The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is Meaningless

Written by Ashley Schaeffer

Topics: Agribusiness

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“Companies buying palm oil need to be aware that the only way to ensure sustainable sourcing is to buy certified sustainable palm oil from companies that have been assessed against the RSPO standards. Buying from RSPO members is not enough.” – WWF, August 2010

Thin Mints Contain Rainforest Destroying-Palm Oil

Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) has actively resisted getting rainforest-destroying palm oil out of their cookies for years now. Instead, they tout the fact that their two cookie bakers are members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

But Girl Scouts USA and anyone else touting RSPO membership as a green seal of approval — or anyone who even claims that RSPO membership makes a company’s products “orangutan friendly” — are gravely misleading the public with false claims.

Girl Scouts of America sold roughly 198 million boxes of Girl Scout cookies in 2009. One of the two cookie manufacturers, Little Brownie Bakers, bakes over 4,500,000 Thin Mints per day during peak baking times. And guess what’s going into every single one of those cookies? Palm oil, a controversial commodity closely connected to widespread deforestation and social conflicts in Indonesia.

RSPO Members Have Been Documented Destroying Orangutan Habitat

For a cookie business raking in $714 million a year with a presence in all 50 states and 2.7 million young sales women, one would think that Girl Scouts USA would make sure that the ingredients they’re using are in line with the Girl Scout values and mission to make the world a better place and use resources wisely.

The RSPO is a body of stakeholders including palm oil producers, processors, traders, retailers, banks and NGOs working to promote the growth, production, distribution and use of sustainable palm oil. There is a very important distinction between RSPO membership and RSPO certification. RSPO certification is a seal of approval that is given to palm oil grown on a plantation that has been certified through a verification of the production process by accredited certifying agencies. In theory, the “certified sustainable” palm oil (RSPO oil) is traceable through the supply chain by certification of each facility along the supply chain that processes or uses the certified oil.

RSPO membership, on the other hand, is much different. As we recently advised Girl Scouts USA CEO Kathy Cloninger in a letter of concern about the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies:

Although Girl Scout cookie bakers have RSPO membership, RSPO membership does not provide any assurance that palm oil supplied by member companies is sustainable. Member companies have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights — all of which are prohibited in the RSPO principles and criteria. In essence RSPO membership does not ensure that deforestation, orangutan extinction, and climate change are not found in Girl Scout cookies.

According to an independent audit commissioned by Unilever, RSPO member Sinar Mas has contributed to the opening up of deep peatland, deforestation of orangutan habitat, and occurrences of fire hot spots.

Mongabay reports, “The [RSPO] has been battered over the past year with revelations that some members have continued to destroy ecologically sensitive habitats. Prominent members, including Unilever and Nestle, have had to act outside the RSPO process to address misconduct by RSPO-member suppliers.”

Sinar Mas is not the only RSPO member that has been caught red-handed. There are many cases that illustrate the fact that RSPO members regularly violate the principles and criteria they have agreed to respect with their membership. Take the example of RSPO Member IOI Group. While it has some RSPO-certified plantations, the same company has others that are the source of major social conflict.

Conservation scientists report critical habitat protection weaknesses in the RSPO system. William Laurance of James Cook University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute argues that the initiative’s objectives are undermined by the composition of its membership, which is dominated by palm oil industry growers, processors, and traders. He says:

[T]his conflict of interest results in lax requirements for membership, a cumbersome complaints process for reporting violations, and lack of oversight and enforcement. It needs to get tougher with member companies that are destroying large swaths of primary forest. Otherwise, it risks becoming an apologist for an environmentally destructive industry.

Until RSPO membership means more than simply paying a few thousand dollars a year in membership fees, any company or organization that claims any product made by an RSPO member is orangutan or forest friendly is grossly misleading the public. Orangutans and forests will only be truly protected in Sumatra and Borneo once expansion of palm oil in fragile tropical forests ceases and a moratorium on deforestation for palm oil is both adopted and implemented.

