Palm oil – pledge fulfilled

By 31 December 2018 we had ended the use of palm oil as an ingredient in all our Iceland own label food. We were the first UK supermarket to commit to doing this.


What is palm oil?

A type of edible vegetable oil that is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees. Palm oil is currently found in more than half of all supermarket products, from bread to biscuits and breakfast cereal to soap. It has become so widely used because it is high yielding, versatile, and cheap. Only a fifth of the world’s supply is certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Why did we decide to act?

Palm oil is one of the world’s biggest causes of deforestation, which has highly adverse implications for both biodiversity and climate change, and poses a significant threat to a number of already endangered species.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest drivers of deforestation, many species are being threatened with extinction, including the orangutan. The orangutan population has more than halved in the last 15 years and is now critically endangered with only 70,000 to 100,000 individuals remaining. In Indonesia alone, an area of forest the size of 146 football pitches is being lost every hour.

Our decision to act was driven by the conviction that genuinely sustainable palm oil was simply not available to us in the mass market. As a small user, we knew that we would have  minimal influence as a lobbyist within the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) if we had chosen to rejoin it; we had stopped being members in 2015 but still maintained our policy of using certified, segregated palm oil in our own label foods. However, we were becoming 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.


So in 2016 we asked our suppliers to remove palm oil where possible and replace it with alternative ingredients. In 2017 our extensive research into the issue led Managing Director Richard Walker to visit West Kalimantan in Borneo to see the problem for himself. This confirmed our belief that truly sustainable palm oil was not available on the mass market and galvanised the board into taking more radical action.

There were three options available. Our first was to re-join the RSPO and lobby for change. As one of over 4,000 members and as a small player, we did not believe we would have any significant leverage. The second option was to direct the 150 of our suppliers that purchase palm oil (some being large corporations) to switch to a sustainable supply via the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG). However, with a only a handful of producers signed up to POIG, this was not a practical proposition.

The third option was to take a public stand against deforestation. We knew from past experience, notably in banning GM (genetically modified) ingredients from our Iceland own label food in 1998, that we had the capacity to take disruptive action that would massively increase public awareness of the environmental issues around palm oil. By doing this, we hoped to apply real pressure on the industry to clean up its act.

See our press release here

What did we do to fulfil our pledge?

We had been working on the removal of palm oil ingredients from our own label food for more than a year before we announced our plans in April 2018.

Removing palm oil represented a huge technical challenge: it was not simply a matter of switching to a substitute ingredient. In many cases the manufacturer had to change its production equipment and processes, often at considerable cost. We pledged to our customers that they would not have to pay more for food without palm oil as an ingredient, and invested millions of pounds of our own money to deliver this. 

We temporarily removed our own label from a handful of lines that our suppliers proved unable to reformulate by our manufacturing deadline of 31 December 2018. These were relaunched under the Iceland own label without palm oil as an ingredient by April 2019, by which time we had also cleared all remaining stocks of own label products containing palm oil from our stores.

Because of the widespread use of palm oil in food production, certain derivatives and processing aids that contain minute amounts of palm oil – although not on the ingredient list – are still in use. We continue to challenge the suppliers using these.

We continue to stock manufacturers’ branded products containing palm oil, as we always said we would, though we are strongly encouraging all Iceland suppliers to look closely at the sustainability of their supply chains.

How did we do it?

In total we reformulated over 130 existing Iceland own label lines to remove palm oil as an ingredient, and launched more than 300 new lines that excluded it – a grand total of approximately 450 products.

We have switched to alternative oils and fats that do not cause tropical deforestation. In the main these are sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and butter. We were highly conscious that all of these had the potential to come at a higher environmental cost than palm oil, because of the high yield that palm oil offers, and took care to source our alternatives responsibly.

What did we achieve?

The announcement of our intention to remove palm oil in April 2018 generated a high level of media and public attention, though this was dwarfed by the explosion of interest that followed the launch of our planned ‘Rang-Tan’ Christmas ad in November 2018. Originally produced by Greenpeace, this moving animation was not cleared for TV broadcast because it was deemed to breach the UK ban on political advertising.

Viewed more than 90 million times on social media, Rang-Tan became the most watched Christmas ad of all time without ever actually appearing on commercial TV. A petition to allow it on TV attracted more than one million signatures and there was a massive increase in public interest in the environmental issues around palm oil; in the five months to March 2019 Google searches for palm oil increased by 10,000%.

Watch Rang-tan here

The result

Other campaigners have acknowledged that this huge surge of publicity helped to make the palm oil industry face up to its responsibilities. In November 2018, following international public consultation, the RSPO formally adopted new standards that prohibit its member companies from clearing forests for palm oil plantations, subject to a one year transition period. This was followed in December 2018 by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, which controls around 40% of the world’s supply, publishing a detailed action plan to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain.

Our action on palm oil was not taken for Iceland’s commercial benefit but to give consumers a choice, and to demonstrate to the food industry that it is possible to reduce the demand for palm oil while seeking solutions that do not destroy the world’s rainforest.

We have never called for others to follow our lead, or sought to institute any sort of boycott or ban. We have always recognised the potential environmental advantages that palm oil can offer, and we look forward to the day when genuinely sustainable, zero deforestation palm oil is readily available on the mass market to companies like Iceland.