Why you should not buy Girl Guide Cookies this year

This may seem a wee bit like trashing the work of Santa Claus or Mother Teresa. But what I’m suggesting today was inspired by American dentist-turned-nutritionist Dr. Susan Rubin and her essay on why she has decided to no longer purchase U.S. Girl Scout cookies. In fact, she claims that not only will she not buy these cookies, but she actually wants their entire cookie fundraising program to “go extinct”.

And this isn’t just because those American Girl Scouts sell Tagalongs, Thin Mints, Samoas and DoSiDo cookies that are not healthy.  They are cookies, for Pete’s sake, and as an occasional treat, Dr. Rubin has little quarrel with treats.  But there is one ingredient in these cookies that endangers planetary health as well as personal health. Dr. Rubin explains:

“The more I’ve learned about food and food systems, the more I’ve learned about our fragile environment. Every single flavor of Girl Scout cookies this year contains palm oil. While it is a saturated fat, that’s not why I don’t want my kids eating it. The issue is environmental.”

Dr. Rubin goes on to say that to grow palm oil, we destroy rainforests. And that means destroying the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems, home to millions of indigenous people, rare plants and endangered animal species like orangutans, and creating runaway climate change that may impact our very future on this planet.

I wondered about our own Canadian Girl Guides, who also sell cookies to raise much-needed funds to support valuable Guiding programs.  So I contacted Lucie Page, who works in Cookie Customer Service at Girl Guides of Canada.  I asked her: “Lucie, do our Girl Guide cookies contain palm oil like those American Girl Scout cookies do?” She replied:

“Yes, they do. Palm oil is being used in both Girl Guides’ Classic and Mint cookies.”

Oh, no, Lucie!  Not the Girl Guide Mint ones!  I love those cookies. The only good news about Girl Guide cookies is that they no longer contain artery-clogging transfats, following growing worldwide pressure to reduce or eliminate this deadly fat in all processed foods. Maybe it’s about time we now asked the same hard questions about this palm oil.  

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil on earth. It comes from plantations grown in huge destroyed tracts of tropical rainforests throughout Southeast Asia and Central America, but particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 83% of palm oil production.

Palm oil is also a common ingredient in about 50% of all processed products we consume. Unilever uses palm oil in its Dove soap, Vaseline skin cream and Slim Fast diet products. It’s also in most granola bars, cookies, crackers, pastries, cereals, microwave popcorn, lipstick, detergents, ice cream – and even bio-fuel.

But in the U.K., their Girl Guide cookies are already far ahead of North America when it comes to getting rid of palm oil ingredients. Paterson Arran, the company that bakes cookies for the U.K.’s Girl Guides, leads the U.K. biscuit industry in finding replacements for palm oil. Instead, they use olive and rapeseed (canola) oil. Allan Miller, Sales Director of Paterson Arran, explains that the company’s transition away from palm oil wasn’t easy in the beginning:

“On the first attempt at a palm oil-free chocolate chip cookie, all the chocolate chips fell out! Fortunately, we persevered and managed to overcome the problem. Interestingly, the switch isn’t just good for Indonesian and Malaysian orangutans; we calculated changing from palm oil resulted in a 60-70% reduction in saturated fat.”

In 2006, North American regulatory agencies began to crack down on food manufacturers who were adding unhealthy trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (a major risk for heart disease). Processed food packaging must now list all trans fats, so many manufacturers are seeking to eliminate trans fat by switching to other cheap oils - and there’s no oil cheaper than palm oil.

And that’s why demand for palm oil has tripled since ’06, resulting in increased clearcutting and burning of rainforests for palm oil plantations.

By the way, those American Girl Scout cookies also contain cottonseed oil. Dr. Rubin warns:

“Cotton is not a food. It is loaded with pesticide residue; in fact, cotton is one of the most highly sprayed crops. Since cotton crops are under far less chemical regulation than crops used specifically for food, many pesticides and chemicals can be used on cotton crops that are illegal for use on food crops. In addition to the pesticide residue, cottonseed oil is extremely high in inflammatory Omega 6 oil.”

