Thin Mints vs. Orangutan Survival: Girl Scouts Face Moral Dilemma

Written by Ashley Schaeffer

Topics: Agribusiness

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Rhiannon (left) and Madison (right) Campaigning to Save Orangutans in the Seventh Grade

“Hello, girls. We heard how you’re refusing to sell Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies because they contain palm oil, the production of which might destroy habitat for orangutans in Indonesia. That’s sweet. But listen, you little do-gooders: These are decisions best left to adults.”

This quote from Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd gave two determined Michigan Girl Scouts a bitter taste of the opposition they face in standing up for the survival of the orangutan species.

Five years ago, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, while completing research for their Girl Scout Bronze Awards, discovered a cold hard fact about the much-sought-after commodity they’d been selling each year: Girl Scout cookies — all but one of the 17 different brands, including Thin Mints — are packed with palm oil, an ingredient that causes clearcutting of irreplaceable rainforests and threatens the survival of humankind’s closest relative, orangutans. The two sixth graders were shocked.

Rhiannon and Madison presenting their project to Dr. Jane Goodall as 7th graders at a Roots&Shoots retreat

Inspired by both their Girl Scout training and the work of Dr. Jane Goodall, the two eleven-year-olds approached top brass Barry Horowitz at Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) to request a switch from palm oil to a truly sustainable alternative. Mr. Hurowitz seemed amenable during a conference call with the girls in 2008 and promised that both he and a representative from one of the cookie manufacturers, Little Brownie Bakers, would be in touch soon about next steps.

Time marched on and no word came from Hurowitz or the cookie bakers. Madison and Rhiannon decided it was time to motivate and inspire their sister Girl Scouts to band together and get palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies for good.

Madi and Rhiannon organized Girl Scout troops across the country to generate pressure on GSUSA and convinced Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Biological Diversity, Cultural Survival, Orangutan Foundation International, and Rainforest Action Network to send letters of concern on their behalf  to the national Girl Scout headquarters in New York City. Despite these efforts, Girl Scouts USA has continued to ignore repeated requests from these two Scouts.

Now 15 years old, Madi and Rhiannon still have not given up on making the world a better place.

“The palm oil crisis is just that, a crisis,” says Rhiannon Tomtishen.

“After becoming educated with the issue of palm oil and the effects it has on animals, the rainforest, and the native people I didn’t feel like I could consciously stand by while rainforests are destroyed, human rights abuses are occurring, and species of endangered animals are threatened. I chose, and continue to choose, to take action in the hopes of stopping the destruction and damage occurring.”

Madi’s stance is also quite clear:

“Ethically, I am not comfortable with the human rights abuses occurring in the palm oil plantations.”

“I am not comfortable with the fact that beautiful rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate because of unsustainable and unwise practices, and I am not comfortable with the reality that orangutans may become extinct in my own lifetime if we do not act to save them before it is too late.”

At Rainforest Action Network, we could not agree more. We stand with these Girl Scouts in their battle to cut the ties that bind their cookies to the endangerment of orangutans and the destruction of irreplaceable rainforests. Stay tuned for some exciting Girl Scouts campaign updates by signing up for rapid responder email alerts from RAN’s agribusiness team.

45 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Robin says:

    You are awesome, Rhiannon and Madison – keep up the good work!

  2. rica says:

    Sorry, but Ron Judd is an idiot, to put it mildly. And a patronizing one at that. “Do gooders”? Gasp…how dare these young ladies put the health of the planet, the environment, human and animal rights ahead of his (and others) ability to get Thin Mint cookies?

    Don’t get me wrong. I love GS cookies, too – especially Thin Mints. But I applaud Rhiannon and Madison for speaking up, for standing up what they know is the right thing to do. For goodness sake, it’s not like they’re saying ‘never make Thin Mint or other GS cookies again’ just ‘let’s find a better, more ethical way to keep doing what we enjoy, without destroying the planet and wiping out a entire species in the process. ‘

    Don’t let the turkeys (or, in this case the newspaper columnists) get you down, girls…stick to your guns! And thank you for speaking up.

  3. Allison says:

    That’s really commendable. I always feel sad I can’t support the Girl Scouts anymore by buying the cookies because of the unhealthy and environmentally destructive ingredients in them. Ron Judd can STUFF IT. It’s Time to update the recipes, folks!

  4. Linda says:

    Change starts with you girls! WOW I am so impressed that Rhiannon and Madison have kept pushing to remove palm oil. THANK YOU!

