UK supermarket chain Iceland has been forced to reverse a ban on using palm oil as an ingredient in its own-brand products amid an acute shortage of sunflower oil, a staple ingredient in products including frozen chips and breaded fish. The supermarket chain will start selling a limited range of own-label products from June which contain palm oil, after it banned the ingredient in 2018 amid a splash of publicity, supposedly taking a stand against tropical deforestation.
There are countless problems with sweeping decisions to swear off certain products, as Iceland did in 2018, not least the fact that you may have to embarrassingly go back on your promise later, as Iceland has just done. 90 per cent of palm oil exported to Europe is sustainable. Palm oil is more efficient than other products (such as sunflower oil, which Iceland switched to) meaning quitting palm oil is even worse for deforestation. Palm oil itself, despite meeting most of the world’s vegetable oil demand, is responsible for less than four per cent of global deforestation.
This episode has exposed Iceland’s hypocrisy. It claimed it would remove all own-brand products containing palm oil. In reality, it removed the branding, rather than the product itself. Iceland’s lack of transparency actively misled its customers. They boasted at the time that there was no palm oil in their products, which was not true.
In his latest policy change, Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker says the switch back to palm oil will only be a temporary measure. He claims that by using CSPO (certified sustainable palm oil) he will be able to minimise the impact on the environment. That suggests his view has changed since 2018, when Iceland was very clear about its opposition to any and all palm oil. His reasoning is not explained.
The question we should ask of Iceland, then, is whether they would now acknowledge that they should have moved to CSPO earlier if they knew it was an alternative, rather than making adverts criticising palm oil production. That is what they did in 2018, when they put their stamp on a Greenpeace video claiming that orangutans’ natural habitat was being destroyed by palm oil. The ad was then banned for being too political.
Palm oil is the tip of the iceberg of green virtue-signalling and hypocrisy, and Iceland is the perfect example. Walker’s pledge to remove palm oil from Iceland’s products is just one in a long line of unkept promises.
He also promised they would be plastic-free by 2023 but has since admitted that that will not be happening. Last year, Iceland was ranked as the worst supermarket in the UK on plastic, with Greenpeace (despite their apparent friendship with Iceland in 2018) slamming them as not doing enough to cut plastic use. Consumer group Which? ranked Iceland bottom too, this time for sustainability among supermarkets. Iceland was the only supermarket to fail to provide Which? with the relevant data for its own-brand plastic which is recyclable in kerbside collections.
Walker and Iceland would like us to believe they are leading the charge on social and environmental change. Despite that, Walker used a private helicopter to fly to different stores within the UK on 48 separate days, which he claims was necessary in order to be on the front line.
Companies, individuals and governments are so keen to be seen taking action on the environment that they forget about the consequences. They are so eager for their audiences to know how virtuous and tree-hugging they are that they don’t care if their decisions actually harm the planet. If we want to stop deforestation, halt climate change and generally care for our planet more, we must focus on the merits of our policy decisions rather than what others might think of them – the opposite of what Richard Walker does.