The boxes of Girl Scout cookies we buy at this time of year, as well as numerous other products, contribute to the deaths of orangutans and other endangered species. How? They contain palm oil, the production of which drives widespread destruction of rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra.
To clear land for plantations, palm oil producers incinerate rainforests. In the process, workers sometimes kill adult orangutans outright, selling the babies as pets. Other orangutans die trying to escape the flames. Survivors don’t have forest homes to which to return. Demand for palm oil drives destruction of the rainforest homes of numerous other species, including Sumatran tigers and Sumatran rhinos.
Although most palm oil is grown in Indonesia, its production also drives deforestation in South American rainforests. One palm oil producer in Peru destroyed more than 17,000 acres of rainforests between 2005 and 2011.
So why focus on Girl Scout cookies? Because years after expressing the intention to address palm oil issues, Girl Scouts USA has not made significant progress towards eliminating, or choosing better sources of, palm oil. Two Girl Scouts—Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen—last year were awarded the first-ever United Nations Forest Heroes award for their efforts to help protect orangutans and Indonesian rainforests. In 2007, while researching endangered orangutans, the two were shocked to discover that almost every type of Girl Scout cookie contained palm oil. They repeatedly encouraged Girl Scouts USA to stop using or to re-source its palm oil, but the organization hasn’t changed practices.
To help address deforestation concerns associated with palm oil, a group of corporations developed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote more sustainable production. But its Green Palm certification has proved to be misleading, and criteria need strengthening.
Given the ubiquity of palm oil in products, and the many aliases by which palm oil is listed, what’s a concerned consumer to do? Avoiding products containing palm oil is a good step, but can be difficult to achieve, given how many products include palm oil.
But consumer choices and voices do have power to change market practices. In 2010, consumer appeals compelled Nestlé to adopt a zero-deforestation policy towards palm oil and other ingredients it uses. Also in response to pressure, Dunkin Donuts recently announced a plan to switch to RSPO-certified palm oil, but hasn’t indicated a timetable for this to happen.
To encourage changes in palm oil production, look for it on labels of the products you buy. When you find it, email companies to let them know you want them to use sustainably grown ingredients that don’t contribute to deforestation.
Consumers can let Girl Scouts USA know how they feel through the Union of Concerned Scientists’ palm oil campaign. This campaign, which urges Girl Scouts to change ingredients and work toward reliable, sustainable sources of palm oil, was inspired by the girl scout activists who received the United Nations Forest Heroes award.
Another meaningful practice is to support companies making sincere efforts to eliminate destructively produced palm oil from their brands. For example, Whole Foods Market has pledged to independently verify sources of palm oil used in their house brands to ensure that they meet sustainable and fair-trade criteria.