Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil?

Girl Guide CookiesIs nothing sacred? What could be more pure and innocent and hard-to-object-to than delicious bite-sized cookies sold, door-to-door, by happy-faced young girls trying to raise money to support a wonderful not-for-profit organization?

Well, apparently nothing is safe from criticism. Girl Guide cookies, as it turns out, are under attack for being made with palm oil, a tropical oil the production of which has been blamed for deforestation and for endangering the habitat of orangutans. Girl Scout cookies, in their current form, are apparently evil.

Dammit.

Here’s the story as reported by Tara Kelly, blogging for Time: Do Girl Scout Cookies Harm the Environment? Renegade Scouts Fight Against Palm Oil Ingredient

…now two renegade girl scouts are lobbying the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient from the cookies.
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are high school sophomores, 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. To ramp up their efforts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make the change a reality….

OK, OK. So I’ve long realized that Girl Scout Cookies (a.k.a. “Girl Guide Cookies,” here in Canada) are evil, but only in roughly the same way that any addict realizes that the object of his desire is evil. Every year I buy quite a few boxes of GG Cookies (the mint wafer kind, thank you very much) and hoard them, hiding them from family and friends, to enjoy them one-by-delicious-one.

A few random thoughts about the ethical issues here:

1) This is a lovely example of why not-for-profit organizations fall squarely within the bailiwick of business ethics, even if they’re not “businesses” as that term is traditionally conceived. (According to Time, by the way, the Girl Scouts annually sell nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worth of their delicious baked goods.) I suspect that Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, is finding out that even a not-for-profit cannot hide its head in the sand when faced with criticism of its supply chain.

2) Sometimes (but only sometimes) evil comes from trying to do good. Time notes the reason for the existence of palm oil in the cookies:

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans-fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Tomkins. “In order to rid cookies of trans-fats, you had to find another alternative.” That alternative is palm oil.

So, the cookies are less-environmentally-friendly because of efforts to make them better for your arteries. Is there a win-win alternative out there? Maybe, but that cannot be assumed. It may well be that some sort of tradeoff is going to be required. So, ask yourself: which do you care about more…your arteries or the orangutans? (“Pssst! You’ve got cookie crumbs on your tie!”)

3) The main reason that Girl Scouts USA makes such a good target for criticism (in addition to its prominence) is of course precisely the organization’s clean-cut, do-gooding image. In other words, the organization is vulnerable to criticisms that would simply be shrugged off by whatever anonymous company makes the cookies sold in the bulk-food aisle of the grocery store. The Girl Scouts have an image to protect, and, other things being equal, this means they are more likely to be responsive to pressure. But then, that image has been earned, and critics may well find that the public would rather continue to support a favourite charitable organization than learn about a new set of ethical issues focused on the effects such support could have in far-away lands. That doesn’t mean that the anti-cookie campaign can’t get traction. It just means that when the battle is good cause versus good cause, the outcome is hard to predict, and it’s not clear whether there can even be winners.

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Hat tip to NW, for pointing me to this excellent story.

4 comments so far

  1. kuszewski on

    Hi Chris! No, they’re not evil, but they’re learning about supply chain risk and responsiveness the hard way. What gets me (a Gold Award Girl Scout myself) most about this is the outrageous dissing the girls who started this campaign are getting from their organization. Madi and Rhiannon’s activism is entirely part of the Girl Scout spirit, and the national organization should be ashamed of themselves for their behavior through the whole thing. Incidentally, I found the TIME article wrongheaded and insulting to refer to the girls in question as “renegade” Scouts – there is nothing renegade about finding something in your community that needs to be fixed and working to fix it.

    Lastly, let me de-anonymize the two companies responsible for baking Girl Scout cookies: They are ABC Bakers, part of Interbake Foods LLC of Richmond VA, and Little Brownie Bakers of Louisville KY. They make lots of money off the Girl Scouts and should be put on notice that they will be expected to act, even to lead where their client so far hasn’t.

  2. Sean Oliver on

    They’re also made with cottonseed oil, which isn’t even really “food”. It’s an industrial byproduct of cotton said to contain the hightest pesticide content of any commerically produced “food” oils… not to mention partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), high-frustose corn syrup and solids… the list goes on. Besides the ethics of growing palm oil, there’s the ethics of providing a product to your customers that goes a bit beyond “unhealthy”.

  3. […] Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil? by Chris MacDonald in the Business Ethics Blog […]

  4. Palm Oil: The Year in Photos | on

    […] “Palm oil: A secret eco-villain”, a 2014 piece from Maclean’s magazine. (Even Girl Scout cookies couldn’t dodge the controversy.) But pressure from environmentalists and protest groups seem […]


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