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Censoring Climate Change

Why, at the time when we need people to engage with what’s happening to the world around us, was Iceland’s advert banned?

With so many terrible and destructive things happening to our planet at the moment, such as climate change, plastic pollution, mass extinction and deforestation to name a few, it was a breath of fresh air to see a leading brand like Iceland step up and take responsibility, in the form of a Christmas advert, for the production of its palm oil.

The advert, which has amassed over five billion views on YouTube, is about a baby orangutan who has to flee to a child’s bedroom due to the decimation of its natural habitat from palm oil farming.

It’s sweet, poignant and inspiring, highlighting the devastating effects that palm oil has on the world in a way that both adults and children can comprehend, not to mention it’s voiced by Emma Thompson.

The point of the advert is to show why Iceland is removing palm oil from all of its own brand products, in addition to exposing the catastrophic statistic that is 25 orangutan deaths occur every day.

The ad was banned before it even made it to our screens for being ‘too political’, so what is palm oil, why is it so bad and why was it contentious for Iceland to address this?

Palm oil is a kind of vegetable oil extracted from oil palm trees. It’s used in many household items, from candles, lipsticks, frozen pizzas and chocolates to fuel, bread, cleaning products and shampoo.

It’s extremely cheap, which is why so many big companies use it for their products, as it’s a huge source of profits. It’s also replaced ingredients in many popular food items; not only does Cadbury’s taste different at best these days, but Mondelez, the maker of Cadbury chocolate has been identified by Greenpeace as responsible for destroying 70,000 hectares of habitat since 2016.

Some argue that palm oil is a “booming industry” that benefits the economy by providing jobs for those living in poverty in developing countries.  However, according to World Watch Institute, “surveys of smallholder communities have found that the farmers often struggle to repay the loans issued regularly by large commercial operations. Buried under debt, the smallholders have essentially worked as indentured servants.”

It also requires far less pesticides and fertilizers and can be produced very efficiently. However, these incentives simply serve to benefit big corporations.

Palm oil farming is also responsible for loss of biodiversity, displacement of indigenous peoples and destroying the livelihoods of smallholders. Palm oil plantations now cover more than 27 million hectares of the planet, what were once rich and diverse areas with human settlers are now ‘green deserts’, of an area roughly equating to that of New Zealand. It is estimated that about 300 football pitches of rainforest an hour are being destroyed, an alarming rate.

Sadly, it isn’t just the wiping out of animals – Borneo elephants and Sumatran tigers are being pushed to the edge of extinction –  and human livelihoods that makes palm oil’s impact so huge. As the climates in the rain forests of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are perfect for palm oil plantations, they are bulldozed and torched day after day, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Due to this, Indonesia temporarily surpassed the USA in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

There are also land conflicts as smallholders and indigenous people are brutally driven out of lands they have inhabited for generations, their humans rights are violated on a daily basis, this even occurs on what are supposed to be ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ plantations. There are even children as young as eight or nine working seven day weeks in terrible conditions. Since the 1970s, nearly 2.5 million people have been displaced in Borneo because of palm oil expansion

If these weren’t reasons enough to question the worldwide use of palm oil, it’s also thought to be bad for our health due to the harmful fatty acids, these can effect our DNA and have carcinogenic properties. Chips made with palm oil contain 75 % more saturated fat than chips made with sunflower or canola oil, there’s really no other reason it’s used other than it’s cheap and has a long shelf life.

With the effects of palm oil being so devastating, and its presence being so pervasive and insidious, it would seem that we should have a right to know about it, and how to avoid it.

Iceland’s Christmas ad did just this, yet Clearcast, the industry body responsible for vetting ads before they make it to our TVs decided it was in breach of the ban against political advertising imposed by the 2003 communications act.

The ‘political-ness’ is due to the fact that Greenpeace created the animation, and gave it to Iceland for the purpose of their Christmas advert.

Though Clearcast just say they were trying to comply with the law, it seems oddly convenient that an advert pointing out that wealthy, conglomerate companies are using something extremely harmful to the planet was banned. Perhaps it is not just an issue of it being to political, but too threatening to profits.

Nonetheless, Clearcast aren’t to blame here, they were simply following the law. When a substance is in 1 in 10 products in supermarket shelves, it can feel like a bit of a minefield to navigate how to shop sustainably, most would be grateful that Iceland are coming forward and showing us how we can avoid it.

In an ideal world more adverts would be telling us how to consume ethically and consciously, but unfortunately, it’s down to us. Still, I hope that Iceland and Greenpeace have paved the way for a different kind of advertisement, one that educates in spite of profits.

Though it may seem like a hopeless problem to tackle, what can we all do unless companies like Mondelez, Nestle and Unilever make a change? Luckily, there are loads of things we as consumers can do to stand up to palm oil:

Cook fresh and local – if you’re buying fresh ingredients they’re unlikely to have palm oil in. if you don’t have much time try and make a big meal at the start of the week to have throughout. If you live with a few people you could all chip in and make a big meal.

Read the labels – by law food products have to display what ingredients they contain, but other products such as makeup do not. Research whether your favourite brands contain palm oil.

The customer is always right – If the brands that you know and love do use palm oil, get in touch with them. Email, call or tweet them and let them know that you do not approve of what they’re putting in their products.

Use your voice – sign petitions, share information on social media, shame companies.

Boycott – The best way to cast a vote is with your money. If the knowledge that the owners of Cadbury, Oreo and Ritz are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of orangutans does not sit well with you, stop buying their products.

Though it may seem autocratic that the Iceland Christmas advert was banned from a TV screens, it would seem that many people feel the same way. The 90 second clip now has 16 million views and 680,000 shares on Facebook. Likewise petitions have been signed to release the ad and most seem outraged that this was deemed too political.

When Iceland were asked countless times why their ad was banned, they responded “it was never our intention to use our Christmas advert to support a political campaign – rather to raise awareness and solidify our position on not using palm oil in food production.” They’re also speaking out to their branded suppliers and encouraging them to make a change in regard to palm oil too.

Hats off to Iceland, let’s hope other leading supermarkets follow suit.

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