Iceland: the green hero’s halo slips 

First plastics, then palm oil. But is Iceland’s shun-stuff-to-look-sustainable policy all for show? It’s record on soya suggests so, says David Burrows. 

In January last year Iceland committed to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own-brand products by the end of 2023. Three months later, in April, it became the first supermarket in the UK to commit to removing palm oil from all its own-brand foods. It’s also developed its vegetarian and vegan ranges. “Our sustainability initiatives over the last year have substantially raised public awareness of Iceland and enhanced respect for our brand and its values, and we are confident that this can only enhance our prospects in the longer term,” said the group’s chief executive Tarsem Dhaliwal in its latest financial report, published in June.

Indeed, in the space of a few months, the supermarket has metamorphosed from bargain-bucket frozen food specialist to “the forward-thinking supermarket”, according to the Huffington Post. But the green halo has started to slip.

Recent issues include reversing the removal of plastic packaging from bananas when a trial using a replacement paper band didn’t work. Iceland hasn't said why its customers didn't like the band. A plastic-free fresh produce aisle in Liverpool, meanwhile, has also been scrapped due to a 20% fall in sales, and this despite the loose products being offered at lower prices to “encourage uptake”. Other retailers have been expanding the plastic-free areas in their fresh produce sections, with some even managing to charge more for the loose fruit and veg.

After a slower than expected year in terms of sales, the “millions” the plastic-free pledge is costing will be causing more than a few night sweats. It is “damn hard work and it’s costing us a lot of money”, admitted managing director Richard Walker, presumably through gritted teeth, in an interview with the Press Association. Head of packaging Stuart Lendrum also told The Grocer earlier this year “it’s very easy to move into more sustainable packaging and not sell anything”. It’s also very easy to switch from plastic and bump up the carbon footprint, something Iceland seems willing to ignore. “We won’t be guided by the single-issue approach of carbon,” Lendrum said.

Being led by the 'all plastic is bad' narrative is also folly (especially if we get to grips with drop-in recyclable bio-based polymers). What’s more, the pioneers are the ones looking to eliminate single-use packaging rather than just replace traditional plastic. You could argue that frozen food doesn’t lend itself to refillables, but reusable ice-cream containers within subscription models are already being trialled.

On palm oil, the retailer has basked in positive PR after taking action (which included that banned Christmas ad 70m people reportedly watched), but has struggled behind the scenes. Some 450 Iceland own-label lines without palm oil as an ingredient were launched during the year, either by reformulating existing lines or by launching completely new ones. “We fulfilled our pledge to end the use of palm oil ingredients in the manufacture of our own-label products by 31 December, though we temporarily removed the Iceland own-label from 17 ambient, chilled and frozen lines where exceptional technical challenges made it impossible for our suppliers to meet this deadline.”

In others words, it removed its badge from the product rather than the ingredient. Isn’t that greenwashing? Iceland told the BBC, which first revealed the underhand tactic in January, that the branding would be reinstated by April. However, the financial report in June suggests it has relaunched only 13 of them – so what about the other four?

There is little doubt that progress on sustainable palm oil has been slow, with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s certification scheme proving a particularly difficult beast to budge. Being sceptical of the claims is no bad thing and Iceland’s ban has certainly focused minds. However, in the media maelstrom it should not be forgotten that you can grow palm oil responsibly – it just requires much higher transparency through the supply chain. And that’s something retailers, especially at the discount end of the spectrum, are never keen on.

Perhaps it was cheaper (and easier) for Iceland to remove palm oil rather than pick through a supply chain that begins on the other side of the world? Perhaps it’s saving itself for a warts-and-all audit of its soya supply chain?

Calls for an import ban on the deforestation-linked commodity soya have grown following a summer of fires to clear more land in the Amazon, but will Iceland jump on the bandwagon? I’d wager not, given its reliance on churning out masses of cheap food, and in particular meat (most soya is used to feed livestock). Indeed, an analysis of the top 10 UK supermarkets, by environmental charity Feedback in August, had Iceland propping up the ‘less but better’ meat table with a score of 14%.

The report notes: “Headline-grabbing successes on the issues of palm oil and plastic packaging have seen Iceland cast as the environmental hero of the high street in recent years. Yet Iceland is one of just two stores without a policy on sustainable soya feed – an odd and significant absence considering its work on palm oil – and was the only major UK retailer not to sign the Cerrado Manifesto [which calls for an end to deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado biome].” Only 7% of its ready meals were vegetarian, lower than any other supermarket.

Few can dispute there is a problem with palm oil – as reported by Footprint last year – or traditional plastic, but Iceland’s ‘shun stuff for show’ tactic has to be questioned. Indeed, an intriguing study would be the long-term environmental impact of its two flagship green policies on plastic and palm oil. More intriguing still will be its response to the evolving crisis in the Amazon and use of soya, an issue that cuts to the heart of the chain’s model. “Lowest-priced chicken in the UK” is a favourite label in the store, but what’s the price on the environment?

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