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How Two 15-Year-Old Girl Scouts Are Changing a Giant Food Conglomerate

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When Kellogg's announced this week that it is moving to limit the deforestation caused by the palm oil it uses to make Frosted Flakes, Keebler cookies, Rice Krispies, and Girl Scout cookies, it represented an enormous achievement for two 15-year-old girls from Michigan.

You may remember Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen from my article, "Are Girl Scout Cookies Killing Orangutans?" They've been working for several years to get Girl Scouts USA to switch from palm oil to more planet-friendly and healthier alternatives like canola or olive oil.

Rhiannon and Madison meeting their hero, conservationist Jane Goodall. Photo: Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva

Their campaign started as an orangutan research project to earn their Girl Scouts Bronze Award. In their investigation, they discovered that the main threat to the orangutans' survival, as well as other endangered wildlife like Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinoceroses, and pygmy elephants, was the clearing and burning of Southeast Asia's rainforests for palm oil, an additive in cookies, crackers, and cosmetics. So imagine their surprise when they found out that their beloved Girl Scouts were selling palm oil.

"We started by raising awareness about the orangutan within our community. But then we learned that Girl Scout cookies themselves contain palm oil. We were especially shocked to learn that because this was something we learned about through Girl Scouts," said Rhiannon.

Fast forward to this fall. The girls got in touch with Dr. Douglas Boucher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who wrote a letter to the Girl Scouts urging them to support the girls' campaign by making their cookies orangutan-friendly and healthy -- and CC'd Kellogg's, the parent company of the Girl Scouts' bakers.


Adult male orangutan. Photo: Rhett Butler, MongaBay.

This work -- and some of the amazing attention they generated on this issue -- helped deliver results: In a letter to Boucher, Kellogg's announced that they are going to purchase "green palm" certificates for 100 percent of their palm oil use. These certificates are supposed to provide funds to encourage the growth of so-called "sustainable" palm oil, cultivated on land that wasn't deforested since 2005 (at least according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's (RSPO) somewhat questionable metrics). Kellogg's also announced that it intends to eventually directly purchase "sustainable" palm oil.

Boucher, in an official statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that this move could begin to make a change, but Kellogg's was going to need to do much more.

Kellogg's decision to buy Green Palm Certificates is a positive move toward ensuring that its products don't cause deforestation in southeast Asia. They recognize that it's a temporary and partial step, and more needs to be done so that all rainforests are protected.

Rhiannon and Madison echoed these sentiments:

Purchasing Green Palm Certificates does not guarantee that the palm oil in Kellogg's food products, such as Girl Scout cookies, is free of orangutan extinction or rainforest destruction.

Although it's indeed just a first step, it's a pretty huge impact for two 15-year-old high school girls -- and on Friday, Public Radio International aired an interview with them, helping bring their message and achievement to a national audience.

But Madison and Rhiannon aren't satisfied. It's unclear to what extent the Green Palm certificates apply to the Kellogg's subsidiary that bakes Girl Scout cookies. Furthermore, it sounds like the Girl Scouts executive suite in New York City may still be listening more to the palm oil industry than undertaking any kind of independent scientific analysis.

In response to criticism on its Facebook page, Girl Scouts USA suggested that getting palm oil from companies that were members of the RSPO was the best way to support orangutans, apparently based on information from a zoo in Colorado. Sadly, they seem to be ignoring letters [PDF] from environmental groups alerting them to the fact that RSPO doesn't actually require its members to purchase sustainable palm oil, but merely pay a $2,000 membership fee and vaguely "work towards the use of sustainable palm oil," without any specific requirements to actually use it. You can read theexchange on Facebook.

To help persuade the Girl Scouts USA, Madison and Rhiannon have now partnered with the Rainforest Action Network and their thousands of activists. Together, they hope to change not only Girl Scouts USA and Kellogg's, but also bring attention to the really big players in the palm oil industry like Cargill that are financing destruction of rainforests and the orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and other wildlife that live in them. To help, they've launched a renegade Rainforest Hero Girl Scouts merit badge.


Madison and Rhiannon's Rainforest Hero renegade merit badge.

But to keep up their successes, they need Grist readers' help once again: You can join their efforts with the Rainforest Action Network (and watch a neat video from them) here.

Glenn Hurowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and you can follow his Twitter feed about forests, climate, and wildlife @glennhurowitz

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