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Iceland ditches palm oil – what does it mean?

Posted by Alison Kirkman - 12th April 2018

Palm oil. It’s in 50% of all packaged products in supermarkets. There’s no getting away from it.
Or is there?

Iceland became the first UK supermarket to ditch palm oil this week and the media was all over it. Why is this big news? Does palm oil really kill orangutans? Should you be ditching it too?

It’s big news because…
Iceland has concluded that ditching palm oil from all of its own brand products is the only way it can guarantee those products are not contributing to deforestation. Palm oil itself doesn’t kill orangutans, but deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia destroys their habitat.

Recent studies show Bornean orangutan numbers more than halved between 1999 and 2015 with the loss of more than 100,000 individuals. All three species – Bornean, Sumatran and even the recently discovered Tanpanuli orangutan – are critically endangered.

Is the solution to ban palm oil? 
It’s fair to say if you’re reading this, you’re probably not keen on the idea of using products containing ingredients that drive deforestation, cause wildlife to suffer and ultimately threaten the planet by accelerating climate change.

But if all consumer goods companies stopped using palm oil, demand would switch to another vegetable oil – perhaps soy, rapeseed or sunflower. When grown in vast quantities all of these alternative oils have serious environmental problems, including rainforest destruction. The reason palm oil’s popularity rocketed in the first place was due to it being a very land-efficient crop. You get a lot of oil per hectare, it requires relatively few pesticides and it’s highly versatile. It’s used in everything from lipstick to soap, toothpaste to chocolate.

What’s Greenpeace doing?
In 2010 some of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world pledged to end their role in deforestation for palm oil. They promised to ensure that by 2020 they would not be getting their palm oil from producers that destroyed rainforests. Sadly, we’ve found they are far from achieving this but we’re determined to hold them to account.

Earlier this year we challenged 16 big brands to publish exactly which traders and mills they bought palm oil from. So far 11 have come clean, admitting they are buying from forest destroyers in the process. Yet to reveal are Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, and Smucker’s. 150,000 of you pressured PZ Cussons, makers of Carex, for them finally to publish their list.

The next step is for companies to clean up by dropping known forest destroyers from their supply chain, then take full responsibility for interrogating the rest until they can prove every drop of palm oil they buy has come from responsible producers not destroying rainforests. Not one company has done this so far.

Consumers are demanding change…
Supermarkets fell over themselves to come up with solutions in response to consumer outrage over plastic. Just as ocean life is threatened, orangutans, Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinoceros’ are dying because of deforestation for palm oil.

So will Iceland’s pledge to cancel its 500-tonne palm oil order when the UK currently buys 400,000 tonnes per year really make a difference? Or is it just a drop in the ocean?

Iceland may be small, but it’s created a huge media storm. If companies want to avoid being shunned by their customers in favour of palm oil-free alternatives, and the industry wants to shield itself from more blanket bans, it’s time to reform.

About Alison Kirkman

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GPUK media campaigner working on forests

Other posts by Alison Kirkman