularly acute for women. “Almost every plantation has problems related to labor,” said Hotler Parsaoran of the nonprofit Sawit Watch. “But the conditions of female workers are far worse than men.” The AP spoke with women who said they were sexually harassed and raped in the fields, including minors.
In a 2021 statement, the Girl Scouts assured supporters, “First and foremost, we want to stress our condemnation of child labor and any exploitation of workers.” But the recipe hasn’t changed. The Girl Scouts and its commercial bakers recycle now-familiar rebuttals: that palm oil is the best quality option; that palm oil is environmentally conscious due to its productivity; that its use strengthens local communities; and that there is no suitable alternative.
The search for alternatives to palm oil has been anything but high-yield. When Girl Scouts first introduced palm oil into the cookie formula 16 years ago, then-10-year-old Rhiannon Tomtishen and 11-year-old Madison Vorva became concerned. They knew orangutans would be adversely affected, so they set up the Project ORANGS Facebook page to raise awareness.
And raise awareness they did: international environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists agreed and amplified their voices. After five years and nearly 70,000 letters, the Girl Scouts reformed its protocol “related to the activities of the youth [they] serve” for the first time in its history.
Amanda Hamaker, the organization’s manager of product sales, said at the time, “Girl Scouts’ palm oil use is very small, but our voice is big.” Small? Perhaps. According to my estimates, each year 1.4 million gallons of palm oil are delivered to Girl Scout bakers—enough to fill not one, but two Olympic-size swimming pools.
Palm oil usage was not abandoned in 2011 when it became a public relations problem. Girl Scouts instead announced that “…promoting sustainable manufacturing principles is the most responsible approach.” The Girl Scouts allied with an industry trade organization, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and diverted responsibility for sustainable manufacturing to their bakers and the RSPO. It then asked its bakers to use “as little palm oil as possible,” and only when there was “no alternative.” Ten years later, there is still no alternative.
Girl Scouts has become a confectionary juggernaut with the help of two bakers: ABC and Little Brownie Bakers (LBB), branches of their respective parent companies Weston Foods and Ferrero International S.A. When asked to defend palm oil, the Ferrero Group and Weston Foods also defer to the RSPO—an “organization of growers, buyers, manufacturers, conservationists and other interested parties striving to develop and follow best practices to ensure sustainability.”
To its credit, the RSPO does appear to do its best to ensure that palm oil is produced ethically and sustainably—but that’s a Herculean task as most buyers rely on a tangled web of suppliers, which makes effective monitoring extremely difficult. What’s more, while the Girl Scouts and their partners aspire to do better, for now, both bakers carry the “mixed” RSPO certification. As little as 1 percent can satisfy the RSPO’s sustainability standards and still qualify for this “mixed” label.
Why not remove any doubt and do away with palm oil altogether? In an interview with CBS, Girl Scout product manager Hamaker said, “Our bakers don’t believe that there is a viable alternative to the taste—the quality.” Given that Thin Mints were first introduced in 1939 and palm oil wasn’t in the recipe until 2006, that seems debatable. What is not debatable is that seven new flavors have been launched since 2011, and every single one of these new Girl Scout Cookie recipes contains palm oil. The 2023 headliner cookie Raspberry Rally is no exception. What are they rallying behind? The argument for its continued use is approaching a snapping point—brittle as shortbread Trefoils. Just ask Olivia Chaffin of Tennessee.
In 2017, then 13-year-old Chaffin presented her unease to the president of Girl Scouts in a written letter. In Chaffin’s words, the president replied that it was “sustainable palm oil, meaning rainforests were not destroyed to grow the palm plants that the palm oil comes from.” But Olivia knew unsustainable palm oil was in the blend, so she started an online petition on Change.org. As of this writing, the petition has garnered more than 29,800 signatures.
“The cookies deceive a lot of people,” said Chaffin in 2020. “They think it’s sustainable, but it isn’t.”
Other troops, some prompted by the AP article, are following suit. Last year, a troop in New Jersey issued a statement:
“The members of Girl Scout Troop 12026 are deeply disturbed by the information uncovered by Olivia’s troop. As a result of this information, the members of Girl Scout Troop 12026 cannot in good conscience sell cookies that are knowingly produced by children who are not free to attend school and are forced to work for subsistence wages in dangerous and toxic conditions, while at the same time producing a product that when done irresponsibly is causing deforestation resulting in the destruction of the world’s rain forests.”
The troop leader reported that the girls’ community reacted with “positive feedback.” Feedback from GSUSA headquarters in the wake of the Yahoo News article was less positive. The organization said it was “disappointed that girls are choosing to organize a public boycott against the organization they love, when together we can use our voices to find productive ways to take action against this global issue, and continue to be Girl Scout Strong.”
