Are Girl Scout Cookies Biodiversity Killers and Censorship Monsters?

Palm oil being refined in West Africa

With $700 million annual revenue from cookie sales, Girls Scouts has recently come under fire for not only failing to adequately address, but for unethically censoring critiques of the company regarding its palm oil use. The organization has claimed to have done its part by joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but critics say that is hardly a solution. RSPO is not a certification for sourcing ethical, fair, and ecologically-sound palm oil. It is a forum to discuss and review issues related to palm oil, and it does not require hard commitments to sourcing from sustainably harvested palm oil.

Labor ethics, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are the key issues surrounding the heated palm oil debate. Girl Scouts is not the only organization to come under fire from concerned citizens and environmental groups. Hersheys, Cargill, and numerous other food and agricultural companies have been targeted to change their sourcing. Palm oil is believed to have a high rate of slave and child labor, a sadly ironic investment for an organization like Girl Scouts that is dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of girls and young women. It is also a key source of deforestation, with numbers ranging in the tens of thousands of square miles of rainforest destroyed in Southeast Asia, where there is little regulation. This in turn has pushed numerous species to near extinction.

As awareness around the topic has grown, citizens are organizing awareness campaigns, including the “Day of Action” that Girl Scout supporters organized at the beginning of the month. On this day, individual scouts, concerned cookie consumers, as well as human rights and environmental advocates wrote their concerns on the Girl Scouts Facebook wall. In place of issuing a statement recognizing the concern by their scouts and customers, the organization deleted all of the unfavorable comments related to palm oil. Their public response stated their participation in the RSPO, to which they equated to sourcing from solely sustainable and ethical sources. As RSPO requires no such commitment, and the Girl Scouts organization has made no such public commitment, it is difficult to say what type of publicity stunt the organization hoped to achieve.

The deletion of comments and inaccurate statement regarding RSPO has led to serious concern about and reduced consumer loyalty to the Girl Scouts. In the age of increased transparency and responsibility in business, the organization’s response was woefully un-strategic and untruthful. As major companies like Unilever, Nestle’s and McDonalds have made commitments to exclusively source from sustainably certified palm oil, it appears the Girls Scouts have missed out on a great opportunity. Consumer research shows that typical consumers are forgiving of most companies that take immediate concrete steps toward improvement following a scandal. The Girls Scouts censorship and misguided information regarding RSPO will not gain the organization trust from consumers.

As the cookie season comes to a close, we will await next year’s cookie sales to see how and if the company has put orangutans, child labor, and transparency on the forefront of its agenda.

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Tiffany Finley started her sustainability journey while camping in the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota. Since then she has been dedicated to reconciling the industrial and the natural world views to create a hybridized mode of development toward sustainability. Majoring in Environmental Management in the US and then obtaining a Master's of Science in Strategic Leadership toward Sustainability in Sweden, she takes an analytical view based on science. She works with non-profits, small to medium businesses, and government organizations to strategize for sustainability in their respective sectors. Honored to join the writing cast at Triple Pundit, she looks forward to covering a wide range of sustainability news.

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