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

  1. Peter Fraser says:

    Great article and my favourite headline of the year. Thanks for putting out some accurate information about RSPO realities.
    Peter Fraser
    Conservation Officer
    Auckland Zoo

  2. Amy Mersinger says:

    I understand the science and I agree with the call to action for the Girl Scouts, based on their mission. However, I feel like we’re all lighting our torches to pick on one organization, without looking around at everyone committing the crime(s).
    I just checked the chocolate covered popcorn sold through Boy/Cub Scouts in our area, and there on the list of ingredients: palm kernel oil. Also the Country Crock “spread” in my fridge (on its way to the trash) – palm oil.
    Clearly this is an issue bigger than the Girl Scouts – maybe none of the other companies are as flashy as the Girl Scouts, and as a GS leader I will push through my channels for them to switch.
    But let’s not lose focus on the bigger picture and all of the companies using this. Get their names out there and we will rally!

  3. Michelle says:

    So… how can we get a TRUE list of who is using sustainable palm oil? I still need to eat, and then clean my teeth but I would like to do it with a conscience. Plus, with all these myths how do we know that we are really doing the right thing. One list says that company ABC is doing the right thing and another list says that it isn’t. I want to know who is doing the right thing so I can support them with my money.

  4. where do these sinar mas pendejos live,

    publish their street adresses, please that wopuld help
    so the mexicans can come cut their heads off,

    time for revolt you arrogant greedy, OBESE gringo ;sheeples’

    what a joke is USA the hole world knows, except gringos

  5. Ashley Schaeffer says:

    @Amy, you are definitely right that Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) is not the only organization/company using palm oil! We’ve highlighted many companies who have been guilty of using irresponsibly sourced palm oil in the past, including General Mills, Earth Balance, etc. and suppliers such as ADM and Cargill. However, we’ve never found any company or organization with a discrepancy as huge as Girl Scout USA’s between their values/mission statement and the products which hold their brand, i.e. Girl Scout cookies. We’re supporting the efforts of two brave Girl Scouts who have worked tireless hours for over 4 years to get GSUSA to wake up, but they continue ignoring their own scouts. If we can get GSUSA to get rainforest destroying palm oil out of their cookies by next cookie season, we can celebrate together and move on to the next company until all companies marketing products realize that orangutan extinction has no place in consumer brands.

    @Michelle, as far as brands using sustainable palm oil, we don’t advocate for any of them although there are some women cooperatives in West Africa running responsible, small-scale operations. The majority of palm oil comes from unsustainable industrial scale palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Until there is truly 100% “certified sustainable” palm oil that we can trace back to the plantation of origin available on the market, I generally try to avoid it.

  6. Vasu Murti says:

    I appreciate everything you’re doing in your campaign. I urge you to press the Girl Scouts into making sure all their cookies are vegan.

    I’m not strictly vegan, though I would like to be. But if their products are vegan, they’re not only orangutan-friendly and/or rainforest-friendly, but cruelty-free as well.

    Thus, they can be enjoyed by everyone: vegans, vegetarians, even flesh-eaters.

    When on the lecture circuit during the ’80s, vegan author John Robbins was fond of pointing out that the Rainforest Action Network didn’t start out as an animal rights organization. But when it was discovered that the root cause, the real cause of rainforest destruction was the American fast-food market, the Rainforest Action Network called for a boycott of Burger King.

  7. Natalynne DeLapp says:

    Great job and awesome campaign. As a huge fan of Thin Mint cookies and orangutans, I have been appalled by the GSUSA’s disregard for their sourcing of palm oil. No more cookies (including Newman-O’s) until palm oil is removed or sustainable (not likely to happen).

  8. Justin says:

    I disagree with sending mixed signals and promoting a more radical “vegan” solution to Girl Scout cookies. I do however, agree that the cause of deforestation and the possible extinction of an entire species is a cause worth fighting for – perhaps we can send a follow-up e-mail to the CEO of Girl Scouts reinforcing the message that RSPO does not mean they aren’t destroying the rain forest.

  9. Susan Stephens says:

    Also check out all those fancy hand soaps…..the list is actually endless so think in terms of what you use most frequently.

  10. Lynne says:

    As a new troop mom, I have a very hard time allowing the girls to sell these cookies. It is hypocritical to everything we are trying to teach the girls and yes, it is hypocrisy on the part of the Girl Scouts Organization leaders. Anybody have ideas what we can do as a troop instead of selling cookies. I’m am serious considering not selling them next year. I hope other troops will be leaders too and refuse to sell them. Maybe that is the only way to get the GS leaders to listen and really do something instead of lip service.

