Looking for a lesson of how not to respond to green consumer demand in the internet age? Check out Girl Scouts USA.
The Scouts' CEO Kathy Cloninger has for several years rebuffed polite requests from individual scouts, major environmental organizations, and others that they make their famous Girl Scout cookies rainforest friendly. The problem with the cookies is that they contain palm oil, which is responsible for the destruction of more than 30,000 square miles of primary rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia, and which is grown and transported by major agriculture corporations such as Cargill. This deforestation has, among other things, pushed wildlife like orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinoceroses to the brink of extinction.
This week, frustrated individual scouts, their parents, and Girl Scout cookie buyers logged onto the Girl Scouts' highly trafficked Facebook page as a part of a social media "Day of Action." They left comments asking Scouts leadership to change their recipe so that cookie fans wouldn't have to choose between orangutans and Thin Mints.
Not what the Girl Scouts USA PR team wanted to hear, so they just erased the comments from the Facebook page. When the internet began to erupt in blistering criticism of this censorship, the Scouts PR team set up a new thread with the header:
This morning, Girl Scouts was the focus of an article regarding Palm Oil in our cookies. Our bakers exclusively source palm oil from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The Girl Scout Cookie Program is the most successful entrepreneurship program for girls -- and only girls -- in the world. Follow the link for more information. Please use this thread for all comments relating to palm oil.
Which transformed petty censorship into outright misinformation. The above paragraph is, to put it mildly, less than truthful. Not surprising, given that it's ripped straight from food-industry talking points on palm oil.
The Girl Scouts should know better. They have been alerted multiple times to the fact that membership in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated forum, is in itself meaningless. The only requirement for companies to join and say they're members is that they write a $2,000 check every year to the RSPO. Being a member of the RSPO doesn't mean your products are any better for the environment, protect a single orangutan, or save a single tree. Also, for the record, membership doesn't mean that the palm oil in the product isn't grown on a plantation using slave labor or child labor, serious and seemingly widespread problems in the palm-oil industry.
Now, the RSPO does also have a program in which they certify so-called "Sustainable Palm Oil," i.e. palm oil that isn't grown on land deforested since 2005, and that meets some other basic safeguards. Although the certification process isn't considered 100 percent reliable, it's a step in the right direction and major palm-oil purchasers like Unilever, Nestle, McDonald's, and others have all pledged to buy only certified sustainable palm oil for their entire supply chains.
But here's the key point: Members of the RSPO, including the Girl Scouts' suppliers, are under no obligation to actually buy the certified sustainable palm, and most don't. In fairness, one of the Girl Scouts' bakers, Kellogg's, recently announced that it was going to purchase "Green Palm" certificates for its entire product line, a good first step but not the same as purchasing certified sustainable palm oil or finding other environmentally friendly alternatives.
It's pretty disappointing that an educational institution like the Girl Scouts is not only censoring its young members, but actively disseminating information Girl Scout executives know to be false. Unless they're planning on launching a merit badge for spin, they should stop this sort of thing at once, and just take the Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and other cookies back to the recipes they had before 2005, palm-oil free.
On a personal note, when I launched this effort with two Girl Scouts, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, along with Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists, we never imagined this was how it would turn out. We hoped that the Girl Scouts leadership would use the power brought to them by $700 million in annual cookie sales as an opportunity to promote conservation, one of the Scouts' core missions and activities. There are big opportunities for them to really contribute to a solution to deforestation: Cargill, which supplies the palm oil that goes into the cookies, transports about a quarter of the world's palm oil; if it agrees to use only certified sustainable palm oil, that would have an enormous impact on the ground in Indonesia and Malaysia, taking significant pressure off the forests and helping improve labor standards.
Americans love the Girl Scouts. But instead of using their power to move big agribusiness companies to do good, CEO Cloninger has instead chosen to cynically defend them.
Don't get me wrong: The Girl Scouts is an extraordinarily important institution that at its best instills girls with strong values and a commitment to community and the outdoors. I just hope that they can put this sorry episode behind them and rededicate themselves to their mission of "building girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place" -- and save some orangutans while they're at it.