She then adds:

“Now that my girls are older, I can look forward to the future when I will be a grandma. I hope to take the time to bake cookies with my grandkids, just like my grandma did with me. If we keep plowing down rainforests in the name of cheap palm oil to put into cheap cookies, I might never get a chance to see grandkids.”

Dr. Susan Rubin ends her essay with this dramatic plea:

Parents: please don’t have your kids sell these cookies.

“Take some time, make some real cookies, make a donation to the Girl Scouts, a great organization. But I’d like to see their cookies go extinct. There are so many other worthwhile fundraisers that are good for people and for the planet.

“Please pass this on to anyone you know who cares about the fate of the earth – and who hopes to have grandkids one day.”

Here in Canada, our own little Boy Scout Beavers sell* healthy apples as an annual fundraiser - not palm oil-loaded junk. Let’s face it – we’d give those kids money if they were selling dandelions to us.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to say ‘no’ to those cherubic little cookie salesgirls, at the very least, you can become a keen label reader from now on.  Look for ingredients like palm or cottonseed oil in any processed products you want to purchase – and then vote with your wallet by not buying them.

See also:

  • this article from the Center For Science In The Public Interest for more on the chief environmental and health impacts of palm oil, as well as suggested oils that are better for both human and environmental health
  • Dr. Susan Rubin’s original essay called Girl Scout Cookies: Epic Fail
  • the Survival International website for their short film about the Penan people of Sarawak, Borneo – whose very way of life in their rainforest home is being destroyed in the name of that palm oil in your Girl Guide or Girl Scout cookies
  • the even shorter film linking Dove products with the destruction of rainforests for palm oil (a brilliant spoof on Dove’s own ‘Onslaught’ ads)
  • The Top 10 Hazardous Foods In Your Kitchen

CANADIAN GIRL GUIDE COOKIE UPDATE – April 19, 2010:

I received this note from sharp-eyed reader David Sims who reports: “After reading your item on Girl Guide cookies, I e-mailed them and here is their response:

“Dear Mr. Sims:

“Thank you for contacting Girl Guides of Canada Consumer Response regarding the oils used in our cookies.

“You commented on palm oil; our fat and oil suppliers are members of an international organization called Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, established in 2003. The main goal of this organization is the ethical and sustainable practices in the production of palm oil.  The suppliers are using old plantations and revitalizing them, rather than
clear-cutting new ones.

“We do not use cottonseed oil in our cookies.

“We thank you for your time and interest in Girl Guides of Canada
cookies.

Sincerely,

Christina Smith
Girl Guides of Canada
Cookie Customer Service
1-800-507-7564

_____________

Thank you, David. Although Christina’s letter to David appears to clear up any controversy over palm oil in these (Canadian) cookies, it’s important to remember that until three weeks ago, membership in this Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil was approved upon completion of a “self-assessment and self-declaration” application process.

In other words, let’s say a palm oil plantation owner in Indonesia or Malaysia facing growing threats to profits because of the growing consumer backlash decided it would be good PR to claim membership in this eco-friendly association.  Instead of third-party accreditation by a regulating agency- the only type of valid accreditation that’s meaningful – the owner could simply answer  questions like: Are you revitalizing old plantations rather than clear-cutting new ones?” with a resounding self-declaration of “YES!” in order to be officially accepted for membership. This type of officious-sounding greenwashing is a particularly offensive corporate reputation management tactic.  More to come on this topic. . .

NEWS UPDATE October 22, 2010:

I received an additional note from another reader today:

“I was a Brownie leader for five years and faithfully went door to door selling Girl Guide cookies.  Not once in all those years did I check the ingredients. I just assumed that the ingredients used would be healthy.

“The other day, I bought a box of cookies from my neighbour’s daughter. Nope, I did not check the ingredients. My daughter, on the other hand, did check because NO PALM OIL enters our house. If it gets in, it ends up in the garbage.

