By Becky Barnes
Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, my family – like many others – sometimes went to Iceland for the occasional frozen pizza, ice cream or easy-to-cook party food. It was a low-priced, low-quality store, of which my over-riding memory is Kerry Katona grinning: “That’s why mums go to Iceland.”
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Richard Walker, Iceland’s managing director of Iceland, is reflecting on the Katona years. “[That slogan] was very outdated and we won’t be using it again,” he tells me. “It was very effective, but we’ve had to move on with the times.”
Like many millennials, I now find myself shopping in Iceland – popping in supermarket not necessarily for frozen goods (despite “the power of frozen” PR campaign) but fresh fruit and vegetables, along with products that would have been unthinkable in my childhood – like the supermarket’s plant-based No Bull Burger, launched earlier this year. ”Veganism is an important growing trend and a big market we want to break into,” Walker adds, hinting at more product announcements later this year. They’ve now announced a vegan aisle launching in September, with 13 new own-brand products including vegan chorizo, chicken, burgers and mince.
But fruit, veg and vegan burgers aside, the most unlikely part of Iceland’s recent transformation is that the store suddenly seems to be leading the pack in the environmental stakes. Can someone tell me when Kerry Katona got replaced with Greenpeace?
That moment is in fact fairly easy to pinpoint: in November 2017, about a week after the shocking and now famous episode of BBC’s Blue Planet that kickstarted the debate about plastic bottles and packaging in the UK, Iceland became an early supporter of Greenpeace’s call for a plastic bottle deposit return scheme. And from that point it has pushed onwards: in 2018, Iceland has already introduced three headline-grabbing schemes: a pledge to make its own-brand products plastic-free, a decision to remove palm oil from its ingredients list, and the introduction of a reverse vending machine that pays consumers to recycle bottles.
Each has come with heavyweight endorsement. The supermarket’s commitment to replace plastic with sustainable packaging on own brand products by 2023 – or “put a freeze on plastics”, as Iceland put it – came backed by Greenpeace who also got endorsed Iceland’s decision to ban palm oil from its products.
The supermarket’s plastic bottle deposit scheme – the UK’s first – was backed by marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), and “applauded” by environment secretary Michael Gove; Iceland will also going to be the first supermarket to use a Plastic-Free Trust Mark.
It is impossible not to be impressed – but what prompted Iceland to suddenly become the supermarket pioneer on environmental issues?
That question might perhaps be better phrased as “who prompted?”. Iceland’s decision on palm oil, for instance, came after Richard Walker visited West Kalimantan in Borneo and witnessed the environmental devastation wreaked by the oil’s production and its affect on the habitat of orangutans.
Walker, the 37-year-old son of Sir Malcolm Walker, Iceland’s founder and CEO, now appears to be the face of the supermarket, taking over more duties from his somewhat outspoken father. (In 2017, Malcolm Walker wrote: “It’s not our fault as retailers that 20% of our customers are too thick or lazy to put their own packaging in a bin”.)
Richard Walker insists that his influence has not changed the supermarket’s approach. “We haven’t started being pioneering. We have been doing it for decades,” he argues, pointing to his father’s decision to remove artificial colours and non-essential preservatives from Iceland’s own brand products in the 1980s (the first major retailer to do so), and to ban GM ingredients from own brand in 1998.
The supermarket is, however, increasingly leading its peers on environmental matters. “There’s a zeitgeist on plastic,” the self-proclaimed “keen surfer” tells me, which meant that when Iceland announced its plastic-free initiative, “it really did blow up” in response. “I wasn’t sure how big that would be – but people really care about the issue. We have had thousands of messages of support from the public, many surprised and happy to see Iceland making the move. I am still receiving letters every day.”
That zeitgeist has led some to question whether Iceland really cares about the environment or is it just seeing an opportunity to ride the Blue Planet wave. Walker argues strongly that it’s the former.
“We do this stuff because it is the right thing for the planet,” he argues. “We have five million customers in the UK who dictate what we do through regular dialogue with them. The issues on plastics and palm oil are very important to them.”
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, talks to me on the phone as he gazes out his office window to the Atlantic Ocean in St Agnes, Cornwall. He is full of praise for Walker, and for Iceland’s new environmental initiatives. “It’s amazing that surfing and Richard’s connection with the ocean has really driven this environmental awareness and most importantly environmental action,” he says. “He has shown this leadership amongst all of the supermarkets.”
Tagholm argues that this is a pivotal moment – a tipping point where the visiblity of plastic pollution makes society realise that it is living in an unsustainable way. Iceland’s decision to get on board early is good for the environment, he says, but also for his business.
“[By] leading the charge, Richard is prescient in looking at it as a market advantage – and for that to have been driven by his personal passion for not just the ocean for the environment is a testament to the power of the environment when people are connected with it.”
Walker’s sustainable initiatives also come as the supermarket’s appeal changes. More Iceland customers are A and B socio-economic status (upper and middle class) than “a couple of years ago”, when they were more C and D (lower middle class and skilled working class), Walker claims. The brand is doing well, he says by targeting millennials and Gen Z – “media savvy, idealistic, thinking with their wallets” and “who care deeply about these issues”.
Nick Carroll, senior retail analyst at Mintel, agrees that in the last couple of years Iceland has made “a big departure from frozen foods” and attracted younger customers by rolling out a new store model in London that focuses on fresh products. Following its success, this pilot scheme has also been expanded beyond the capital to towns including Southampton.
The market research firm tracks trends consumers care about as well as noting company around environmental issues and particularly plastics. “We have seen an absolute spike in the last six months to a year,” Carroll explains. That increase came in particular after the high-rating Blue Planet episode.
Earlier this year, Mintel’s Attitudes To Packaging report found that 78% of people expect food companies to ensure all food packaging sold in the UK is sustainable. “So if you are falling outside of that, or particularly if you are leading on that, then that’s a competitive advantage, particularly if you are targeting younger consumers,” says Carrol. “But I think that’s being cynical. I think it’s very important that retailers do lead on this and Iceland has been a particular leader in this area.”
While older consumers care about environmental issues, they tend to be less vocal about them, he argues. “So the fact that a younger influencer [Richard Walker] has come into the business is going to be reflected in terms of their strategy and it also coincides with a time the business itself in pockets of particularly urban areas is redefining what it means to be Iceland.”
It is also, perhaps, redefining how the supermarket sector as a whole responds to environmental issues. Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner Elena Polisano is the environmental charity’s spokesman for its Supermarket Challenge, through which Greenpeace will be holding supermarkets to account on single-use plastic. “[Iceland] are really showing the sector the way forward – they’re the benchmark,” she says.
Are they doing enough? “They’ve certainly set the benchmark and the pace,” says Polisano, arguing that Iceland’s pledges also go further than those of many of their competitors. “They’re looking to remove the problem and not just try and manage it. What we see a lot is other pledges flying around that really just focus on improving recycling.”
Greenpeace hopes that Iceland’s lead, makes other supermarkets reconsider their own policies. “What we’re focusing on is making sure that the rest of the sector is seeing [Iceland] as something to match at least. There is huge public backing for supermarkets to be the place for change and that’s a golden opportunity for supermarkets.”
Iceland clearly sees this “golden opportunity”. Soon after my interview with its MD, Iceland announces it’s going to be the first UK supermarket to sell plastic-free chewing gum. Then comes the announcement about the new vegan range, which, as a millennial flexitarian leaning towards a plant-based diet, I can’t wait to try next month.
There’s no doubt Iceland has upped the stakes on sustainability (and veganism) and I’m fascinated to find out what it, or indeed other UK supermarkets, will bring to the table in the coming months.