  5. Mara says:

    How can Seattle Times employ someone like Ron Judd, who has just shown the readers what an ignoramus he is! God forbid any decisions be left to an “adult” like him! In fact its probably because of “adults” like him that the environment is in such a mess.
    To the two wonderful girls – please keep going – you are on the right path, and thank you for your committment.

  6. Minna says:

    I am VERY concerned about the rainforests as well but what about the health issues– palm oil is not exactly on the list of desired and healthy oils.

  7. kayla says:

    Wow! Ive been boycotting these cookies for years, ever since I learned to read the label. Let me know if I can help you in any way. I am inspired by your courage.

  8. Justin says:

    In addition the GS and their manufacturer hide the presence of trans fat by making the “serving size” small enough that the trans fat is less than .5 gram. If less than half a gram the rules allow it to be defined as “0″. Look for the tell tail sign in the ingredients of “partially hydrogenated” in front of any oil — that guarantees trans fat is present.

    When will girl scouts clean up their act?

  9. Janie says:

    Get rid of the palm oil.

  10. Bob Dickerson says:

    WOW! You girls are doing terrific work! Great networking! And persistence! As you will see, persistence is the key ingredient in any effort to bring about change from the dinosaurs. Thanks for not accepting the kind words from the Girl Scout’s overpaid administrator! Girl Scouts is about more than making money. Thanks for being true Girl Scouts, and standing up for principle! You girls rock! You give me more hope for our future! You are inspiring examples. I am sorry that the media has not given you more help. But keep at it. You are in the right, and so, you will win, if you persist. For now, why not refuse to sell any Girl Scout cookie that has palm oil in it? And think of creative ways you can make your cause more known. Get more publicity. It will be very hard for the Girl Scouts’ Administration to keep ignoring reality and holding out money-making as their number one priority, if that truth is brought to light.

    Indebted to you.

    Bobby D

  11. Geri says:

    Obviously they have Barry Hurowitz near the top of the Girl Scouts Organization that really doesn’t care about the environment, or following through with keeping his word to the girls. It’s too bad that a person like this connected with the organization. Maybe he would wake up if the girls boycotted selling the cookies. I for one, will no longer buy the cookies, instead I’ll make a contribution to an individual troop.

  12. envirozac says:

    Stay persistent! This is a great effort! Thanks for your work Rhiannon and Madison!

  13. Christine says:

    Alright so I have also known about this and in my eyes knowing is everything. We all need to pull together and help these two amazing girls. Start calling, maybe a petition could be started, start posting on the GS facebook page of your disapproval. Maybe the squeaky wheel will get a new kind of oil.

  14. Corinne says:

    THANK YOU Madison and Rhianna for having such awareness and integrity to stand by your sound values. I applaud you for being the leaders you are, and my view is the Girls Scout organization should be outstandingly proud to have you take part in the genuine greening of business practice. Destruction, degradation, environmental and social neglect are practices we can no longer allow for profit and pleasure. Cookies are great. Orangutans and local people living in harmony in healthy forest ecosystems are better. I just sent a letter to Barry Hurowitz to remind him of the importance of his organization as a model for future leaders. Corporate and personal ethics is needed for us to foster stewardship. For now, I will pass on enjoying Girl Scout cookies, until I know the brands really support sustainable forest and worker practices. I encourage you to keep setting your sites on how the world can be, it will take all of you girls together, to turn adult heads. Check out Willi Smits talk on TED talks on habitat restoration in Indonesia. Critical work. THANK YOU again!

  15. Ell says:

    Now that’s what I call good girl scouting. Stay strong ladies, your voices stand for thousands!

  16. Joyce says:

    Dear Rhiannon and Madison

    Don’t ever give up, ladies. You and other young women and men like you are truly the only hope we have left. It is becoming increasingly clear that when decisions about the future of the planet and all the creatures who live upon it are left to the so-called “adults” like Ron Judd and Barry Hurowitz, they make an unmitigated mess of things. I was a girl scout myself, have many young friends in girl scouts, and have always been a generous purchaser of girl scout cookies. No more. I will instead support individual troops as Geri suggests. Thank you both for your wisdom and activism.

  17. Patricia Lauderdale says:

    I am strongly opposed to the destruction of the rain forests and, as a Girl Scout circa the 1940′s, heartily support these young girls’ campaign against the use of palm kernel oil in G.S. cookies as a contributing factor. However, as a Home Economist (B.S., U.C. Berkeley), I also oppose it on the grounds that it is a saturated fat which is unhealthy for human consumption. Actually, I stopped buying G.S. cookies some years ago when the manuracturers replaced sugar in the recipe with corn syrup which is now known to have a relationship to obesity and diabetes in humans. It is unfortunate that greedy corporate
    agents have been allowed to infiltrate the higher levels of such an altruistic organization and use it to enrich themselves while simultaneously helping to destroy the planet and undermine human health.
    More power to these courageous young ladies who, wise beyond their years, epitomize the true spirit of the Girl Scouts!

