#PalmOilFreeChristmas and the politics of retail

This year’s most popular and memorable Christmas advert may well be the one which never made it on to our TV screens. Marketing tactic or not, Iceland’s banned advert should be praised for raising awareness of the havoc wreaked by the palm oil industry, and for prompting debate on the inevitably political nature of consumer choices.

What happened?

Iceland’s planned Christmas advert features a Greenpeace video of an animated orangutan emotively describing the destruction of its habitat by the palm oil industry. It ends with a pledge that palm oil will be phased out of all of Iceland’s own-brand products by the end of this year. Clearcast, the agency which clears ads for the UK’s commercial channels, prohibited it on the basis that it was too political. It appears they made this decision on the basis of this video being originally produced by Greenpeace. News of the ban has received widespread media coverage and the video has been viewed millions of times on social media.

Why is this important?

Public responses to the ban have highlighted that awareness of the prevalence of palm oil in common products remains low. This ad has the potential to make a real step towards addressing this.

More than half of all supermarket products, from bread to shampoo, contain the ingredient and it is often hidden under one of over 50 names (including vegetable oil, glyceryl and stearate) making it difficult for consumers to spot, let alone avoid. The more consumers know about the impacts of palm oil, the more they can expect and ask of retailers. As we have seen with the increased public awareness of ocean plastics, consumer attitudes are powerful drivers of market shifts.

The broader message resulting from the incident is that the regulator’s definition of what is ‘political’ is an inadequate one and one which is increasingly out of touch with consumer attitudes.

Increasing consumer interest in sustainability demonstrates a growing awareness that every choice we make in the market place is ultimately a political one; indeed, this is the case whether such a choice is made consciously or not. The Iceland advert is arguably political but so is every other advert shown on TV, every product stocked in every store, and every purchasing decision. The fact that adverts depicting consumerism as a demonstration of love are deemed unpolitical, while a reminder of the destruction consumerism can entail is considered too political to air, is both concerning and outdated.

Possible outcomes

It is undeniable that the outcry around the prohibition of this was almost certainly the intended result. However, regardless of cynicism as to the motives, Iceland should be praised for putting their head above the parapet and leading on the palm oil issue. This incident has significantly increased consumer awareness and can be hoped that more aware consumers will drive change from other retailers too.

More broadly, the fact that a major retailer chose to focus their Christmas ad on an environmental issue is a positive sign of changing times. This change reflects increased consumer demand for ethical products. Retailers must now act to provide for this demand. Where Iceland has led, others must follow.

Inevitably the issue is more complicated, and the neatness of the marketing tactics must not distract from much-needed follow-up conversations. Risks have been expressed that removing palm oil from products will lead to its replacement with other oils that are less productive and require greater land conversion from forest to plantation. Iceland’s ban on palm oil is just the first step of a process; the next steps must be ensuring the sourcing of truly sustainable alternatives. Furthermore, despite their market-leading work on palm oil, praise for this ad must not distract from Iceland’s overall need for further sustainability improvements.

For now, however, Iceland certainly deserves praise for innovatively raising awareness both directly of the environmental havoc wreaked by the palm oil industry, and indirectly of the politics of retail choices.

Seahorse hopes that that this is a sign of things to come, and that 2019 will see retailers across the sector make great strides in their responsible sourcing policy.