Iceland boss Richard Walker: Collective business activism required to hold politicians to account

EXCLUSIVE: Iceland Foods' boss Richard Walker believes that 'collective business activism' is essential in driving policymakers to align with the sustainability movement, following a recent letter sent by food retailers to the Brazilian Government urging them to reconsider a new land bill that could increase deforestation.

Iceland boss Richard Walker: Collective business activism required to hold politicians to account

Iceland is also exploring alternatives to soy

Earlier this week, a host of big-name supermarkets, food-to-go chains, suppliers and manufacturers threatened to boycott Brazilian-based products if lawmakers there do not bolster laws designed to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Retailers including Iceland, Aldi, Asda, The Co-operative Group, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose & Partners and Morrisons all banded together in signing a letter calling for an overhaul of impending legislation dubbed a “land grabbers bill” by environmental groups.

For Iceland boss Richard Walker, the convergence of businesses to create a unified voice calling for action to combat deforestation in Brazil is a prime example of how corporates can embrace their own sense of activism to drive sustainability globally while being mindful of smaller organisations down the supply chain.

“It’s great to see business united and collaborating in this way. We need that broad collaboration as an industry to try and solve this systemic issue,” Walker told edie. “I think it’s great we stood up against this and if ultimately it falls on deaf ears, then as an industry, we need to look at moratorium. We can’t do that as Iceland alone, because segregated supply is difficult, so the industry needs to push for better traceability and optionality as to where we buy our soy from.

“You’ve got to be cognizant of the impacts this will have on the local communities and producers. I think the letter was carefully worded in that it left the door open and we need to see that kind of collaboration and discussion.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agri-food production has been the primary driver of three-quarters of deforestation to date, with deforestation accountable for around 11% of man-made emissions each year. Since the IPCC released this finding in 2019, deforestation is believed to have accelerated in key regions including the Amazon Rainforest – partly because Covid-19 led to reductions in forest patrols and investments.

Under the proposed legislation, private-sector firms or individual asset owners would be permitted to transform lands that were occupied by local communities as recently as 2014. Under current rules, lands must have been vacant since 2011. The businesses are concerned that if passed, deforestation in the country could increase exponentially which could hinder international trade negotiations as net-zero targets and stricter biodiversity requirements come into force.

The key concern for retailers is how this could impact their supply chains, namely when sourcing soy. Already, soy is widely considered a key driver of deforestation. Of the soy produced in Brazil – one of the world’s biggest exporters – 10% is believed to be grown on land which was once rainforest and has since been cleared.

Market shifts

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly outlined his intention to use “the huge wealth of resources” that the Amazon rainforest provides in driving economic growth for the nation. USDA research suggests that while Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) is set to contract by 7% on the account of the coronavirus pandemic, GDP derived from agriculture is estimated to grow by 3%, largely driven by the soy market.

As such, the letter sent by businesses is a key indication that this market could shift if soy isn’t grown sustainably.

Iceland is also exploring alternatives to soy, but Walker admits that there aren’t any commercially scalable solutions ready. The rise in plant-based foods – currently, Iceland’s fastest-growing category – offers a potential alternative, but not one that will be adopted by all consumers. Walker also hopes to roll out the company’s first chicken-based products that haven’t been fed with soy later this year.

While businesses strive for change and turn to innovation, Walker is also hoping that the UK Government can play a role in combatting global deforestation.

The letter from business is the latest example of how the private sector is ready to lobby policymakers, a trend that has amplified through calls for a green recovery in the UK.

Indeed, Defra is now requiring all multinationals sourcing forest commodities to eliminate illegal deforestation from supply chains, following extensive consultations with businesses. Businesses pointed out that many nations and regions facing deforestation have weak domestic and international legislation. As such, only mandating companies to avoid deforestation classed as ‘illegal’ gives them a pass to continue destroying and degrading forests where domestic legislation permits them to do so.

Since Defra’s amendment, the UK Government has met numerous times with Brazilian policymakers in an attempt to strengthen relations to boost economic competitiveness for UK companies.

Discussions to date have focused on financial services, taxation, sustainable growth and green finance. Total trade between the UK and Brazil, including imports and exports as well as goods and services, reached £6bn last year.

Walker, like many businesses and green groups, hopes that future trade deals with have strong environmental criteria attached.

“This is an existential issue,” Walker said. “We don’t have time to wait for the free market to sort things out. I’m a capitalist, but I believe we do need more market intervention from Government for environmental issues and we need a better, stronger framework for the market to operate in.

“We can’t just hope that the good businesses will rise to the top…Maybe [the Government] can link zero-deforestation to future trade bills.”

Palm oil learnings

In the absence of government intervention, collective calls from businesses look set to become the norm and Walker notes that, unlike palm oil, tackling soy-related deforestation will take the efforts of the entire industry.

In 2018, Iceland disrupted the traditional retailer approach to Christmas adverts. Built on a pledge to remove palm oil from all of its own-brand food products, Iceland used its “Rang-tan” Christmas advert to highlight the destructive nature of palm oil sourcing.

Despite being banned by advertising regulators, the advert is one of the most-watched Christmas adverts of all time, with millions viewing it online. The ripple effect here is clear; following the advert, there has been a 10,000% increase in Google searches for palm oil, Walker noted.

Walker notes that many lessons of how corporates can become activists can be found in his book, but believes that every business, regardless of size, has a duty to use its voice to ignite positive change.

“Palm oil was controversial and we were able to do this alone in taking this very disruptive action because ultimately we could use other ingredients,” Walker added. “We can’t do that with soy, we need to buy it.

“Sometimes there’s absolutely a role for throwing down the gauntlet from the outside of the tent, and that’s what we thought with palm oil. But in most cases, business needs to be a collective voice for change.”

Matt Mace

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