  18. Barb says:

    no wonder GS cookies taste so good…there’s all bad stuff and stuff that’s bad for us in there!! I’m appalled that the head of the GS has not responded to these two amazing young women. That’s rude, crude, ignorant…I could go on and on. No GS cookies for me…I’m off to get a carrot! Thank you Rhiannon and Madison for all your hard work; don’t give up.You have a lot of wonderful individuals and organizations behind you.

  19. Danna Smith says:

    I have an 8 year old in girl scouts. What can she do to help? She would love to plug in to these girls campaign!

  20. Krista O. says:

    It’s really sad that the people at the top of the Girl Scout organization have refused to even try for other preservatives in their cookies. Money talks– people who care need to talk up this issue.

  21. Andy Mannle says:

    Girls, you’re not alone! Lots of youth groups around the country are sick of selling sugary palm oil snacks and cheap Chinese chotchkies to raise money.

    So we started the Green Energy Agents program (greenenergyagents.org)

    Green Energy Agents help youth groups earn money, save energy and raise awareness by selling home efficiency products in their communities. Aerators to save water in sinks and showers; CFLs and LEDs to save energy on lighting and cut coal and much more. Check it out and let us know when you’re ready to be part of the solution, not the problem.

  22. Jane says:

    I think you girls are awesome and do not ever give in to the bullies!!!!

    Orangutans and all the animals of the rainforest need your campaign to be successful.

    To everyone, its incredible how much opposaitioon there is to saving the rainforest. Palm oil is not the answer to our future.

  23. Stefany says:

    People have power when they have knowledge. By speaking truth to power you teach us all how powerful we really are. The more people that know about this, the more pressure we can put on the powers that be. I can’t imagine that any GS or her family could really stand behind this if they knew. It is antithetical to the very principles GS is founded on. Keep on fighting the good fight!

    “The moral arch of the Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” -MLK Jr.

  24. Renee says:

    Does my heart good to see young people with such ethics and intelligence taking a stand. My thanks go out to you. Our future depends on girls like you–for real. and while we’re at it let’s get the other junk out of GS cookies too. I’d buy all the boxes I could if those things were organic and non-GMO.

  25. Thanks to everyone for sharing your perspectives. I couldn’t agree with you all more – Madi and Rhiannon embody the true spirit of what Girl Scouts are supposed to stand for! Girl Scouts USA are going against the very Girl Scouts Law by not using resources wisely nor supporting their girls in making the world a better place.

    @DannaSmith, we are launching a very exciting organizing tool soon to give Girl Scouts across the country a meaningful way to get involved and even earn a badge! If you sign up here we’ll make sure to inform you when it’s live: http://ow.ly/4cOD2

  26. Ranjeet Tate says:

    Madison and Rhiannon,

    I heard your interview on NPR this afternoon. Great investigation and great action.

    One of you stated that you don’t want the Girl Scouts or the organization to boycott the cookies because they have to have some way to raise money for trips and activities.

    I will be more than happy to just donate money if asked for it, but I don’t want to buy or eat commercial cookies or in any other way add to consumerism.

    Do a test, perhaps as a science project: set up and run an experiment to compare the net amounts of money raised by 1) the traditional sell-some-junk-to-raise-cash route or 2) an alternate “we don’t want to sell you anything your donation will help us with the following activities… and here are a couple of home-made cookies as a token of appreciation” route.

    Finally, as a feminist and as the father of two daughters, I have to ask, “Why don’t the Boy Scouts have to sell cookies to raise money?”

  27. Krissi says:

    Thank you girls so much for bringing this issue to light. I had no clue..I was online trying to figure out why Thin Mints didn’t taste as good this year and came upon this article. My family is officially off girl scout cookies now! Shame on Mr. Hurowitz. Ignorance can be forgiven but knowingly using a product that is destroying our rain forests is absolutely despicable.

  28. stephanie says:

    WEll, I had mixed feelings when I was pressured to buy GS cookies from my niece this year. My reason was that they are so unhealthy, and I actually thought, “isn’t there a better way to raise money these days? Shouldn’t the girl scouts be addressing some global issues and empowering themselves since they are in such big numbers?” But, I knew her family would not be on that wavelength, so I bought a few boxes. This story is so perfect!!! Go girls!!! These are the important issues of our time and young people will solve problems and follow their moral compass if we allow them to.