  11. Marylou Morrison says:

    Good for the Girl Scouts that researced this in the first place. It all boils down to EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION of all about palm oil, conservation of the Rainforests all over the world. We have to have them as do the inhabitants therein, both human and animal. Palm oil is not the most healthy oil anyway. MM

  12. As a former Girl Scout leader years ago in Maine, other parents and I discouraged the girls from selling cookies, viewing it as a commercial venture for corporate America, and using young scouts to market their products. Kudos to the girls and their supporters who continue to speak out re their concerns about palm oil in cookies, rainforest destruction and the effect on orangutan habitats. It’s not just the misinformation generated by RSPO members that is the problem, but the fact that this association is under the control of the international edible oil cartel, comprising Unilever, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, etc., which makes heavy use of palm oil because it’s cheaper,but not healthier, as their members proclaim.

    Several years ago, Greenpeace did a great job exposing Unilever as one of the largest palm oil users, and had men dressed in orangutan suits clambering all over Unilever’s London headquarters, much to their embarrassment and heavy publicity. That got Unilever to negotiate reform—somewhat–but their halo of environmental concerns remains tarnished. I speak from experience and years of litigation regarding Unilever’s fraud and theft of the SKIPPY name (their SKIPPY natural peanut butter spread contains palm oil), and am all too familiar with similar censorship tactics used on the courageous Girl Scouts. That’s why they need wide public support to accomplish their goal. It’s disgraceful that the GSUSA CEO censored their Facebook message, but not surprising, given the corporate titans in agribusiness who wield power, and have little concern about devastation of palm oil forests in Indonesia, orangutans and the effect on global warming.

  13. Christina says:

    Thank you for such a great article. Currently we are attempting to educate our patrons to the devastating reprocussions that supporting palm oil in our products has on the animals they come to enjoy. We can make a difference, I see it everyday in the concerned faces of the adults and children that they will try to eliminate palm oil from their pantry and lives to save our beautiful South East Asian ecosystems. (Not to mention the ozone)
    Fresno Chaffee Zoo

  14. F.T. Jackson says:

    u can make ur own vegan butter no need for eart (IM)balance and such shit!

  15. Diana says:

    List of Companies and Products containing Palm oil.

  16. Diana Murdock says:

    It’s great to be concerned about palm oil’s connection to rainforest destruction and animal cruelty. But it’s a bit misguided to focus on palm oil while neglecting the dairy and eggs found in baked goods. Animal farming is a leading cause of environmental damage worldwide, not to mention the animal cruelty involved in the meat and dairy industries. So eliminating the palm oil but ignoring the dairy does not accomplish the stated goal.

  17. Maxwell says:

    This was a well written article. Why I came to it was to find a supplier of sustainable palm oil. Any suggestions?

  18. Max Kelly says:

    The use of Palm Oil in any product should be banned and we, the consumer, should boycott any product containing it. My reasoning is that, any usage of Palm Oil in any product makes it financially attractive to produce. This encourages those without scruples to destroy rainforest for said production. If we stop purchasing Palm Oil products, whether cited as RSPO certified or not, it will no longer be attractive to produce and deforestation will, or should stop.

    There are no half measures here and it is up to us to make companies such as Nivea, Thursday Plantation, Nestles and the Girl Scout Cookie manufacturers, amongst the thousands of other companies using Palm extracts, start to take notice. This will only happen when they see their profits being eroded thanks to consumer action. We have the power.

  19. Dominic Tambuzzo says:

    Bravo Ashley! I’ve been avidly following the unfoldings of this unfortunate palm oil saga for the past few months thanks to people like you who keep it alive.

    Would be interested in doing something concrete on the ground, here in my city, Montreal. Any suggestions?

    Thank you for your dedication to this cause. You and your work is seen!


  20. Leo says:

    What about companies that are members that do practice good ethics and strive for a better balance between industry and nature. Maybe an piece on those companies?

Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Girl Scouts USA Censors Scouts on Rainforest Destruction » Rainforest Action Network Blog
  2. Girl Scout Cookies and Rainforest Destruction: Teens Working to Break the Connection | Through a Green Lens
  3. What Do Environmentalists And Animal Rights Activists Have In Common? » Rainforest Action Network Blog
  4. Guest Blogger: So What Does “Sustainable Palm Oil” Really Mean? « The Wiseass Wife
  5. Myths of the Round Table: Just because they’re a member doesn’t mean they’re a knight « It's Not Me, It's You

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