A Christmas commercial by a British supermarket has caused a stir, after drawing attention to the destructive nature of palm oil growers in the rainforest. The retailer Iceland made a deal with Greenpeace to use one of its short films for an ad campaign, but the move was blocked by a body. The subsequent sharing of the ad has sparked a widespread conversation about the nature of palm oil.
The ad, which went viral last week, shows an orangutang making a mess in a child’s room, with the animal focusing on certain products. The child, voiced by actress Emma Thompson, asks the orangutang why it focused on certain products over others, before the animal explained that the products use palm oil and the growers are wreaking havoc on the rainforest. Clearcast, a non-governmental agency that checks ads for major broadcasters before airing in the UK, stated that the short film breached the 2003 Communications Act that bans political ads.
Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, praised the ad:
The ad has even led to customers calling out other brands for their use of palm oil, leading them to state their case:
Not everyone came out in full support of the ad. Some experts noted that the focus on one single crop is perhaps misleading. Rainforest rescue notes that the oil is the most produced vegetable oil in the world at 66 million tons, which has led to farmers in Southeast Asia clearing forests to grow more. The WWF notes that Borneo’s forests are being cut down at a rate of 3.2 million acres per year. But palm oil is not the only crop causing deforestation.
“Oil palm in itself is no better or worse than other crops,” Douglas Sheil, an ecologist at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told Wired. “Pineapples, chocolate, coffee, bananas, cane sugar, soya, coconuts, vanilla and so on, also beef cattle, also replace tropical forests.”
It’s not the first time Iceland has been criticized for its blanket approach. In April, the retailer decided to remove the oil from all its own-branded products. The Roundtable on Susutainable Palm Oil noted that this could actually make matters worse, as palm trees make four to 10 times more oil than other crops. RSPO CEO Darrel Webber said that “if Iceland want to guarantee that their oils and fats sourcing is not causing rainforest destruction, they should work with the rest of the supply chain to promote the use of sustainable standards, such as RSPO, with a view to improve the sustainability of the entire market.”
London-based WildCats Conservation Alliance published a blog post from Crissie Constantinou criticizing calls for a complete boycott, urging people to instead take a more considered approach. The entry stated that “unless we as consumers continue to demand environmental standards from our suppliers and producers, there is no incentive for them to change the way supply chains are managed. It is a job to clarify whether products containing palm oil have come from sustainable or non-sustainable sources; however, I consider this my contribution to protecting our planet.”
Iceland has continued to build momentum for its campaign by sending an animatronic orangutang around London. It’s also started promoting palm oil-free products with the hashtag “NoPalmOilChristmas”:
Right message or otherwise, Iceland’s ad has proven a success for spreading the company’s brand — it’s racked up nearly five million views on YouTube.