Tentative link of child labour practices tied to Girl Scout cookies

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Girls Scouts uses its cookie programme to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs of what it takes to be successful. Pic: GettyImages/urfinguss
Girls Scouts uses its cookie programme to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs of what it takes to be successful. Pic: GettyImages/urfinguss

Related tags Palm oil Child labour Girl Scouts of America

The iconic cookies sold to raise funds for the celebrated Girl Scouts of the United States of America purportedly contain palm oil that is linked to child labour practices, according to a new report.

An in-depth investigation by the Associated Press (AP)​ has revealed the cookies made for the Girl Scouts by two licenced producers could contain palm oil that is obtained from sources in Indonesia and Malaysia that employ child labour practices.

According to Kentucky-based Little Brownie Bakers – owned by confectionery giant Ferrero – its palm oil is procured from ‘mixed’ sources, which AP says could mean as little as 1% might be sustainable.

Virginia-based ABC Bakers belongs to parent company Weston Foods of Canada and, although noted as a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on its website, AP contends Weston would not provide any details of its supply chain, making it impossible to determine if child labour was used by any of its suppliers.

The Girl Scouts did not respond to AP before the study was published, but tweeted that child labour has no place in Girl Scout Cookie production.

“Our investment in the development of our world’s youth must not be facilitated by the under-development of some,”​ it added on social media.

Forced labour, trafficking and slavery

AP’s investigation was part of an in-depth look at the $65bn global palm oil industry.

The media outlet examined US Customs records and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers of palm oil. It also had reporters crisscross Malaysia and Indonesia – which together produce about 85% of the world’s supply – interviewing more than 130 current and former workers at nearly 25 companies, along with activists, teachers, union leaders, government officials, researchers, lawyers and clergy. Accounts were corroborated by police reports and legal documents.

AP says its investigation reveals a large amount of children in the two countries are being kept out of school, are forced to work for free or very little pay, and are often exposed to dangerous chemicals. It even contends kids are being smuggled across borders, exposing them to the dangers of trafficking and sexual abuse.

This is not the first report linking big brand names of popular breakfast cereals, cookies, candies and ice creams to the contentious vegetable oil that is linked to the alleged practices.

Environmental groups have been campaigning against its use for the past two decades, citing its production involves the deforestation of life-giving rainforests and the extinction of its many inhabitants, including orangutans. A recent study found that 50% of deforestation in Borneo between 2005 and 2015 was linked to palm oil.

Child labour is another major problem for the $65bn global industry. The UN International Labour Organisation​ estimates that 1.5 million children aged between 10 and 17 years work in Indonesia’s agricultural industry, while a 2018 study found that more than 33,000 children work in the industry in Malaysia, almost half of them between the ages of five and 11.

BakeryandSnacks has reached out to the sources named for comment and is awaiting their response.

A Ferrero spokesperson said the confectioner condemns child labour and exploitation of workers, and takes allegations of abuse seriously. She added Ferrero works closely with its suppliers and partners to ensure its Human Rights and Supplier Codes are followed.

“Our palm oil supply is sustainable, segregated and traceable back to plantations, with the appropriate due diligence applied. If issues are raised, they will be investigated and actions taken immediately.”

She added the ambition for the recently acquired Kellogg’s brands – which includes Little Brownie Bakers – is "to bring them to the same standards as the Ferrero Group as soon as possible."

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