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How the Girl Scouts Turned Themselves Into Great-Ape Killing Villains

The Girl Scouts' bungled handling of a controversy over the palm oil used in its cookies is a classic case of how a myopic, defensive PR strategy can quickly make you the poster child for bad behavior. The organization --formally the Girl Scouts of the USA -- and its beloved cookies are hardly the biggest users of palm oil, although 16 of the 17 cookie varieties contain it. Now, though, thanks to stonewalling, misleading statements and, most recently, Facebook censorship, they might as well be.

Last week, after GSUSA's Facebook page was flooded with comments from Girl Scouts, troop leaders, alumnae, parents and cookie customers concerned about how the demand for palm oil is destroying rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, the organization reacted, well, badly. Instead of taking the time to respond to the comments with its side of the story, it simply vanished the offending notes and then disabled the individual comment function along with the ability to let people share links.

Where the rocky road began
The issue started back in 2006 when two bright, motivated and well-meaning sixth grader Girl Scouts from Ann Arbor, Mich. -- just the sorts of girls the GSUSA is supposed to champion and nurture -- realized the cookies they were selling contained palm oil, much of which comes from Indonesia and Malaysia where farmers are clear cutting rainforests to plant palm trees. These forests are an important habitat for many species, but the orangutans, the most intelligent and human-like of the apes, are particularly threatened.

So the Michigan Girls Scouts, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, started a campaign to get GSUSA to remove palm oil from their cookies or change how they source the stuff. Although both Madison and Rhiannon are bravely displaying those Girl Scout qualities of leadership and social conscience -- and clearly aren't just going to get boyfriends and forget about the whole thing -- Girl Scout executives have refused to meet with them. According to this account on Rainforest Action Network, which has eagerly taken up Madison and Rhiannon's cause, the girls had one conference call in 2008 and no one has followed up since.

The GSUSA doesn't have it easy. Getting rid of palm oil, which companies started using en masse as a replacement for trans fat-containing oils, is tricky. In a 2007 report, the group said it needed palm oil for the "production of compound coating."

But recognizing that change needs to happen and then setting a timetable for using only palm oil that's produced more sustainably isn't so hard. After pressure from Greenpeace, Unilever (UL) did it, promising that all its palm oil, which is also used in soaps and shampoos and the like, will be certified sustainable by 2015.

Hitting the stonewall
In contrast, GSUSA's response has always been obfuscation. A statement on its web site reads: "Our bakers have made a commitment to exclusively source palm oil from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil," which sounds like a meaningful claim, but isn't. There are few requirements to be a Roundtable member other than a $2,000 annual check. The Rainforest Action Network says that member companies "have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights."

Recently, one of the two companies that make Girl Scout cookies -- the Kellogg (K) subsidiary Little Brownie Bakers -- said it would start buying GreenPalm certificates, which is equivalent to buying palm oil at a slight premium and is supposed to provide an incentive to farmers. It doesn't, however, actually ensure that rainforests aren't getting chopped down.

In the meantime, Madison and Rhiannon are still trying to get GSUSA CEO Kathy Cloninger to meet with them and it's unclear why she continues to hold out. Perhaps she has little patience for environmental issues, or maybe she's just too busy with so many other important things. But the longer Cloninger waits to actually engage on this issue, the more it's going to define her organization.

Image by Flickr user jimbowen0306

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