What started as a research project to earn a Girl Scout Bronze Award has become a five-year-long campaign by two Michigan Girl Scouts.
Rhiannon Tomtishen, 15, and Madison Vorva, 16, have been calling on Girl Scouts USA to remove palm oil from its cookies to protect orangutan habitats.
Deforestation in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia is largely driven by the growth of palm oil plantations, according to the Orangutan Land Trust. The group's website says these forests are home to "thousands of wild orangutans ... and protecting them means preventing the extinction of the orangutan in the wild."
Girl Scouts recently responded to the girls by announcing the organization would pay to put the GreenPalm logo on its cookie boxes starting in 2012. Girl Scouts will purchase certificates from the GreenPalm program, which then directs the funds to palm oil producers who are working sustainably under the guidelines outlined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
However, none of this will guarantee that the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies is coming from sustainable palm oil plantations, according to Tomtishen, Vorva and the Rainforest Action Network.
The girls told The Huffington Post they were excited that, after five years, Girl Scouts was taking the issue seriously, but since palm oil has not actually been removed from the cookies, it is "not quite what they would have liked."
"GreenPalm is a move forward and provides incentives for the use of sustainable plantations, but it doesn't actually mean the palm oil is coming from one of these sustainable plantations," Tomtishen said.
"We're worried young girls who are buying and selling these cookies will see the logo and assume the rainforests are safe. We are working with Girl Scouts so that we can make it clear that this is not the case and explain it correctly," she said.
Responding to the Girl Scouts USA announcement, Lindsey Allen, forest campaign director at the Rainforest Action Network, said in a press release, "The production of palm oil is causing some of the world's most precious rainforests to disappear faster than a box of Thin Mints." And she added, "Unfortunately, nothing in today's statement ensures that palm oil connected to rainforest destruction will no longer be found in Girl Scout cookies."
Laurel Sutherlin, communications manager at the Rainforest Action Network, told HuffPost that Girl Scouts USA "say they only use a small amount of oil, but they have a big voice. So we hope they use that voice towards meaningful changes."
He argued that Girl Scouts needs to do more than simply become a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil; it needs to use its voice to push for higher standards for sustainable plantations.
"There are big holes in the roundtable standards. For example, a lack of climate and carbon standards even though the plantations are a huge contributor to global warming. Also, enforcement of the standards is a problem. There are inconsistencies in the guidelines and their implementation," Sutherlin said.
"We hope that they will take this seriously. It will just be a 'greenwash' if they stop where they are now," he said.
In the same press release with the Rainforest Action Network, Sarah Roquemore of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, "While we applaud the initial announcement, [Girl Scouts] are still many steps away from ensuring that their cookies are not driving deforestation."
Amanda Hamaker, manager of product sales at Girl Scouts USA, told HuffPost the organization was proud of what it was doing in response to the girls' campaign.
"It is not our consumers who drove us to make this decision or expressed concern on the issue. By using the GreenPalm logo, we are letting them know about this issue and that we care about this issue." Hamaker added, "We have agreed to reach out, to educate two million girls on this topic."
Moreover, she said, "We are absolutely committed to sustainability in terms of our cookies and feel like we’ve made a giant step in terms of our business practices with the recent decisions related to palm sustainability."
Hamaker said that all Girl Scout cookies have palm oil as an ingredient and that the cookie vendors, including Kellogg's, are "constantly changing and perfecting recipes and researching alternatives." She added that Girl Scout cookies are not a good market in which to experiment with alternative fats.
She said palm oil has not always been an ingredient in the cookies, but the oil was recently added to recipes as an alternative to trans-fats as the organization responded to American health concerns.
Girl Scouts USA, which is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2012, sold 207 million boxes of cookies in 2010/2011.
Tomtishen and Vorva said that, although they have only two years left as Girl Scouts, they will continue to work on their Project Orangs campaign until their goals are reached.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece suggested that the U.K. sister of Girl Scouts -- Girl Guides -- have replaced the palm oil in its cookies. According to the Girl Guides, they do not actually produce cookies for their members to sell, although some groups may choose to bake and sell their own products.