  29. Ron Judd says:

    As the author of the paragraph so brazenly denounced as “a bitter taste of the opposition (Girl Scouts in question) face in standing up for the survival of the orangutan species,” I’m not sure whether to be amused, or aghast.

    The comment came from a humor column. Satire. The column is filled with ridiculous hyperbole, such as this item, which, rather than serve as a serious refutation of what the girls were trying to accomplish, is mocking the way it likely will be ignored by the majority of the cookie-buying population.

    Which, sadly, I’m sure it was.

    A useful exercise for these young women, and the keepers of this site, would be presenting things in context, not turning the meaning of something completely on its ear to further a cause.

    It was S-A-T-I-R-E. The fact that someone clearly didn’t get it will never change that fact. If anyone would care to read the column — the humor column — in its entirety, that would be painfully clear.

    Best regards,

    Ron Judd
    Seattle Times

  30. Carol says:

    Dear Madi and Rhiannon, I had no idea about this either, thank you SO much for bringing it to all of our attention. Mr. Judd is a VERY condescending reporter, please ignore him and keep on trucking with this. I handwrote a letter that I mailed last week to the GSUSA CEO and Exec Dir, on my elephant waste paper, and noted how seriously I take these issues–AND that it was a lot because of my Brownie and many GS years that I am an environmental professional. It is outrageous to me that they are not addressing this issue. I hauled literally hundreds of cases of gs cookies in my little red wagon (in the 60s ..) by myself..and had them all over our basement..so this is very much a personal issue to me and probably many of my generation. Please keep working on this, as I will, and I hope many others will. Before palm oil there was something else – there are substitutes that won’t destroy precious orang habitat and kill our arteries..

  31. Ron Judd says:

    I have since communicated with the author of this piece, who says she read the full column (published almost three years ago, incidentally) and still doesn’t get that it was humor. Judge for yourself: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/thewrapbyronjudd/2004361178_wrjudd20.html

    Rest assured I have better things to do than pick on Girl Scouts. I thought including their campaign in my column in a funny way would give their cause some additional exposure. But clearly there can be no joking about the rain forest.

    Ron Judd

  32. Karen says:

    I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout, as was my mother, and we both sold cookies for years. I have made my career about protecting the environment, worked with non-profits and am now an environmental lawyer. Ever since I heard about palm oil and orangutans, I have stopped buying Girl Scout Cookies. I think what these two young women are doing is amazing and I don’t want them to ever give up! Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

  33. David Rosenstein says:

    Dear Ron Judd: As you suggested, I have gone to the source and read your column. There is not the least indication that it is “satire”.

    If it is was, in fact, intended to be satire it doesn’t really matter as the sentiment you expressed represents what many adults think / believe about committed young activists like Madi and Rhiannon!! These girls are doing exactly the right thing, I applaud their work and can’t wait to eat that first palm free thin mint.

    Since you seem to think that your column was widely misinterpreted and claim to support their work why don’t you print a “clarification” of your attempt at satire endorsing Madi and Rhiannon’s campaign and direct readers to their website??

  34. Tori Nourafchan says:

    Mr. Judd: Your “satire” (one certainly can’t tell by reading the column) was not “joking about the rainforest” but was pointedly directed at two 11 year old Girl Scouts trying to make a difference in the world about something they cared about!! Satire or not it is mean spirited, nasty and inappropriate. It is hard to imagine Madi and Rhiannon taking your column to their troop, sharing it with the other Scouts, all getting a good chuckle and being thankful for your “additional exposure”. As my young, pre-teen children embrace causes they care about I certainly hope they do not encounter “satirists” like you. You should be ashamed of yourself – admit to your bad judgement and give Madi and Rhiannon the apology they deserve. Keep up the great work girls!!

  35. Erol Yildiz says:

    Excuse me Ron Judd, if you knew anything about the real problems with palm oil, you would realize that the A-D-U-L-T-S have made the poor decisions. Don’t you believe in the next generation? Then why are you making fun of their bold actions? Maybe you can figure out how to entertain yourself and your readers in more noble ways than making fun of young activists in a way that is disempowering and patronizing.

  36. Ron Judd says:

    Tori: Thanks for your definition of satire. No wonder I’ve been confused all these years. People who read my column regularly know clearly that it is satire, and expect satire. So does anyone who only drops in from time to time, but still possesses a dollop of common sense.

