Last year we pledged to make two massive changes that both presented enormous technical challenges: removing plastic packaging from our Iceland own label range by 2023, and removing palm oil as an ingredient from our own label range by the end of 2018.
Why so hard? Because both plastics and palm oil are effective, versatile and cheap. As a result, they have become the default setting for the whole food industry. When we set out to make the changes we wanted, we were asking suppliers to participate in nothing short of a revolution. As a responsible retailer, we were conscious of our duty of care to ensure that we did not push any of them too hard by demanding that they achieve the impossible.
We have also always been aware that hard-pressed consumers don’t have a load of spare cash to pay more for their food, however much of a good cause they may think plastics and palm oil removal to be. Hence we pledged to make the changes without increasing prices, and to bear the considerable costs ourselves. In the case of palm oil removal alone, we have invested several million pounds of our own money to achieve the switch. We also obviously needed to ensure that our new palm oil-free recipes tasted at least as good – or better – than the ones we replaced.
Palm oil was the more demanding deadline, and when we made our announcement in April we always knew that it was going to be a massive challenge to remove it from all our own label food by 31 December 2018. Because it’s not just a matter of replacing one ingredient with another; in many cases suppliers have had to invest – with our support – to change their whole production process. In a few cases they simply couldn’t do it at all, and we have had to seek completely new suppliers, adding further time and cost.
Nevertheless, we did it – or did we? There have been some murmurings in the media so let me be totally honest here about what we have done and what we still need to do.
We sell 911 Iceland own label lines and every single line manufactured after 31 December 2018 does not contain palm oil as an ingredient. Where it previously did or might have done, we have marked it with a ‘No Palm Oil’ flash.
Until yesterday, our website erroneously listed some fresh and chilled food own label lines – including hot cross buns – as containing palm oil, because of a technical failure that meant that our ingredients lists had not been updated. No such products were actually on sale, and the website has now been corrected.
Frozen food has a long shelf-life, and food banks do not welcome donations of bulk frozen products, so we had a simple choice with those products made with palm oil before 31 December 2018 that had not been sold by then: leave them to sell through in our stores or throw them in the bin. If we had opted for the latter we would have been lambasted – quite rightly – for creating avoidable food waste. So there are still around 30 Iceland frozen own label lines, mainly desserts and pastry products, listed on our website as containing palm oil, and they will continue to do so until stocks are exhausted. They will sell through in the next few weeks and be replaced in stores with new recipe lines carrying our ‘No Palm Oil’ flash.
Finally, there were a handful of products that our suppliers simply could not switch by 31 December. So, to meet our pledge, we have temporarily moved these out of own label into brands. We have always been completely transparent about the possible need to do this, and have done it in the knowledge that it will adversely affect our sales, because unrecognised brands never sell as well as our trusted own label.
We are working hard with existing or new suppliers to get 17 of these ambient, chilled and frozen lines back into Iceland own label as soon as we can, and expect to accomplish this by April 2019.
There are a further 15 chilled lines where we and our suppliers have reluctantly concluded that it simply isn’t technically feasible to replace palm oil with another ingredient, or where doing so would result in a massive increase in cost that neither we nor our customers would be able to bear. These will continue to be sold as branded products – along with the hundreds of other branded lines containing palm oil that we always recognised we would have to continue to sell. Palm oil is in half of everything that supermarkets sell, and it would be commercial suicide not to offer our customers the leading brands they want to buy.
So yes, we did tick the box and stop using palm oil as an ingredient in all our own label food made after 31 December 2018, exactly as we promised. It has been very hard, and very costly, and in some cases the change will take a few more weeks to work through. But customers can already see major progress in our stores with many products bearing our ‘No Palm Oil’ flash, and those who share our concern about tropical deforestation now have a choice where there was none before.
The noise we have made about palm oil has also had the beneficial effect of contributing to pressure on the palm oil industry to clean up its act, and deliver a genuinely sustainable product to the mass market. If they are fulfilled, recent commitments from both the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and Wilmar (the world’s largest palm oil trader) will bring us much closer to the ‘no deforestation’ goal that has always been our aim.