“What a shock that the Girl Guide Chocolate Mint cookie  lists palm oil THREE TIMES:

  • the chocolate covering
  • the cookie itself
  • the filling

“So I sent an e-mail to Girl Guides of Canada and to Dare.

“The reponse I got from GGC is similar to yours. I have not heard from Dare.
GGC is fooling themselves and trying to fool others by saying that they sell a cookie that should be treated as a treat.  Yeah, who eats just one?

“I will continue to support the Girl Guides, I’ll pay the cost of the box of cookies as a donation, but let them know why I will not take the cookies.”

Q:  What do you make of these cookie capers?

.

44 thoughts on “Why you should not buy Girl Guide Cookies this year

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  2. I have always felt this way, but somehow felt too guilty about being mean to those little Girl Scouts… Your point about selling apples instead is a good one – who cares, really, what they are selling? It’s a fundraising campaign for a worthy cause. If these organizations took a stand on behalf of environmental and global causes, however, it could be a good ‘teaching moment’ for the girls. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I plan to put the money into the cookie box this year, but NOT take the cookies and more importantly, tell the girls and their Scout leaders exactly why I’m choosing not to take the cookies. If enough of us tell them the message, it might eventually sink in.

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    • Merry pls be careful when “informing” the young salesgirls out there about your newly zealous opposition to her cookie fundraising. The girls have nothing to do with this decision – in fact, they are just carrying on a longstanding tradition. I hate to think their sincere fundraising efforts to help their troupe will be greeted with upsetting comments by people like you.

      Better you should start writing letters to those who can really make a change in this practice if you feel that strongly about ending the cookie sales.

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      • Brown Owl, I would have hoped for a more enlightened comment from a person in a critical leadership role. “Zealous opposition”? “People like you”? “…Ending cookie sales”? No-one wants to end cookie sales, they want nasty ingredients removed. These people are campaigning on your behalf for a healthier world. Why are you assuming they would be conveying their concerns in an upsetting way?

        There is no reason why a tactful, considerate and polite explanation to the Girl Guide should not be given as to why a customer might prefer to donate rather than purchase. This is a grassroots protest about the environment and conscious eating. It is EXACTLY the kind of campaign a thoughtful, intelligent young woman like a Girl Guide would understand, respect and respond to.

        You underestimate these amazing girls, you overestimate the cookie company’s desire to do what is right. You should consider waking up to 21st century real world business practices, especially in the global food business. They are not looking out for you, Girl Guide cookies or otherwise.

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  3. I read this article a few weeks ago and thought little of it – until I started reading labels while out grocery shopping one day to see if other boxes of cookies had the same problem. The entire cookie aisle is loaded with palm oil! Same with packaged crackers! I’ve been completely unconscious about this ingredient until now – palm oil, cottonseed oil, who cares really, right? WRONG! Then I started looking up references to the whole industry, the wholesale burning of rain forests, the horrific environmental pollution throughout Asia during the annual ‘burning season’, the terrible destruction of nature, the extinction of animals and birds who used to live in those forests – all so that we wealthy North Americans can eat cookies. So I came back here just to let you know that because of this article on Girl Scout cookies, my eyes are now open.

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  4. * Actually, if you ask the Boy Scouts around here (Toronto) if they’re selling apples, they will carefully tell you “No, but if you make a donation, you can take an apple” (no joke), presumably because they are aware that they do not have a street vendor’s permit.

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      • 100% serious. I first noticed it yesterday morning outside a Starbucks in Leaside, when I overheard someone ask a little boy “Are you selling apples?” and his very carefully worded reply “No, I am asking for donations, and giving apples in exchange.” I paid closer attention to another five kids I passed by on the Danforth, and each one was quite clear that they were there soliciting donations, and that the apples were a donor incentive.

        I then Googled to find out how long this had been going on, and found your webpage. A lot of unofficial pages, like this one, refer to Scouts selling apples. Most official Scout pages say that the apples have always been freely given away in appreciation to the community for its general support, but that donations are welcome. this one says more plausibly that it started off as sales, but was quickly changed to the donation/appreciation model.

