Earlier this month, Iceland released an advert that was deemed ‘too political’ to appear on TV. Originally released by Greenpeace, the video featured a cute orangutan that had taken refuge in a little girl’s bedroom due to its home being destroyed by the harvesting of palm oil. It was used to promote the fact that the supermarket has recently vowed to stop using palm oil in any of their products.
Unsurprisingly, the advert has been a huge hit, no doubt owing to its general adorableness and its reference to a relevant issue. However, the main reason that the video has gone so viral is because of Iceland’s claim that it was ‘banned’ from TV for its political message. Rang-Tan then made headlines as people furiously demanded that this ‘ban’ be overturned; a petition to get the advert on TV gained over half a million signatures. Who knew that a video about an orangutan in a little girl’s bedroom would cause such a stir? Well, Iceland probably did.
The main issue with the whole controversy is the fact that Rang-Tan’s story was not technically ‘banned’ from TV. The advert couldn’t be cleared because it broke well-known rules. Despite this, the narrative that has been built around this story places Iceland as the victims, a well-meaning company that were punished for trying to do something honest and daring. But the advert being banned was the best thing that could have happened for the campaign. The rage of the public is a powerful force and if a company can tap into people’s rage about issues of global warming and even censorship, they can benefit massively. And if you ask me, Iceland knew this.
It’s tempting to believe that this advert came from a genuine concern for the environment, but I just don’t buy it. More and more, companies are profiting off of social issues: a quick Twitter search will lead you to hundreds of million-pound corporations that supposedly care about global warming, about LGBT rights, about feminism. But companies don’t care about anything. By their very definition, they exist to turn a profit, and if supporting these causes will benefit them today, they’ll do it. But the minute that supporting these issues doesn’t line their pockets they’ll exploit people and the environment, as Iceland and many other British supermarkets have before.
Sure, environmental issues definitely need to be addressed and anything that provokes conversation is a good thing. However, I don’t think we should forget that campaigns like this are ultimately self-serving. When they are coming from corporations that profit off of our emotions, they should be treated with a degree of skepticism.
You’ve probably seen it - the ‘banned’ cartoon Iceland advert, that’s narrated in a really, really sad voice in an ABAB rhyme scheme, complete with a terrifying black and white flashback featuring deforestation and the baby orangutan’s mother dying. It’s almost like a mini Disney film, and we all know how mass marketable and consumable that is.
The fact that the advert is labelled as ‘banned’ generates even more interest and outcry, generates more comments and views and likes, and all I’ve got to say is - hats off to Iceland’s PR team. They knew exactly how much of a fuss labelling it as ‘banned’ would cause, and they were right, it’s probably cost them nothing to post it online, compared to how much they would normally pay for a Christmas advert. It’s the coup of the year. Especially considering that up until now, according to campaign group Ethical Consumer, Iceland has had the worst rating for palm oil. Ouch. Surprisingly, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s are currently the best.
Don’t take my dismissive tone for disinterest in the environment, I am incredibly passionate about the rainforest and I wrote about my upset about Jair Bolsonaro’s election, and the devastation that his policies will cause for the Amazon. However, Iceland’s virtue signalling advert advocating to just ‘ban Palm oil’ is actually going to leave us worse off, and it frankly leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
A recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature concluded that boycotting palm oil would merely shift, rather than counter, losses to the rainforests caused by agriculture. Palm oil, simply put, would need to be replaced, and its replacement is much more damaging and terrifying. Palm oil crops yield four to ten times more oil per unit of land, and require less pesticide and fertiliser than other common sources of vegetable oil, such as rapeseed and soybeans. Soybean farming is already responsible for twice the amount of deforestation caused by palm oil. And by boycotting palm oil and looking at these more harmful alternatives as solution, we will only increase that statistic. This is especially considering that another major rainforest region, the Amazon, is a major soy-producing region. Many orangutans already die from deforestation, due to palm oil production, and by boycotting palm oil and picking the more harmful alternatives (Iceland certainly neglects to mention they will also be removing them), that death toll will just increase.
You do not get to pick an alternative to palm oil on your weekly shop, Iceland does not get to say it is removing palm oil (only from its own label products, and not all the products they stock) and pat yourself/itself on the back, because you are actually making the problem ten times worse in your ignorance. The best we can do is buy SUSTAINABLE palm oil, because it’s the best choice out of an evil consumerist bunch. Certification, where we pay higher prices for reasonably sourced products, is one way we can help the rainforest and the wildlife. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is the leader that we should look to when it comes to environmentally and socially responsible palm oil sourcing that doesn’t contribute to mass deforestation. Less than 20% of the world’s palm oil, according to them, is certified as sustainable. THAT is what we should be focusing on. That is what we should be changing.
We need to make palm oil sustainable as the alternatives are even more frightening for the environment, and our home. We should be bullying these irresponsible, corporate companies like Iceland into paying the premium for sustainable products, not lauding them for spreading a reckless message such as boycotting palm oil, which is an incorrect, basic solution (read: terrible idea) to a very complex problem. But hey, I’m glad people finally care about the environment, I guess all it took was a Disney-like short and an anthropomorphic animal.