You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Child labor, orangutans and Thin Mints: Two renegade Girl Scouts raise questions about palm oil used in popular cookies

By Juliana Keeping

Two renegade Girl Scouts are raising questions about whether iconic treats like Thin Mints are linked via palm oil to slave and child labor in Southeast Asia.

Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are sophomores at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, stopped selling Girl Scout cookies in 2007 after they began working on a public service project to bring attention to the plight of endangered orangutans in Borneo. The animals live in the rainforests that the cultivation of palm oil destroys.

Vorva says the U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor in 2010 linked palm oil produced in Indonesia with child labor, and within Malaysia, with forced labor. The majority of the world's palm oil comes from these countries.


Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen, left, and Madison Vorva, both of Ann Arbor, have been campaigning to raise awareness of the human and environmental impact of the organization's famous cookies.

“Kids should not have to choose between selling cookies and getting to camp or choosing rainforest deforestation and orangutan extinction. There are links to slave labor as well,” Vorva said. “There should be no human rights abuses occurring in Girl Scout cookies either.”

The use of palm oil in the majority of cookie recipes is out of sync with the organization’s mission to make the world a better place, Tomtishen said.

Employing lessons about confidence and standing up for yourself learned at troop meetings growing up, the two 15-year-olds have vowed to carry on the fight against palm oil until Girl Scouts of the USA makes a change.

The pair won a Girl Scout Bronze Award for their work in 2007, but the campaign against palm oil has continued since then. It’s taken on a more mature, insistent and darker tone, buoyed by the new partnership with the environmental activism group Rainforest Action Network.

According to the Rainforest Action Network, Kellog’s owns one of two Girl Scout Cookie bakers, Little Brownie Bakers. Kellog's sources palm oil from Cargill, an agribusiness giant the environmental organization links to human rights violations and deforestation, allegations the organization denies.

While the Rainforest Action Network's main beef is with Cargill, the two local Scouts are working to change Girl Scouts of the USA.

They are pushing for a second meeting with Girl Scouts of the USA. They had a brief conference call with a merchandising executive in 2008 but didn’t convince the organization to stop using palm oil in cookies.

Still, their campaign has picked up steam.

The Rainforest Action Network set up an online form that makes it easy for those interested to send a letter to Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Kathy Cloninger to pressure the organization to stop using palm oil.

RAN also helped Tomtishen and Vorva make a renegade merit badge available to Girl Scouts across the nation with instructions on how to win the badge available online. It’s not endorsed by Girl Scouts of the USA, but can be worn on the back of a badge as a fun patch, Tomtishen said.

According to Girl Scouts of the USA, the Girl Scout Cookie Program generates $700 million a year. Cookie goals support local troops activities for the year, like community service and leadership projects and summer camp. It teaches lessons like managing money and business ethics.

Via a spokesperson, Girl Scouts of the USA says its hands are tied. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on manufactured food products.

Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Michelle Tomkins, spokesperson for the organization.

“In order to rid cookies of trans fats, you had to find another alternative,” Tomkins said.

That alternative is palm oil.

Tomkins said the girls’ efforts are fantastic, that they embody everything the organization is about.

But, two bakers the organization uses have no plans to change the recipe.

“That could change,” Tompkins said. “We have little say if not no say in the recipes used by the bakers.”

Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers make the cookies.

“While palm oil is a small percentage of our total ingredients, it is used in certain cookies to help ensure shelf life and quality. It also serves as a healthful alternative to trans-fats,” said Kris Charles, a Little Brownie Bakers spokesperson, via e-mail.

According to Charles, Little Brownie Bakers purchases GreenPalm certificates meant to offset environmental impacts cultivation practices by funding growers’ transition to sustainable palm oil.

But there is no way of knowing if the oil the baker purchases is sustainably grown.

“Little Brownie Bakers intends to purchase sustainable palm oil once a segregated palm oil supply is available that is financially and logistically feasible,” Charles said via e-mail. “In the meantime, we are helping to reduce deforestation from palm oil production through our support of GreenPalm certificates.”

In other words, the use of the certificates doesn’t mean the palm oil in the cookies is sustainable, Vorva said.

The girls say they have no plans to stop their campaign any time soon.

In Washington, D.C., on April 17, Tomtishen and Vorva got the chance to share their story as panel speakers at a conference of 10,000 young environmental leaders called Power Shift 2011. The Energy Action Coalition organized the gathering.

In front of the White House over the weekend, they held up a sign, trying to get the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama, the honorary president of Girl Scouts USA. It read:

“Michelle Obama, we need your help to make Girl Scout Cookies rainforest safe!”