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  5. The girl scouts are not the problem here. Stop buying cookies (and other products with the palm oil) from the store and buy all your cookies from girl scouts. Bigger impact, less cookies on your waist. And good charity.
    Hopefully the cookies will change next year.

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    • The cookies are the problem, Don, not the girls. Give the girls your money, but don’t take the cookies – and tell them clearly it’s because of the palm oil. There is no reason to assume the “cookies will change” if we keep buying them. There’s a hugely powerful message for the girls themselves if only their organization would take an ethical stand on this issue.

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      • The girls are simply doing this work to raise money for this great organization. The problem is the adults are lazy and not willing to take on the needed changes from bleached white flower, palm oil and other empty calories to something nutritious or even something more important than a cookie. The girls are entering our world at a time of obesity and diabetes and other preventable chronic life-shortening conditions and the Girls Scouts are condoning this by insisting on not changing. They are teaching the girls that it is ok to sell harmful junk food for the sake of money – what a message.

        They can instead teach girls about social change and improving the environment and public health by making empty calories extinct and by not creating the garbage of the packaging. They can sell a needed household item or they can sell fruit and vegetables or some other food item that is nutritious and not harmful to the earth and to human and non-human animals. They can also buy these items locally and sell them locally.

        Teaching the girls about this is not going to hurt them but rather it might make them see the light, something their leaders are not doing. They are simply pawns in a destructive fund-raising effort. If you fear insulting the girls or putting a wet rag on their efforts, then you are telling them that you support the creation of garbage, the destruction needed to get palm oil and the ever increasing epidemic of diabetes and obesity. Be brave- stop buying the cookies and encourage them to sell fruit and vegetables or bags of whole wheat flour so they can go home and bake something with calories worth eating.

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        • Absolutely! Shouldn’t Girls Guides be learning to bake rather than selling mass-produced, over-packaged ‘anti-food’? Let’s teach them how to bake their own cookies using untainted, responsibly sourced ingredients.

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          • Yeah, they totally should bake cookies, and strive hard to try to make them healthy! Then they can sell them and they would be very proud because they made them themselves! In the end, they could get a baking cookies badge for their sash! Everyone is happy, the customers, the GGC leaders, the Girl Guides themselves! Everyone wins!

            I am also registered to be a girl guide this year, in September 2013, I will DEFINITELY ask the leaders if we can bake cookies and be healthy and use ZERO palm oil and other fatty ingredients!

            Thanks,

            Lily

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  10. In the U.S, there are several varieties of cookies without palm oil. I would guess that the Canadian Girl Guides offer similar choices. Feel free to support the organization by purchasing those instead, if you are indeed against the oil and not the Girl Guides. Cookies will change or be dropped based on consumer purchases, so buy lots and lots of the non-palm oil cookies if you want your choices to be heard.

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    • Here in Canada, we have the basic sandwich ‘classic’ and the chocolate mint, all of which contain palm oil. No choice.

      You have a far wider selection of these cookies in the U.S. but on the official Girl Scout cookie website I was unable to find any U.S. Girl Scout cookies that do NOT contain palm oil listed as an ingredient on their Nutrition Facts labelling for each type of cookie. If you know of any, please tell us!

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  13. … for the easily swayed? seems like an insult to your readers, am i being overly sensitive? have i had too much sugar and palm oil?

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  14. I just saw the film “Born to be Wild” at the IMAX in Victoria, BC. Daphne Sheldrick, the orangutan expert in the film, was there to speak to the audience and answer questions. She runs a facility that rehabilitates young orangutans. She said that most of the babies they take in have had their mothers killed in the destruction of forests, and have been “kidnapped” as pets on palm oil plantations. As such, palm oil is a big concern to her. She said that there are no sustainable palm oil plantations and I am inclined to believe her.

