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Are Iceland’s sustainable promises just greenwash?

Last spring frozen food retailer Iceland hit the headlines when it pledged to remove palm oil from all own-brand products by the end of 2018. The coverage continued later in the year, when its TV advert exposing the effects of the palm oil industry was banned for being ‘too political’.

Whether it was a clever, planned PR stunt or came as a genuine surprise that the ad was banned, Iceland revelled in the attention and praise coming from conscious consumers surprised by an unlikely retailer’s green transformation.  

Fast forward to February 2019 and Iceland’s palm oil promises are hitting the headlines again, but this time it’s not playing in their favour. They have been exposed for continuing to sell goods with palm oil as an ingredient, but in new packaging in which they have removed the Iceland labelling. The example circulating are two different flavour frozen cheesecakes.

A BBC investigation found 28 own-brand products in store with palm oil or fat in. When questioned, they claimed they have fulfilled their promise but these are old stock, which "obviously have a longer shelf life than fresh and chilled food lines".

However, they also found non-frozen perishable baked goods like cakes and hot cross buns on their website with palm oil in, all available to purchase online. One of which was even promoted as ‘new’.

Orangutan Foundation
Orangutan habitats are being decimated by palm oil production. Image Orangutan Foundation.

Do Iceland really think this would go unnoticed? Their palm-oil promise followed a similar plastic pledge which states they will be plastic free for own label products by 2023. These sustainability pledges are clearly part of a strategy to target conscious consumers, but is it all just greenwash?

Maybe not. Perhaps they have bitten off more than they can chew, and simply made promises too big for them to keep or with unrealistic timelines. But what to do in that instance? 'Fess up and extend the dates. After all, what they are promising is positive – surely people would forgive them for trying to do the right thing.

Instead, they chose to play ignorant. But conscious consumers are naturally questioning and cross examining – it is an insult to them to think they wouldn’t notice.

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Emily Muddeman

As social media manager at Riverford, Emily is at the forefront of sharing the company's story and ethical values. She believes traceability and transparency are so important in the food industry and loves being a part of that through telling the story of Riverford and helping people connect with their food and the issues around it.

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