Iceland’s landmark 2018 pledge to eliminate plastic from own-label packaging by the end of 2023 gained the supermarket coverage from The Sun, Mirror, Telegraph, Independent and BBC. It gained somewhat less attention when Iceland MD Richard Walker last year said the supermarket may not manage it after all.

This may be because the comment was dropped in as if in passing by Walker at the bottom of a press release about something else. 

The something else was a new commitment from Iceland to become ‘plastic neutral’ this year – which in the context, seemed like something of a smokescreen to make up for the admission (“whilst we may not achieve our target,” he wrote) it was leading up to.

Now Walker has said in a blog Iceland won’t be able become plastic neutral this year either, because it would mean putting up prices, something he’s “simply not prepared to do” in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

“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,” Walker quite rightly notes.

“But I will never stop wanting to innovate and drive change as quickly as possible.”

I have not heard anyone asking Iceland to stop innovating. Neither did I hear anyone demanding Iceland make this commitment, nor the one to go plastic-free on own label, nor the one to not use palm oil in own label products, which the business also backtracked on earlier this year, blaming soaring sunflower oil prices.

No one asked Walker to make the plastic neutral commitment at COP26, of all places – though it may not have damaged his chances of getting that OBE for services to business and the environment in June.

But many people would now quite reasonably ask that Iceland follows through on more of the things it says it will do.

“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,” says Walker’s blog. “Those conversations wouldn’t have happened if we had waited.”

Seems rich. Especially after Walker wrote to other supermarket bosses last year urging them to make a similar plastic neutral pledge. It would be interesting to know their thoughts on that letter now.

Perhaps the conversations wouldn’t have happened if Iceland had waited until it could do what it was demanding of others. Or, perhaps those conversations would have been taken more seriously at a later date.

A third possibility is that other supermarkets simply weren’t convinced by Iceland’s plastic neutral plan, which involved collecting and recycling plastic from coastal areas in developing countries, equivalent in weight to that produced by the supermarket. Certainly, Greenpeace wasn’t, calling it “little more than a creative accounting trick” because some of the collected material was inevitably destined to end up going to landfill rather than being recycled, it said.

Walker also says in his latest blog: “We remain the only UK supermarket to have a target to be entirely out of plastic.” But all supermarkets naturally hope to get rid of plastic eventually. It is not a meaningful target unless you have a deadline by which your success or failure can be measured, and Iceland has not set a new one.

Sometimes Walker proudly tweets links to his blog. Sometimes he doesn’t. He hasn’t tweeted this one. He hasn’t posted it on LinkedIn or done a round of TV interviews about it, either.

In his book, The Green Grocer, he says Iceland made a “big mistake” by not explaining sooner how it narrowly missed its initial deadline for removing palm oil, and learned lessons from the episode. Could one of the lessons have been the importance of putting those explanations out there, albeit quietly, so it cannot be accused of a coverup?

I don’t think there is any great shame in trying but failing to hit a target, as I actually wrote last year after Iceland said it might not be able to get rid of plastic from own label by its deadline. But when it keeps missing pledges, there is a risk that the next time Iceland makes a commitment, shoppers may not take its pledges seriously.