    I don’t know what organization the GGC was referring to, but I suspect it is a political front to give the perception of attempts at sustainability. If it were truly sustainable, it would say so on the box.

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  16. Is this the SAME “Caorlyn Thomas” that runs an ILLEGAL marijuana operation out of her home in Hawaii that was convicted for thrreatening witnesses? She’s a nurse and dealing drugs illegally…SOMEONE ought to know about it, since police up there are PROTECTING HER VIOLATIONS OF LAW!!!!!

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  17. Hmm… important issue to consider, and I’m glad people are talking about it. However, as a long-term Girl Guide leader and former girl member, I have a few things to add.

    First, I agree with the person who suggested that buyers not burden the girls with their ethical concerns about palm oils. Some of the girls out in the neighbourhoods will be as young as five years old, and I doubt they’re going to understand the issues. I’m also doubtful that that message would be passed up the line all the way to the people who make the decisions about the cookies. Make your donation to the unit ($4 = 1 box of cookies), decline the cookies, and lodge your concerns with Girl Guides of Canada. In every campaign, we have people doing donations only for a number of reasons – diabetics, health nuts, people trying to lose weight – so giving without taking cookies will not be an unusual occurrence.

    Second, it’s important for consumers/donors to know that sales of GGC cookies account for a huge portion of total revenue for each unit, each year. One should also note that individual units retain only about 1/3 the profit from a case (after costs and cuts to upper Guiding levels), so sales need to be quite robust for the units to have enough to run their programs. Guides Canada is also implementing a national cap on registration fees this year, so that leaves the individual units to come up with ways to cover any shortfall in operating/program costs.

    An additional point to consider is that if the public is successful in lobbying Guides Canada to find a cookie supplier that eschews the cheap palm oils in favour of more expensive (albeit “greener”) oils, that price will have to be passed on to the consumer. It’s a frustration that a lot of people already gripe about the cost of GGC cookies – blustering about how they can buy them cheaper at Superstore – perhaps not thinking that Superstore does not send girls to camp or help them develop their personal potential.

    Finally, anyone who has ever volunteered in a youth-oriented group knows that getting support from parents is an ongoing challenge. To help ameliorate this issue, GGC has included a statement on our registration forms indicating that parents signing their girls up in a unit are required to participate in cookie campaigns. Units take on all sorts of other fundraising initiatives – the traditional bake sales, bottle drives, and flea markets, but none bring in the same cash as cookies and none require parental participation. If we lose cookie revenue, one of three things will happen: units will spend a good portion of their year in fundraising activities (with minimal parental input); units will offer less exciting and well-rounded programs; or parents will have to fork out a lot more money for registration and program fees. Currently, Guides programming provides some of the best value for the money in youth activities – in most cases a fraction of the cost of hockey or dance lessons. Thus, we tend to attract families who cannot afford to place their daughters in more expensive activities, and therefore are not well situated to absorb additional costs to be involved in Guides.

    I’m glad people are discussing this issue – I myself would be very happy to see palm oils omitted from the GGC cookie recipe and I encourage people to make their concerns known to our national office. But before you send away those little girls in pink, brown or blue from your doorway, take a moment to consider the cost to the organization and those girls as well. Bravo if you give money in lieu of a purchase – just don’t get on your soapbox unless you’re willing to offer an alternative support.

    And that’s my rant.

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    • Thanks for your very thoughtful response, Zyna. Nobody who is concerned about the palm oil issue is saying that the Girl Guide/Scout organizations are not important resources for our girls. That goes without saying! In the U.K., their cookies have been baked without palm oil for some time now (for the same environmental reasons raised here) and their sales continue successfully in order to support their troupes. My hope would be that both GGC and the American Girl Guides will choose to follow the U.K. example.
      Cheers,
      C.

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  18. I think we need to look closely at what we follow for our children’s sake.

    1) When I was a girl guide leader, I discovered that only 10% of the cookie sales went to our troop. So, if they sold $900 worth of cookies, our troop got the princely sum of $90!! The rest all went to the cookie manufacturer and the Girl Guide Headquarters. My question is does this formula still exist, as there was a comment that a large amount of money is thus raised for the girl guide troop.

