Selling Girl Scout cookies is typically one of the biggest fundraisers for Troop 12026 in Jersey City, N.J., earning them about $1,000 each year to put towards patches, membership dues and the costs of hosting an annual Halloween party for their community. But this year, the girls — 21 in all, ranging in age from 10 to 15 — will be sitting cookie season out in protest over the inclusion of palm oil in the popular treats’ ingredients.
The boycott comes after troop leader Gina Verdibello, who has served since 2013 and has two daughters in the troop, came across a local news article about a petition started by a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee named Olivia Chaffin, urging the organization to switch to completely sustainable palm oil and vowing to boycott cookie sales until a change was made. The petition, in which Chaffin calls out the deforestation resulting from palm oil production, currently has more than 23,000 signatures. (Chaffin and her parents did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.)
Her curiosity piqued, Verdibello did a little more digging into the controversy surrounding palm oil. In addition to environmental concerns, an Associated Press report published late last month found that palm oil production relies on child labor in Indonesia and Malaysia, which provide 85 percent of the oil’s supply. According to the AP, “an estimated tens of thousands of children” — some smuggled across borders, and others working with their parents — work in dangerous conditions for little to no pay while being exposed to toxic chemicals, missing out on educational opportunities and navigating risks like trafficking, police detention and abuse.
Drawing from U.S. Customs records and other data, the AP was able to trace that child labor to palm oil used in products released by food brands including Ferrero — one of two companies to make Girl Scout cookies — as well as Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo. Palm oil is also widely used in beauty and household products, from shampoo to soap to lipstick.
Verdibello — who, like Chaffin, was troubled that Girl Scout cookie boxes list “mixed sustainable palm oil” among the ingredients, meaning not at all of it is sustainably sourced — was moved to take a stand.
“[The AP article] was very powerful, and I showed it to the girls because I wanted them to make the decision if they wanted to sell cookies or not, and they were all in agreement,” Verdibello, who sits on the Jersey City Board of Education, tells Yahoo Life. “As much as they love the cookies, and they love selling, they didn’t feel it was right to do until the Girl Scouts fixed the issue.”
The troop isn’t just skipping out on cookie sales, which have gotten underway in many parts of the country, with Thin Mints and Trefoils now available to buy online as a safe mid-pandemic workaround. They’re also speaking out about why they aren’t participating, and doing their part to raise awareness.
Verdibello says she told the girls, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to go all in. This is not just saying we’re not selling cookies, this is a big thing.”
A press statement released by the troop reads: “The members of Girl Scout Troop 12026 are deeply disturbed by the information uncovered by Olivia’s troop. As a result of this information, the members of Girl Scout Troop 12026 cannot in good conscience sell cookies that are knowingly produced by children who are not free to attend school and are forced to work for subsistence wages in dangerous and toxic conditions, while at the same time producing a product that when done irresponsibly is causing deforestation resulting in the destruction of the world’s rain forests.”
“Children shouldn't have to work in these horrible conditions just for some Girl Scout cookies,” one troop member is quoted as saying, while another said, “For a company that shows itself as trying to bring girls up, you sure aren’t bringing up the girls in the countries that you are using child labor from.”
Verdibello says she’s had “positive feedback” from her community, with supporters offering to make financial donations to offset the lack of fundraising. The responses from within the Girl Scouts organization, however, have been more tepid. Her local New Jersey wing has tried to suggest some sort of compromise, such as raising awareness about palm oil without a boycott, while the national Girl Scouts of America has offered a more “vague response.”
Verdibello says national leaders have told her they’re trying to make their palm oil more sustainable while at the same time downplaying the significance of the oil used to preserve its cookies, insisting that it’s a small trace of mixed oil that, even if removed, wouldn’t have a big impact on the larger palm oil industry.
“That kind of answer doesn’t make us feel better. It’s still there,” she says.
Her next step has been to have the girls in her troop start a letter campaign reaching out to “the bakers [of the cookies], to politicians, to whoever will listen.” She’s also connecting with Chaffin and has heard from other parents and troop leaders who have been similarly motivated to pause cookie sales.
But Verdibello says she’s aware that this is an issue that may not be resolved by the time next year’s cookie season rolls around — which could pose long-term fundraising hiccups.
“People have been very generous, so I think we’re going to be OK this year and make the money we need,” she says. “But, thinking ahead, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sell cookies next year either. This is a huge problem I don’t know if we can fix overnight. It needs big advocacy work.”
Indeed, the use of palm oil in Girl Scout cookies is a controversy that dates back more than a decade, A since-closed petition started by former Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva — who first learned about the deforestation linked to palm plantations and the threat that poses to orangutans while studying the primates for a Girl Scout project — fetched nearly 70,000 signatures. Their five-year campaign eventually saw the organization pledge to feature a GreenPalm logo on cookie boxes, beginning with the 2012-13 cookie season, as a symbol of the Girl Scouts’ efforts to raise awareness about the environmental concerns associated with palm oil production. In addition to supporting the use of sustainable palm oil, Girl Scouts leadership said they would ask bakers to limit the use of palm oil, which would henceforth only be added to recipes if the absence of an alternative.
“Child labor has no place in the production of Girl Scout Cookies,” the organization said in a response to Yahoo Life. “Girl Scouts is committed to ensuring the development and use of sustainable, ethical practices that protect human rights. If certain suppliers are not following ethical practices, we expect our bakers and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), of which GSUSA is an affiliate member, to take action quickly and decertify those suppliers.
“We are disappointed that girls are choosing to organize a public boycott against the organization they love, when together we can use our voices to find productive ways to take action against this global issue, and continue to be Girl Scout Strong.”
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