    For you to read the item in the column literally would be to also believe that I seriously blame previous generations of Girl Scouts for hooking the world on an insidious drug (cookies), and that I am seriously threatening young fundraising girls to replace their wares by dealing with illicit Chinese blackmarket cookie merchants (all in the same item in the same column.) I have some bad news for you about the Easter Bunny…

    As I told the author, if this is how low you have to scrape to generate outrage, good luck with your cause, because you’re going to need it.

    David, you said:
    “If it is was, in fact, intended to be satire it doesn’t really matter as the sentiment you expressed represents what many adults think / believe about committed young activists like Madi and Rhiannon!!”

    Congrats, you win the prize! Treat yourself to a thin mint. The entire point of writing the item was to reveal what many adults “think/believe” about the matter, and mock that sentiment in the process by embracing it in a ridiculous, over-the-top way. It’s intentional hyperbole, and anytime it’s employed, there’s always about 1 percent of the world that doesn’t get it. In this case, however, the first indication I heard of that, anywhere, was on this site, three years after the fact. Make of that what you will.

    So, sorry, no clarification is coming, because it’s wholly unnecessary. Out there in the real world where I live, I never heard a single complaint.

  37. Mobi Warren says:

    Dear Rhiannon and Madison,

    You are an inspiration. I was a Girl Scout through high school (decades ago).
    I sponsor a Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots group at the school I teach at and we have been studying Endangered Species and what we can do. I will be sharing your story with my students (3rd-7th graders) — I know you will have a big impact on their sense of what young people can do. And we will get involved on the palm oil issue.
    Thank you!

  38. John Liebeskind says:

    It is great that these scouts are questioning the status quo of our food supply chain. Unfortunately, the Girl Scouts are hiding another problem that rivals the the issues experienced by orangutans, child slave labor.

    Much of the chocolate we eat is harvested in western Africa. Much of that comes from Cote d’Ivoire. Much of that is harvested and processed by children smuggled onto the farms and forced to work in inappropriate conditions. (See the Wikipedia article “Children in cocoa production”.) Large cocoa processors as well candy and cookie manufacturers hide behind industry groups like the World Cocoa Foundation and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) which have lead strong public relations and lobbying campaigns, but have done little to improve the problem. In fact, they have failed to meet their own low-level voluntary targets. (Try googling “Harkin-Engel Protocol”.)

    The Girl Scouts, instead of using Fair Trade cocoa or some other cocoa source certified free of child slave labor (clean chocolate), hide behind the CMA. It is a shame that the Scouts choose to fool the public instead of taking a responsible position. Perhaps there are some scouts out there who can conduct their own research on this topic.

    John Liebeskind
    Corvallis, Oregon

  39. Benny Li says:

    I didn’t like how the article intentionally quoted Ron Judd out of context to generate outrage. It was obviously satire — tack on the omitted sentence and paragraph, and I find it hard to be upset with Judd.

    Being a biology undergraduate, I’m all for Rhiannon and Madison and palm-oil-free Girl Scout cookies, but this kind of writing perpetuates the rabid environmentalist stereotype. You can do better.

  40. Lynne says:

    I read the Seattle story and Ron Judd’s statement is totally a STUPID attempt at satire. It was in poor taste. Picking on kids is a low blow by any adult. Mr. Judd is a literary bully. And no it was no funny at all.

  41. PTP says:

    Thats right, its not funny. Ron put up a lame excuse there.

  42. PTP says:

    After reading ron’s column, i still agree that hes an idiot. Also, palm oil is harvested in indonesia and other places, not china.

  43. Larry3570 says:

    1. Excellent work Rhiannon and Madison! I pray the GS management smartens up soon.

    2. Some of us commenters are awfully tightly wound! How folks can read Ron Judd’s column and think its truly an attack on Rhiannon and Madison is beyond me. I find myself recalling the just-post-9/11 days when irony was pronounced dead. And, much more recently, the insurance geniuses firing Gilbert Godfried (Who would have guessed the Aristrocrats star could turn offensive?).

  44. Ashley S says:

    Thanks to everyone who has signed our petition to GSUSA in support of removing rainforest destruction from Girl Scout cookies for next year’s 100 Year Anniversary celebration. A call out to all Girl Scouts, Troop Leaders, Alumnae and Girl Scout family – I hope you will all consider taking part in this fun opportunity to make Girl Scout cookies rainforest safe by taking a photo with your troop! Check it out: http://understory.ran.org/2011/05/12/girl-scouts-time-to-get-behind-the-camera/

  45. Martha says:

    Girls, you rock!! this is a prime of example of the good that Girl Scouts does: empowering you women to make positive change in the world.

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