“Even though we’re just two little Girl Scouts from Michigan, we do have the ability to do something like this and change Girl Scout cookies,” Tomtishen said.

Juliana Keeping covers general assignment and health and the environment for Reach her at or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter.



Sat, Aug 4, 2012 : 10:10 a.m.

Hi! I know this can be somewhat off subject but I had been asking yourself which web site platform have you been employing for this site? I am receiving sick and tired of Wordpress simply because I have had problems with hackers and I am considering options for a different platform. I might be fantastic in the event you could position me within the route of the great platform.

Martinaxt Volluccieq

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 : 11:50 a.m.

How come car loan calculators practical? You'll need to calculate a person's car loan expenses and check in place vendor expenditures for cars plus vans. Devoid of the expertise you could have created from utilizing a car loan calculator, you might will lose out on a lot. Traditional bank as well as financial institutions might take benefit of a person's not enough investigation.

Luellaxq Mainolfi

Tue, Jun 5, 2012 : 6:33 a.m.

This kind of financing alternative have been extremely useful in business cash advance and various other small business funding. Focus has been mounted about bat roosting particular franchise companies because they have a tendency to generate a lot more bank card earnings when compared with many other corporations.


Fri, Apr 29, 2011 : 6:59 p.m.

Bravo! to Tomtishen and Vorva for having the courage and compassion to raise a stink over an important issue. Also, bravo! to the Girl Scouts organization for encouraging strong, free-thinking girls, at least at the local troop level. It takes deeper thinking and caring to take such a stance when the harm is happening so far from home. By doing so, the girls forgo the profits of cookie sales that would come their way if they ignored the problem. We need more people in the world like these girls!


Fri, Apr 29, 2011 : 2:16 a.m.

Three cheers to these two young ladies. They chose to educate themselves about a very serious global issue--rapid deforestation due to industrial palm oil plantations--and decided to try to do something about it. It's unfortunate that so many of the "adults" which commented on this story have chosen to remain ignorant and apathetic.


Wed, Apr 27, 2011 : 2:33 a.m.

It's just typical Ann Arbor "feel good" liberalism gone amok! This isn't a perfect world and everything we do hurts others in some way. It's just the sort of people who have to feel they're doing "good" at every moment. Bet they ride ten speed bikes, eating granola, with "Save the Whales" on the back! How silly Ann Arbor they are.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 11:57 a.m.

Girl Scouts make $700milliom a year. Please look into how much the troop gets from these sales? maybe 20% it is a shame how little the troop really gets.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 8:53 p.m.

And they make it by forcing brainwashed children to sell their products. Isn't that child labor.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 4:05 a.m.

I for one will buy an extra box of cookies this year!! I glad the two bakers are not changing the recipe due to these two misguided youth. If the Girl Scouts is such a poor organization why belong?

Macabre Sunset

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 7:19 p.m.

While it's great that these girls are so passionate, I wish they would avoid the associated rhetoric. In the real world, you can't make perfect choices. And I would bet that there aren't that many mass-produced products that meet Vorva's human rights litmus test. Even ones that claim they do. I would also advise Vorva to take a trip to Indonesia and ask, through an interpreter of course, the men and women who work on these palm plantations whether they would appreciate it if their jobs were eliminated in the name of human rights. Perhaps she could set up a program here to adopt these adults and provide for their every need while, at the same time, leading a coup against the Indonesian government to make it more like Greece's government (I'd say our government, but ours actually has some evil right-wingers who don't believe in adult adoption). In the meantime, we should, in good conscience, abandon all efforts to create biodiesel fuels, as this could greatly increase the demand for palm oil - more than a new flavor of Girl Scout cookie, even.

Juliana Keeping

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 7:55 p.m.

The 15-year-old girls told me it is their dream to get to Indonesia and take a look at the issue in person.

Tom Chavez

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 6:40 p.m.

2010 linked palm oil produced in Indonesia with child labor, and within Malaysia, with forced labor. The majority of world's palm oil comes from these countries. Orangutans in Borneo. Does Palm Oil used in ThinMints come from these Orangutan habitat or picked by child labor? If not there is no problem! If so trees won't be saved by ending ThinMints as they make of < . 0005 % of oil sold. Should the girls also give up Church & Palm Sunday as Palms are symbolic of Palm Oil trees from these countries?


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 6:33 p.m.

Palm oil is the least of the terrible ingredients in girl scout cookies.

Roger Roth

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:55 p.m.

I wish schools could teach kids about palm grease and its effect on the environment and health.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 4:10 a.m.

lol...I almost blew coffee out of my nose....


