Iceland has relished its role as an industry disruptor through the years. Now, they’re taking the lead on removing plastic from supermarkets.
Twenty years after he founded the high street supermarket Iceland, Malcolm Walker decided – against the industry norms of the 1990s – that their own-brand products would contain no genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
This was based on ‘the conviction that it was wrong for customers to have no choice but to buy GM food,’ according to his son Richard Walker, the current MD. Consumer demand for non-GM food was so high that the rest of the food retailers followed suit and the UK’s food industry is almost completely GM-free to this day.
Iceland has continued to lead from the front. They were the first UK retailer to remove artificial colourings, flavourings and preservatives from their own-brand foods as well as the first UK retailer to get serious about capturing and recycling CFCs from refrigeration.
And now they have plastic packaging firmly in their sights.
We sat down with Richard to talk about their decision to tackle the problem of plastic, the role of businesses to help solve today’s challenges and the hope he has for the future. We hope you enjoy the conversation!
I understand that it was surfing that opened your eyes to the problem of plastic pollution on beaches and in the ocean. Can you walk us through the steps from that very personal experience to making a pledge to remove plastic packaging from your family’s company? Not everyone has the ability to make that much of an impact!
I have always loved the outdoors and am a keen climber and surfer. I had become increasingly concerned about ocean plastic pollution when in 2006 I found myself on a surf trip to Taghazout in Morocco. That was where the enormity of the challenge really hit home. I was horrified at the endless amount of plastic coming in with the waves. That was over 10 years ago and every year since I have seen a growing amount of plastic abandoned in our seas. However, that trip was the lightbulb moment that started me researching the issue and considering how I could make a difference.
When I joined the family business in 2012, I quickly realised that we were contributing to the problem. I was committed to taking action, but with just over 2% of the market, I also knew we had to do something disruptive to make a real difference. And so, in January 2018 we became the first supermarket to pledge to remove plastic from our own label packaging by the end of 2023.
Our pledge achieved global attention and has been acknowledged as the catalyst for much wider industry action. Almost immediately the Government, the BBC, the Royal household and even the Church of England took radical action and 200 MPs called on supermarkets to follow suit. Most big retailers and consumer brands quickly pledged to up their game and reduce, remove, and recycle.
Your latest reports show you’ve reduced your plastic usage by 29% – you must be so proud of the work the team have done to hit that milestone. Are you on track to meet your goal of fully removing plastic from your own-brand products by 2023? Will the next bit be easier – scaling the solutions you’ve put in place over the past couple of years – or are the next set of hurdles significant?
We are on track but need to be realistic as we have a huge task ahead. We still don’t have all the answers but the really encouraging thing is that and we are working with over 100 suppliers to collaborate and innovate to find a way. We are finding design solutions and scaling them through everyone working together – and that can only benefit the wider supply chain. This means we will see continue to see new packaging trials rolling out across 2020 and will be able to build on the ‘plastic free Christmas’ we pioneered last year.
Because we have small stores without fish or deli counters, the idea of refill and re-use is more challenging than it is in superstores, but I expect to see innovation in that area too.
I fundamentally believe that it is possible for any company to make a difference if they are determined enough.
You’ve spoken before about Iceland as a disruptor, consistently punching above its weight and leading the UK food industry – in providing non-GM foods, removing artificial preservatives, capturing and recycling CFCs – and I wondered about the responsibility you feel to the industry and to your customers to do the right thing. Can you dive into that a little bit – why Iceland? Why can you lead the way when others perhaps can’t or won’t?
Iceland is a family-owned British business, with a strong moral compass and a great history of ‘Doing it Right’ – which also happens to be the theme of our sustainability strategy. One of the benefits of being privately owned is that we can make long term decisions without having to present quarterly financial reports to the city, which is obsessed with short-term gain.
Years ago, we led the fight against GM foods, removed artificial additives and MRM, and pioneered the use of green refrigerants – so my approach is a contemporary take on that. I have been able to lead corporate activism campaigns to attract the public’s attention to illegal deforestation and plastic pollution, by taking radical direct action.
It happens that we are ideally placed to do this because we have control of the business, care about the planet and the communities we serve, and have a culture based around fast, affirmative action. We are also non-hierarchical compared with most of our competitors – some of our best ideas come from colleagues on the ground, who have an open door to the owners, and our decision-making process is not mired in committees and red tape.
I’m also interested in the role you see for businesses in addressing some of the really big challenges coming our way. So much of the instruction is directed at individuals to make lifestyle changes. But it feels like – with plastics – you made the decision without needing to be ‘pressured’ into it…almost like you were going to lead customers to a better way of doing things even if they didn’t realise that was what they needed or would want long-term. Is that a fair way to position it? Do businesses have a responsibility to lead even if they have to take the customer on a journey to meet them there?
Companies can only succeed because the public gives us a licence to operate, and in our case, we serve some the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. Customers deserve be given the choice to do the right thing and one of the issues that concerns me most is affordability.
