How two Girl Scouts fought the dirty palm oil industry and won
Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva were 11 years old when they decided to go after their Bronze Award badges, the highest honor a Girl Scout Junior can achieve. To earn a Bronze Award, Scouts must make a difference in their community.
Tomtishen and Vorva decided to change the world instead.
They set out to save orangutans. Orangutans live in rainforests—rainforests that are being cleared every day to make way for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Imagine Vorva and Tomtishen’s horror when they discovered palm oil in Girl Scout Cookies. They boycotted their annual sale and instead started petitioning the organization to eliminate palm oil as an ingredient.
Four years later, in 2011, Tomtishen and Vorva were still trying to get the Girl Scouts USA to stop using palm oil. The organization wouldn’t listen. So the girls enlisted help.
The media tour had three primary objectives:
Persuade the Girl Scouts to discontinue the use of palm oil in their cookies and educate troops about the importance of forest conservation.
Show that there is consumer demand for sustainable, rainforest-friendly products.
Call on other major food companies to stop using palm oil and commit to deforestation-free policies.
Climate Advisers gave Tomtishen and Vorva a little media training. Then they helped set up visits for the girls with national reporters and television shows.
Tomtishen and Vorva recruited current and former Girl Scouts to join the fight.
Climate Advisers and their partners Union of Concerned Scientists and Rainforest Action Network planned a slate of online actions. The three organizations asked people to visit the Girl Scouts’ Facebook page and register their disagreement. They circulated a petition. Former Managing Director Glenn Hurowitz wrote blog posts for various outlets about how Girl Scout Cookies were killing orangutans and forests.
Climate Advisers organized grassroots protests. The girls are from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kellogg’s is headquartered in Michigan. So Climate Advisers put organizers on Michigan college campuses, encouraged students to call Kellogg’s, and coordinated shareholder activism.
Protesters even dressed up in tiger suits—a perfect jab at the company whose mascot is Tony the Tiger and whose supply of palm oil was driving the Sumatran tigers out of their forests.
Tomtishen and Vorva’s media campaign exceeded all expectations and helped the Packard Foundation toward its goal of building a pathway to a sustainable palm oil industry. For a small grant, it yielded remarkable results—the media tour not only raised public awareness, but also helped to transform a previously intractable industry in big ways.
Kellogg’s committed to reduce their use of palm oil and use only palm oil from companies that had adopted zero-deforestation policies.
The story was featured on top media outlets, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, MSNBC, NPR, PRI, CBS Early Show, Fox News, and dozens of local newspapers and television stations.
80,000+ people took action on the campaign.
The girls participated in information briefings with federal policymakers, including with former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, State Department officials, Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, and Michigan Representatives Debbie Dingell and Thaddeus McCotter.
Climate Advisers estimates that the story reached at least 10 million people.
The Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil ministers publicly critiqued the girls for alleged naïveté. The campaign had hit a nerve with important officials who were partially responsible for the policies and practices driving deforestation in Southeast Asia.
The girls had been heard around the world.
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It might not be who you think it is. Who would have thought that two 15-year-old girls from Michigan would do more to crack open the palm oil industry than anyone else to date? Apparently, Climate Advisors and the Packard Foundation did. Or at least, they were willing to take the chance.
“We were looking for a way to turn up the heat on the issue of palm oil,” Reid said. “The girls’ actions fed into a broader movement. And they were able to give it some real momentum.”
The Packard Foundation traditionally might have funded efforts toward stronger forest protection policies in Indonesia and Malaysia, which would have eventually resulted in changed products.
But the Girl Scout Cookie media blitz—a communications initiative—got consumers to put pressure on corporations. Those corporations, which used to lobby to undermine good forest policies, are now lobbying for strong conservation policies. Governments around the world are responding with new protections for rainforests. It’s a reverse of what usually happens and in this instance, just as effective.
Want a big bang for your buck? Modest public relations investments can have tremendous return on investment. When media efforts are properly targeted and well timed, their reach far exceeds their initial expense.
All-American girls, Thin Mints, and adorable animals? As Hurowitz said, “It had everything. It was made for social media.”
The impact and appeal of a campaign are not necessarily correlated with the importance of the target. “In terms of national media attention, we got more media attention on the Girl Scouts USA than we did on Wilmar, even though Wilmar uses 10,000 times more palm oil than the Girl Scouts,” Hurowitz said. It’s hard to get people to care about companies (or ingredients) they’ve never heard of.
It’s much easier to get consumers to care about the cereal box sitting on their kitchen table every morning—or the boxes of Girl Scout Cookies they look forward to buying every year.
Climate Advisers is a leading mission-driven, full-service consulting firm focusing on climate and energy policy.
Glenn Hurowitz is a former managing director of Climate Advisers. He has started a new organization, Calliope, and continues to focus on achieving large-scale global emissions reductions at low cost.
Rhiannon Tomtishen is currently a student at Stanford University, where she works for the Stanford History Education Group and participates in the Stanford Women in Business group.
When we spoke to Rhiannon in 2014, she was traveling the world—volunteering for a CDO in Ghana, and studying Mandarin in China before beginning at Stanford.
“There is nothing I can remember that has been so defining or long lasting as this,” Tomtishen said. “All of those life skills they try to teach you in school: how to take something small and see it through the big picture perspective, how little things can have such a big impact...”
Madison Vorva is now a student at Pomona College, environmental advocate and youth advocacy coach. She serve on State Farm's Youth Advisory Board, which distributes service learning grants to students across the country. Her mission is to inspire other kids and teach them how to make a difference for causes they are passionate about as well as show consumers how their everyday purchases have global impacts.
“Building campaign partnerships has given me the opportunity to travel the world and speak on platforms that I never would have had access to otherwise. I know how to tell a story, do outreach, and get others to join,” she said about the media tour.
In 2014, Vorva was on her way to Cambodia to film a political documentary.