Iceland’s announcement today that it would phase out palm oil in own-label products by the end of 2018 came out of the blue and seems to represent a dramatic strategic turn for the company. The goal is ambitious, the deadline tight but, perhaps most remarkably, they have chosen a challenge that seems to have slipped off the ecological radar. These days, most of the attention is on single-use plastics, apparently in response to the “Blue Planet Effect” – but Iceland has already pledged to remove unnecessary plastic packaging. Now they’ve chosen the raise the bar by taking on one of the stickiest FMCG challenges, arguably emerging as the new green leader in the supermarket sector.
The timing of their announcement was unfortunate for Waitrose, which announced it would no longer provide disposable cups for customers who wish to claim their free hot beverage - another welcome intervention in a high-profile environmental challenge. Such incremental improvements are important but disposable coffee cups are already slated for legislative intervention through the “latte levy”. To drive forward the pace of change, business needs to take on the tasks that government isn’t ready to address and Iceland’s bold step will hopefully provoke a new race to the top in its industry, as well as prompting its suppliers to acquire the skills and technology they need to develop palm oil substitutes.
When asked on BBC Radio 4 Today why it did not just switch to sustainable palm oil, Iceland’s CSO Richard Walker pointed out that this would not fully address the fundamental issue of deforestation. Not to mention the habitat destruction, displacement of native communities and the loss of biodiversity that come from large scale monoculture. It is to be hoped that the substitutes introduced by Iceland and its supply chain do not simply displace these impacts to create other unintended and unwelcome consequences. Bold, unilateral acts are great for inspiring others to act, but with 27 million hectares of land committed to palm oil production worldwide, global brands will have to work together to ensure that the void is filled with less damaging crops that support indigenous people and local economies.
But that’s a challenge for the future. Now is the perfect moment is for a leading toiletries brand to go palm oil free and make it really easy for consumers to make more sustainable choices. Palm oil has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost impossible to avoid unless you have the time to read every single ingredient on every single FMCG product. Being able to trust a brand to have done the due diligence across its entire range is massively liberating for consumers who want to do the right thing.