Palm oil is present in more than half of all supermarket products. In April 2018 Iceland Foods pledged to remove palm oil from its own label food by the end of the year, affecting 130 different product lines. Richard Walker, Iceland’s Joint Managing Director, spoke to us about the company’s decision: from his experience on the ground to pushback from the industry, he offers insight into their choice and the reaction from the industry and Iceland customers.
1) What prompted Iceland to take the decision to stop using palm oil in all own brand products?
We were gravely concerned about the impact of rapidly growing global demand for palm oil on people, animals and the wider environment. In particular, we wanted to take a stand against the continued destruction of the tropical rainforests – the crown jewels of global biodiversity – to make way for palm oil plantations. This expansion is critically endangering species including the orangutan, and increasing global carbon emissions.
2) Did you expect the decision to remove palm oil from all own brand products to be as controversial, with significant pushback from the palm oil lobby, as it proved to be?
We certainly expected our decision to be controversial; we were unpleasantly surprised by the highly vitriolic and personal nature of the attacks to be which we were subjected by some parts of the palm oil lobby.
3) Are there any facts or memories from your field trip to West Kalimantan that made you determined to push this policy through?
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the vibrant, diverse, life-filled and life-enhancing surviving tropical rainforest, and the sterile palm monoculture that is rapidly replacing it. We saw ample evidence of continuing illegal deforestation and the brutalisation of wildlife, strengthening our conviction that it was important for Iceland to take a stand on this issue.
4) Did you expect it to be so difficult and time consuming to reformulate so many products in order to remove palm oil from all Iceland own brand products?
Yes, we always knew that it would be a difficult process because use of palm oil – like plastic packaging – has become the default setting for the global food industry, finding its way into half of all supermarket products.
5) Iceland surveyed 50,000 consumers and found 85% of them don’t want palm oil in their products. Have you seen a positive reaction from consumers then regarding the removal of palm oil from all own brand products?
Yes, we have had very positive customer feedback on our decision to remove palm oil from our own label food. We have also had feedback from customers who feel that using sustainable palm oil is a better solution than removal and have been happy to engage in debate with them on why genuinely sustainable palm oil isn’t really available in the mass market and is not, therefore, a viable solution for a relatively small retailer like Iceland.
6) Have you seen signs from other large companies in your sector, or the food and beverage industry, reacting to your initiative and the consumer demand for change?
We have never sought to encourage a ban or boycott of palm oil, and have not called on other companies to follow our example. We made our own ethical decision and hoped that, in doing so, we would raise public awareness of the rainforest destruction caused by growing demand for palm oil, and encourage the palm oil industry to get its act together and finally deliver the genuinely sustainable palm oil it has long promised. We believe that we have certainly stimulated debate!
7) You identified deforestation associated with palm oil as being the major driver for implementing this policy to remove palm oil from all Iceland own brand products. Have you seen positive steps to address this in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia?
Rainforest destruction continues; we can only hope that our stand will apply pressure to slow the process and move the industry towards genuinely sustainable solutions.
8) Do you plan to raise awareness beyond changing your supply chain and recipes?
We intend to continue campaigning to raise public awareness of the damage that is being done to the planet by rainforest destruction – as we will continue to campaign on other important environmental issues including ocean plastic pollution.
Eradication of palm oil may not be the answer. Helen Buckland, Director of Sumatran Orangutan Society, tells us how projects focussing on sustainability and re-establishing habitats can create a harmonious future for the population of animals and humans alike in ‘Orangutan SOS: What’s the Problem with Palm Oil?’
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