Richard Walker

Source: Iceland

Iceland MD Richard Walker

Iceland has backtracked on a commitment made at COP26 to become ‘plastic neutral’ this year.

MD Richard Walker has also said it is now “impossible” for Iceland to hit a target he set in 2018 of eliminating plastic packaging from own-label products by the end of 2023, thanks to setbacks in the pandemic and a lack of viable alternative materials.

Walker first admitted Iceland “may not achieve” the 2023 target in November last year, at the same time as announcing the new plan to go plastic neutral this year.

He has now said in a blog that Iceland can’t do that either because it would mean putting up prices.

“I made a promise at the beginning of our plastic journey not to pass additional costs onto customers,” Walker said. “We need to democratise sustainability, and that means making it understandable, accessible and affordable by everyone.

“If we became plastic neutral now, we would have to pass some of that extra cost onto customers – and I’m simply not prepared to do it.”

When Iceland made the plastic neutral commitment in November, it “didn’t know that there was a major cost of living crisis just around the corner, or that Russia was going to invade Ukraine”, putting upward pressure on food costs, Walker said.

He said the supermarket had now “made the decision to invest instead in keeping the price of our food as low as it can be”.

“I know that some might say, ‘Well why did you announce something that you now can’t do? You should have been aware of market pressures.’

“And maybe this is a valid point. But I will never stop wanting to innovate and drive change as quickly as possible.

“Since making that announcement, I’ve had conversations with big players across the food and drink industry about how they could become plastic neutral too. Those conversations wouldn’t have happened if we had waited,” Walked added.

Read more: Can Iceland offset its way to becoming plastic neutral?

Iceland’s plastic neutral plans involved recovering and recycling waste plastic from coastal areas in developing countries, equal in weight to the plastic produced by the supermarket. They were criticised at the time by Greenpeace, which said some of the collected plastic would inevitably go to landfill rather than be recycled.

Walker also wrote to bosses of other major supermarkets last year urging them to join the ‘plastic offsetting’ initiative.

A source at one of those supermarkets said the letter was viewed both then and now as “sanctimonious”.

“One reason I think supermarket boards were less than impressed is that shortly before his ‘call’ to the industry, the rest of the industry volunteered to pay back the business rates: well over £1bn, because it was the right thing to do,” the source said.

“Iceland didn’t. The industry didn’t write to him telling him what he should be doing.”

Walker told The Grocer: “I don’t think we could have forecasted a pandemic and cost of living crisis when we set our original target. What do you suggest we do, pass costs on to customers who are already struggling to afford to feed their families?”

On Iceland’s 2018 plastic commitment, Walker’s latest blog said: “Our target of removing plastic packaging from our whole own label range by the end of 2023 is also now impossible. The last two years have provided major setbacks: we’ve had to fight to keep the nation fed during a pandemic, when the use of plastic packaging went up by 6%.

“There was a dramatic switch to online shopping, which was also using more plastic. And the focus, investment and momentum across the industry in plastic alternatives not unsurprisingly stalled.”

He wrote Iceland was nevertheless making progress on reducing plastic and “just because we’ll have missed our target doesn’t mean we’ll stop”.

“The destination doesn’t change, but it will take us longer than I thought to get there,” he said.

Earlier this year, Iceland also backtracked on a commitment not to use palm in own label food, with Walker blaming soaring sunflower oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.