    2)The ingredients are suspect. Why are there not cookies that are healthy? – should be an easy thing and a priority.

    3) The system puts our little girls at risk. Each girl has to go twice, often to a stranger’s home in the area. She knocks on the door and is often invited in. She has to return to deliver and hopefully get the money. Sometimes the person changes their mind and the troop is stuck with that order. Sometimes she has to return several times to try and deliver the items and/or obtain the money. WHY can’t the girls sell the cookies in the same manner as the Boy Scouts do selling apples; that is, outside a store etc., in groups, and with an adult present at all times?

    Lily

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    • I am also a long-time Guide leader and former girl member. Units in Ontario receive just over 20% of the profits from a box of cookies. We NEVER have girls pre-order or go alone to doors; all selling is done in groups or with parents. The revenue is essential in providing a quality program for the girls. Please continue to support GGC by purchasing cookies!

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  19. This topic, to my amazement, has garnered so much attention that I can’t help but remember Parkinson’s Law by C. Northcote Parkinson and his ‘Law of Triviality’ concerning the deliberations on a nuclear power plant and contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed.

    A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it.

    And before I get jumped on – I do happen to think that Girl Scouts and their cookie ingredients are very important.

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  21. Well i have 2 daughters, one in Brownies and one in Guides…they both started in Sparks so they have been involved for a long time and they love it!…they have had many wonderful experiences and have met many wonderful people…we sell the cookies every year…

    I am sad about this information…how can it be?…i would like to think that if enough people spoke out against palm oil and the destruction that it caused the GGC would surely change their ways…they do so much for girls around the world, they truly are an awesome organization!!…

    I am going to pass this article on to our leaders and find out what their feelings are on this.

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  22. As a passionate Girl Guide leader, previous girl member and mother of an adorable Spark I beg you people please do not stop supporting Girl Guides cookies. It is the only fundraiser we have to allow girls to experience activities they would not normally be able to do.
    However, I will be investigating this palm oil situation and through the proper channels urge GGC to change the receipe to make them more healthy. We always encourage our girls to find healthy alternatives and should lead by example.

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    • Thanks for your perspective Kim – and thanks also for urging GGC to make some changes. As mentioned in a previous comment, “In the U.K., their cookies have been baked without palm oil for some time now (for the same environmental reasons raised here) and their sales continue successfully in order to support their troupes.”

      Makes you wonder why North America lags so far behind in what could be a very valuable lesson for the girls.

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      • Why does it take so long to make a healthy, decent choice?

        The arguments, for continuing to promote a product that is dangerous to the consumer and to the environment, are long ago shown to be without moral or financial grounding. Others have made the change and there has been NO financial losses. Perhaps the answer is in “Follow the Money” , or whose job is on the line, or….

        Is the Girl Guide organization response promoting a value that it is okay for these young girls to promote a dangerous product for the sake of gaining money, for them! And that we should not tell the little girls the nature of the product they are selling, because they are too young to understand the import of their actions? Seems a like-argument that has been used Against Us before.

        I wrote letters to try and change the insistance of having NO SEAT BELTS on school busses, and to make proper behavior mandatory, and for a qualified supervising adult to be on each school bus. But, the same STUPID DETERMINATION AGAINST CHANGE continues. A little girl died on a school bus in Toronto, Canada, when she was trampled by children running about on a moving school bus. And they are making bigger busses now that can hold 70 children, with only the bus driver adult trying to supervise and drive. I digress, but to me it is the part of the same mindset.

        It starts and ends with INTENTION.

        LILY

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        • Good points, Lily. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here on the potential leadership role models that Guides and Scouts could become by taking a brave stand that actually means something. (And someday, I think we’ll look back on this time and be horrified: “Remember the old days when we had no seat belts on the school bus?!?!” much as we now look back at the smoking section in planes!)

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