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Iceland and Palm Oil

Supermarket Iceland score a best rating for ‘Palm Oil Policy and Practice’ on our scoring system.

Here we look in more detail at what they are doing on palm oil and how this impacts their ethical score.

In 2016 Iceland made the decision to make all of their own brand products free from palm oil by the end of 2018. They released a high profile social media campaign with Greenpeace to highlight this aim.

This was an enormous commitment and one that was keenly watched by consumers, campaigners and the media alike.

The initiative to remove all palm oil in Iceland’s own-brand products was driven by their new Managing Director, Richard Walker, who describes himself as an environmentalist. He has recently taken over running some areas of the business from his father and has since looked to develop the company’s environmental policies especially around the areas of palm oil and plastic packaging.

Iceland state that their aim in regard to palm oil is to help eliminate rainforest destruction and acknowledge the role of palm oil production in this.

The company have stated that they are phasing out palm oil “to raise awareness of this issue, and to encourage the palm oil industry to clean up its act and deliver a genuinely sustainable product to the mass market.” 

The company claims they have “removed palm oil as an ingredient from our own label food in 2018.” This was around 450 items, an incredible achievement.

The company also committed to using a 'no palm oil' sticker on their packaging. This policy is unique among major retailers, and many of the company's products did sport this logo.

Update: since June 2022 Iceland has begun using certified sustainable palm oil in some of its Iceland branded products due to supply issues with obtaining sunflower oil because of the Russia/Ukraine war. Iceland has said they intend to revert to sunflower oil again as soon as practical to do so.

The Rang Tan Christmas advertising campaign:

In November 2018, Iceland joined forces with Greenpeace to use the campaign group's animated 'Rang Tan' film as their main Christmas advertisement, to raise awareness of rainforest destruction caused by palm oil.

The advert was classed as “political” and not given the clearance to broadcast.  The company reject accusations that this was a cynical ploy to raise the profile of the ad by claiming it was banned, stating that they had booked TV airtime for it.

The ad instead ran on social media, going viral and attracting millions of views. A consumer petition to ‘un-ban’ it gained over a million supporters but was ultimately unsuccessful.

More palm oil actions from Iceland

Away from its stores, Iceland has also been a vocal critic of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Iceland was previously a member of the RSPO but stopped in 2015 (while maintaining their policy of using certified, segregated palm oil in own label foods).

The move to distance themselves from the RSPO came as the company became “increasingly concerned that certification did not necessarily mean ‘zero deforestation’ and believed that the industry – including the RSPO – was not acting decisively enough to solve the problem.”

What our research found

On the 16th January 2019, Ethical Consumer viewed the Iceland website and found that a number of its products still contained palm oil; including its Cheese & Onion Rolls, Sticky Toffee Cheesecake and Steak Pie.

Also in January in the BBC published an article highlighted the presence of palm oil in some of Iceland's products. The article claimed that Iceland had not honoured its promise to remove all palm oil, claiming that both fresh and frozen products containing palm oil were still available to purchase in Iceland.

In light of this article Iceland admitted that it had encountered some difficulties removing palm oil from all of its own-brand products, stating that in order to meet its 2018 palm oil commitment, it had removed its branding from 17 products which still contained palm oil.

Ethical Consumer contacted the company seeking clarity on our findings  and this was their response: 

We committed to stop using palm oil as an ingredient in Iceland own label food by the end of 2018, and this promise has been fulfilled. No lines produced after 31 December 2018 contain it as an ingredient.

To avoid food waste, some own label lines made before we completed the removal of palm oil as an ingredient remain on sale until stocks are exhausted. We cannot donate these products to food banks or FareShare as they don’t currently accept frozen food. 

These products are mainly in the categories of frozen desserts and frozen pastry products, which obviously have a longer shelf life than fresh and chilled food lines.

15 former Iceland own label lines have been permanently removed from sale, and replaced with branded alternatives because removing palm oil proved either technically impossible or prohibitively expensive.

We planned to move all these lines back into own label as soon as our suppliers made the necessary changes at a manufacturing level; in some cases, it has required reconfiguration of production at existing manufacturing facilities and in others a move to a completely new supplier.

We have not given up in the face of these huge technical challenges, and the move back into our own label will be completed during April 2019.

Iceland’s statement on palm oil derivatives

“Because of the widespread and established use of palm oil in food production, certain derivatives that contain minute amounts of palm oil – although not on the ingredient list – are still in use by some of our suppliers as processing aids (we can provide examples of these on of palm oil request). We continue to challenge the suppliers using these and are working towards their complete removal.”

In some ways, the BBC did us a favour: for example,... We were able to set our story straight and we had nothing at all to hide – we’d fulfilled our commitment in its entirety. It’s fair to say, though, that we learned a lesson in the need for proactive communication.“ -  Iceland Managing Director Richard Walker Speaking to PR Week

Our rating of Iceland’s Palm Oil Policy

Iceland's palm oil policy is unique in this sector and its commitment to the ultimate removal of palm oil in early 2019 appears genuine. Ethical Consumer therefore awarded Iceland a best rating for its palm oil policy.

Iceland has a low overall ethiscore, and while not losing a mark for palm oil, like many supermarkets it does lose marks in a number of other categories e.g. for the sale of factory farmed meat, excessive executive remuneration and its management of workers’ rights issues in its supply chains.

Find out more in the Iceland company profile.

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