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

Although noble in it's intent, I didn't see any factual links or information presented in the girls assertions. Mostly speculation on what could possibly be happening. Maybe there are people who are poor and actually get paid to harvest the palm oil and now their product will be boycotted and their families will be added to the millions of people starving everyday. There are unintended consequences to throwing accusative theories around and seeing if people run with it. At this point I can only see this harming the cookie fundraising of the girl scouts and the ability to make a living for the poor palm oil workers. A better option for the Girl Scouts would be to meet with the cookie producers and try to find an alternative oil. That doesn't help the workers but it does help the Orangutans. We can help the workers by sending more financial aid the their country and raising taxes on the rich people in this country. Only problem with that theory is that we don't have enough rich people to make it work.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:23 p.m.

Si Se Puede!! I hope your work is published in whatever Girl Scout magazines and newsletters! We need more independent thinkers like you.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:21 p.m.

I think I'll buy some Girl Scout cookies after I eat my BigMac on the way to the circus

Chris Snyder

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 4:51 p.m.

Rhiannon and Madison, as the shortest pathway to your goals, your first step should be pressuring Girl Scouts of the USA to create a consumer option in their cookie drives empowering consumers to support the girl scouts by donating the price of the cookies while declining the cookies, and let consumers express what their objection to the cookies is (checkoff list of personal health and/or sociopolitical concerns). Also, each girl scout selling cookies should be provided with a Comprehensive Products Ingredients List, so that customers who want to know can view the ingredients before buying, just as we do when buying in a store. These two customer experience improvements are totally within the power of the Girl Scouts of the USA to enact quickly, and could be implemented with only positive financial impact for the Girl Scouts or the cookie manufacturers, for people like me who won't buy cookies can then still give $, and the division of the No Cookies Donation between the GS USA & the cookie manufacturer could be the same proportions, except the part that goes to the cookies manufacturer would be earmarked for implementing a future healthy cookie recipe. As that fund is growing, GS USA could organize a competition (repeated every few years) where girl scouts could team with experienced local bakers to submit prototype healthy/ sustainable cookie recipes, with at least part of the scoring based on how many of the most common objections to the current cookies the new recipe addresses, and the rest of the points addressing the usual consumer appeal & production issues. The manufacturer would implement the winning cookie using the $ from the fund, in accord with the customer criteria that the winning girl scout baking team was addressing, and the new cookies could be marketed with a photo of the girl scout/ baker team who worked on inventing them and telling what were the human health and socio-political concerns she was addressing in her ingredient choices.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:39 p.m.

You can donate all the money you want to the Girl Scouts any time you want. Put your money where your mouth is and get out your check book. They need to raise thousands of dollars every year so if there were more Orangutan, rain forest, anti-slave labor, lower carbon footprint people like you writing checks for $500 or so they wouldn't have an issue and need to sell cookies. Although a number of workers for the cookie producers would need to find work at a windmill or solar panel factory and the poor palm oil workers would just have to starve to death or get aid from the USA.

Basic Bob

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 3:56 p.m.

<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

Juliana Keeping

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 3:51 p.m.

I have just added a pdf of the 2010 U.S. Dept. of Labor List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor to the text. Would this list change any of your buying habits? Why or why not? The young women in my story stopped eating products that use palm oil after their research. What do you think about that?


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 5:49 p.m.

Since none of us reading this article have ever experienced the absolute horrible conditions these people live in it is hard for us to understand why parents would send their children to work for slave wages to try and keep the rest of the family alive. This is a sad but very real situation that repeats itself daily, generation after generation all over the world. It's a battle that cannot be won and as a nation of caring people we want to do something about it. Unfortunately we are on the verge of a financial disaster due to the debt we have piled upon ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Our country is the last free place in the world and is in real danger (ask the CBO or Standard and Poors) of defaulting on it's debt then we will not be able to help anyone including our own people. Have a wonderful Easter


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:44 p.m.

Just make them with trans fat etc so those young ladies can think they saved the rain-forest, monkeys, Obama's presidency and any other thing they want. This is getting to to point of stupidity!