I am a life-long Girl Scout. I joined Washington State Troop 41365 at the age of 7, and although 2023 (as I turn 18) marks the final year with my troop, our sisterhood will last. I was one of 2.5 million scouts whose first exposure to marketing and public speaking was through the Cookie Program. Throughout my adolescence, Girl Scout excursions bolstered my confidence and my adventurousness. Perhaps this is best exhibited in this photo:
I (the scout on the left) am still grinning after a chilly couple of hours manning a cookie booth with fellow-scout Caitlyn Eberspecher—cheeks pink from posing with our well-earned profit, hands pink from the numbing Pacific Northwest air. The Girl Scout Cookie Program does, as advertised, teach “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics.”
In 2012, my troop donated half our cookie earnings to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Ten 8-year-olds rallied to achieve a cookie-selling target that would help the zoo afford its recently refurbished exhibits. Back then, as we commemorated our success and climbed into the belly of a grounded boat for a photo op, we were embarrassingly unaware that by participating in the fundraiser to help better the lives of tigers and orangutans, we were simultaneously endangering the natural environment of tigers and orangutans many thousands of miles away. Our goal was admirable, but, like a boat stuck in cement, we weren’t making any forward progress.
According to Rachel Sugar of Vox, Girl Scout Cookie sales represent the “largest financial investment in girls annually in the United States.”
Girl Scouts prides itself on inspiring young girls to appreciate the natural world. This is why we hold Girl Scouts to a high standard. All 1.7 million girls registered today recite the Girl Scout Law. Each of us promises that “on my honor” we will “use resources wisely” and “make the world a better place.”
At a time when too few companies are prioritizing people over profits, Girl Scouts has the chance to not just preach “business ethics,” but to practice them. Girl Scout values instill in girls the significance of global stewardship and ownership of our environmental responsibilities. Being green, our website once proclaimed, is “in our DNA.” Girl Scout founder, Juliette Gordon Low, is “a famous lover of nature.”
This past Sunday, March 12, 2023, Girl Scouts celebrated 111 years of making a difference. Honoring Low’s legacy means honoring her values.
Girl Scouts should rise above environmental passivity and instead demonstrate environmental leadership. It’s possible and it’s past time. From plastic-coated “camp cushions” to synthetic koala plushies, cookie incentive catalogs encouraged girls—like me—to aim for cookie-selling records with rewards that are mass-produced abroad.
This year, Girl Scouts promised to “reduce plastic and paper waste in the life cycle of merchandise packaging by using 25 percent (plastic) and 75 percent (paper) post-consumer recycled materials.” That’s great news and a good start—if it happens. But it’s only a start. ABC Bakery unveiled Raspberry Rally (2023) in a plastic overwrap identical to S’mores (2017), Lemon-ups (2020) and the Toast-Yay (2021) varieties. This “soft-pack” form is a burgeoning replacement for the signature cardboard cartons. While the boxes are universally processed by recycling centers, GSUSA acknowledges that soft-pack and plastic cartridges “may not be accepted by some local recycling services.” The prospect that any plastic cookie waste will avoid the landfill is exceedingly narrow–narrowed by recycling plant restrictions that vary between communities. The national plastic recycling rate is just 5%-6%. I have an inventive approach to address the packaging. Girl Scouts can, and should, implement PLA “compostable” plastic, which can be fully reclaimed by nature if delivered to a composting facility.
Cookie boxes could come printed with a paid postage stamp and address so that shipping your recyclable box (containing all leftover plastic linings) back to one of the 185 full-scale composting facilities in the U.S. is convenient and free.
Girl Scouts’ “hope is that eventually, all Girl Scout Cookie packaging will be recycled so that less plastic reaches our oceans and marine life.” My hope is that that eventuality is now. Mackenzie Scott’s gift could fund the long-awaited fulfillment of the Girl Scouts’ green ambitions. Let’s heed our own advice. The “About” section of the Girl Scouts website reads:
“Girl Scouts bring their dreams to life and work together to build a better world. Through programs from coast to coast, Girl Scouts of all backgrounds and abilities can be unapologetically themselves as they discover their strengths and rise to meet new challenges—whether they want to climb to the top of a tree or the top of their class, lace up their boots for a hike or advocate for climate justice, or make their first best friends. Backed by trusted adult volunteers, mentors and millions of alums, Girl Scouts lead the way as they find their voices and make changes that affect the issues most important to them.”
Seems like a pretty good recipe to me.
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