It’s appalling that environmentalism and social conscience should be considered the preserve of the middle-class consumer. Lots of people are struggling to put food on the table but that doesn’t mean they don’t care – in some cases they care more. Part of our philosophy centres on the idea of democratising environmentalism. Everyone should have the choice of buying ethical products if they want to, and companies need to stop seeing ‘green’ products as an opportunity for added margin.
I should also say that we are on a journey with our customers. This is helped by the fact that most of our 25,000 store colleagues live within walking distance of where they work. They are rooted in their communities and help us understand the real challenges and opportunities people are facing. We listen carefully, share ideas and act on feedback to develop products and services.
A great example is our third strand of corporate activism, our Backyard Nature campaign – which we funded through the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, and aims to connect children with nature on their own doorsteps. This tackles the joint challenge of the 4 million UK kids living in poverty (3 million with working parents) alongside the need to protect and restore local biodiversity.
The idea of connecting all children with nature came from colleagues and was developed with the help of a group of young environmentalists in inner city Liverpool. It has 25 NGO partners including the best-known environmental charities and its launch was supported by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Moving toward a plastic-free future must have required huge changes across the entire supply chain, manufacturing processes and logistics. I’m sure there were lots of conversations that took place to get everyone working together. What did you learn about collaboration and communication during that period? How did you win over hearts and minds?
Before we went public, we were already talking in-depth to our suppliers and we have involved them every step of the way. In fact, they are now working together to drive incredible change. We also involved our whole workforce in helping to change the way we do business – including communicating with the 5 million customers we serve every week.
There is great pride among my colleagues in our sustainability work. We have seconded some of the keenest to help drive projects and campaigns; and have around 50 self-elected champions who are using their specialist knowledge and skills to do extraordinary things.
As well as plastics we have dynamic project teams working on food waste, carbon, and supply chain issues. We have reduced plastic by almost a third, but we have also reduced food waste by 23% in two years and hugely reduced our carbon footprint, beating all of our targets.
At the end of 2019, it felt like the war on plastics was finally starting to build momentum with the general, but now the COVID-19 pandemic feels like it’s set us back with a surge in single-use plastics (supported by Big Plastic) – takeaway packaging, plastic bags, PPE – what are your thoughts on what you have seen during the pandemic and do you think we’ll be able to get back on track as we emerge from the immediate crisis? Do you think the government will do what’s right here?
COVID has brought us some challenges in slowing down packaging trials, simply due to logistics, but I have been amazed at the way innovation has continued, with supplier group meetings and conferences simply switching online and maintaining momentum. There has been an increase in some plastic usage during lockdown but the disappearance of ‘food to go’ across the food industry means that millions of coffee cups and plastic bottles have been saved at the same time.
There are multiple calls on the Government to invest in a green recovery. Iceland’s efforts will certainly remain on track and I think the re-emphasis we have seen on the value of our natural world is really encouraging.
The COVID pandemic has really shortened our forecasts – none of us know for certain what the next year or two look like, much less the next 5-10 years. But as you look forward, what brings you hope? What is the future you envision?
COVID has brought out the worst in people, but also the best. We have seen a change in people’s relationship with nature and the value they place on green spaces – for instance we are just evaluating our own Backyard Nature campaign as we have seen a significant upturn in the number of children who have signed up as nature guardians during lockdown.
The great hope I have is for communities, where we have seen a renaissance in people coming together, not only to look after vulnerable neighbours but to find new ways to deliver community services, create networks and meet challenges. I hope that the Government see this, and policy makers can support and fund people at a grassroots level to manage and improve their own neighbourhoods.
From a business perspective, we have also seen great innovation in flexible working and use of technology – including some brilliant customer service initiatives from colleagues, that are great for our communities and good for business too.
We all need to keep hold of compassion, the energy to get things done and the creativity to keep improving.
One easy way for regular people to reduce their plastic footprint is to buy Iceland’s own-brand products, of course! But if they want to help encourage other supermarket chains to make these changes standard across the board and then take the movement to even more manufacturers, are there things we can do? Petitions to sign or groups we can get involved with who are working on wider systemic change?
Consumers will create change naturally, especially younger customers, who really do vote with their wallets. What I would say to the public is keep demanding change from brands and from politicians, and proactively support the business who are trying to do the right thing.
Iceland Foods is a UK supermarket business, famous for its expertise in frozen food. Its founder Sir Malcolm Walker opened the first Iceland store in Oswestry in 1970. Fifty years later Iceland is still run by the Walker family from its headquarters in Deeside, North Wales, and is privately-owned, with almost 1,000 stores, 25,000 staff and a 2.5 per cent share of the UK grocery market.
Iceland can be found on virtually every UK high street and the business has a unique community presence, with almost 80 per cent of its workforce living within three miles of their store. As the business has grown it has retained a culture that allows its owners to act quickly, to innovate, and to take calculated business risks attached to its long-term belief in ‘doing it right’; company shorthand for the aim to grow a profitable business that also ‘does the right thing’ for customers, the communities it serves, and future generations.