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 3:07 p.m.

sounds good, how about we just make them with arsenic too. No sense in anybody caring what or where their food comes from. The typical republican way, let the free market decide. We shouldn't even list ingredients unless the corporation wants to. This is why Randians and other republicans are utter failures at everything they do.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

Oh Good Grief! Talk about the 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon! The Girl Scouts switch from Trans-Fats (which are probably harmful if your diet is exclusively Girl Scout cookies, but that's another discussion) to Palm Oil, in minute quantities (see how far down the list of ingredients it is?) and suddenly it's promoting child slavery, endangering the rainforest, indigenous primates, and for all we know altering the earths orbit. &quot;Two renegade Girl Scouts raise questions about palm oil used in popular cookies&quot; Renegade? What questions? If the ingredients are ethically objectionable, don't sell them. Don't buy them. Don't eat them. End of problem. Like many other people, I am apalled at the thought that there are people roaming the streets making honest citizens buy and consume cookies containing palm oil, or ice cream that has a high degree of butterfat, or french fries that are .... oh yeah, fried. Sure, we all have daily requirements of salt, grease, and sugar, but ...oh yeah, we really don't. &quot;"Kids should not have to choose between selling cookies and getting to camp or choosing rainforest deforestation and orangutan extinction. There are links to slave labor as well," Vorva said. "There should be no human rights abuses occurring in Girl Scout cookies either." Camp is a choice. Scouting is a choice. Selling cookies is a choice. The two scouts in the story don't appear to be underpriveleged children (I could be wrong-but Money ranks Ann Arbor as 46 in the list of 100 best places to live). The Girl Scouts are tolerant, not homophobic (as are their male counterparts). What's the big deal here? Can't ethically sell the cookies? Don't sell the cookies. Have a scrap drive, a car wash, what ever, but this...just wow.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 2:16 a.m.

Oh, for Pete's sake, Pizzagod. Are you really intimidated by motivated Girl Scouts? Some form of regression or is it just jealousy? I think you are missing the point, anyway. It's not just about choosing to sell cookies or not, as you say. It's about branding something as part of an organization's cause. An organization must act within it's mission. Otherwise, the purpose gets lost. And people within and outside of the organization no longer believe in it. I think the term I'm looking for here is &quot;Corporate Responsibility&quot; and it's refreshing to see young people understand what that means.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:29 p.m.

AA Please submit a list of what YOU think are newsworthy stories!


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:20 p.m.

This is newsworhty?

Sandy Castle

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:31 p.m.

Of course it is! This is local news and where else would I get local news if not from


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

Amazing initiative for such young ladies. No Bob, it says they stopped selling in 2007 and had to choose between going to camp or selling cookies. Fight the Power Ladies! ¡Viva la Revolución!


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 1:51 p.m.

&quot;The Rainforest Action Network set up an online form that makes it easy for those interested to send a letter to Girl Scouts USA CEO Kathy Clonginer to pressure the organization to stop using palm oil.&quot; Where can we go to find this?

Juliana Keeping

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 3:33 p.m.

Hi Laura. I added links within the text of the story. Here is the link to the Rainforest Action Network's site: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

Basic Bob

Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 1:39 p.m.

Just wondering... Do these young ladies continue to sell the cookies to unsuspecting neighbors? Would they support a boycott of the cookies until the environmentally damaging behavior is stopped?


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2:18 p.m.

I was referring to Basic Bob's comment: Would they support a boycott of the cookies until the environmentally damaging behavior is stopped? If he is objecting to environmental damage then there are lots of other products that do as much or more damage. Each of us has to decide what we might want to boycott. Having said all that I truly commend these young ladies for standing up for what they believe in! I think our youth is too often given a bad rap!


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 2 p.m.

The suntan lotion, cosmetic, soap, coughdrop and golf ball hasnt been putting millions of young ladies at every storefront pushing their product though either.


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 1:50 p.m.

I had the impression they will not sell the cookies, but that is just my impression. @Basic Bob &quot;Would they support a boycott of the cookies until the environmentally damaging behavior is stopped?&quot; Would you support a boycott of the cookies? If so what about... suntan lotions, cosmetics, soaps, cough drops, perfumes, disinfectants, detergents, confectionery, beverages, flavoring,  fuel, varnish, wood finishing, crepe-soled shoes, rain boots, coats and even golf balls. filling for a number of products, such as insulation, upholstery and life preservers and pillows comes from the rain forest Latex,from the rubber tree, is used in making tires for motor vehicles and heavy equipment. All of these can be and are product that are from the rain forest !


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 12:36 p.m.

This is such a poorly edited article! Please review and correct!


Sun, Apr 24, 2011 : 12:24 p.m.

Kudos to Rhiannon and Madison for caring about this issue to the point of actually trying to enlighten folks about it. Beside the health issues of palm oil (high in saturated fats) the concerns about what greed is doing to the planet are real. Unfortunately, I think this and other problems of land abuse will only worsen as the worlds population increases beyond the planet's ability to feed the ravenous bipeds.