Some thoughts on THAT banned Iceland Ad

If you’ve been anywhere online in the couple of days you may have seen a lot of furore about a little guy called Rang-tan and the short film advert he stars in (if not here’s your context).

The crux of it is that Iceland (the UK supermarket chain, not the North Atlantic island all your edgy friends have been to) released their Christmas advert last week, only for it to be banned from TV, after the ad regulator Clearcast deemed it “too political”. The advert in question was originally produced by Greenpeace and features a little girl trying to get a baby orangutan out of her room, only to discover the animal has in fact fled from palm oil producers, who have cut down his forest home, killing his mother in the process.

Much of the discussion surrounding the broadcasting ban has been around whether the advert constitutes a political message or not, and whether than message is “too political” for TV. Less discussed however is what Iceland’s message – that it plans to remove palm oil from all of its products (until the ingredient can be produced without contributing to deforestation in southeast Asia) – actually means for the environment, and for the future of the world’s tropical rainforests.

The impact of palm oil cultivation on Southeast Asia’s rainforests, especially on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where all of the world’s remaining Orangutan populations are found, is something I’ve written about before. It’s honestly something I bang on about a lot. So I figured why not bang on about it here, and properly delve into the into my one thing while its still relevant in British pop culture. So let’s begin.

Palm Oil – The Situation

You’ve probably used something with palm oil today. I probably have too, so don’t panic. It’s incredibly hard to avoid using it. As many as half the products in the UK supermarkets contain palm oil, including most shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, processed foods and (heartbreakingly) Nutella. Not only is it everywhere, it’s also pretty good at hiding on ingredient lists. Here’s a list of over 200 alternate names for palm oil that may be written on product ingredient lists (https://www.palmoilinvestigations.org/names-for-palm-oil.html).

I can barely remember to buy ten items in Tescos without the use of a handwritten shopping list on a post-it. I have no idea how any of us are meant to remember to look out for Isostearyl neopentanoate on our weekly shop, or determine if the number of Laureth in our go-to shampoo is an okay one. Living a palm-oil-free life, unlike a meat-free or gluten-free one, just isn’t feasible by individual consumer choice alone.

With this situation in mind, you can see how monumental Iceland’s decision to cut palm oil out of all its products really is. This impossibly hard-to-avoid ingredient, whose production has increased fivefold since 1990, is about to be eradicated from the shelves of one of the UK’s fastest growing retailers. The question remains though, what will it be replaced with?

Palm Oil – The Alternatives

There’s no denying the extremely destructive impact that palm oil production has on the rainforests of Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together make up over 85% of global supply. I saw some of this impact in Sabah, the Malaysian state in Borneo where I worked as a research assistant, and where the majority of Malaysia’s orangutan populations are found. Here, oil palm plantations cover 19% the land area, while primary (undisturbed) rainforests, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, make up just less than 10%, constituting small fragments of habitat scattered across a vast sea of oil palm monocultures. That said though, the oil palm isn’t the only food product causing tropical deforestation, and the orangutan sadly isn’t the only species facing extinction due to our demands for agricultural products.

A sea of palm oil plantations and logged forest in Sabah, Malaysia

For instance, according to a 2017 report from the NGO Earthsight, no tropical forests are being destroyed more rapidly than those in the Gran Chaco region that stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay and provides a home to thousands of plant types and hundreds of bird, mammal and reptile species. Here, it is estimated that every fortnight, an area of forest the size of Manhattan is cleared. That’s the entire setting of the TV show Friends across all of its 10 seasons, cleared every two weeks. However the culprits behind the loss of Gran Chaco’s forests are not palm oil suppliers, but instead cattle-ranchers, soybean growers, and charcoal producers, with the UK and Germany being two of the biggest markets for Gran Chaco charcoal, sourced from Paraguay.

This matters because given the complexity behind the causes of deforestation, Iceland’s grand plan to swap palm oil for alternative ingredients will involve it having to navigate the multiple murky links between the world’s commercial supply chains and the clearance of the world’s rainforests, all in search of products that are environmentally-sound (assuming Iceland also cares about the other tropical rainforests in the world that don’t contain orangutans). You can guess how simple this will be.

Iceland’s website states that once it removes palm oil from its products, “alternative ingredients will vary depending on individual product requirements, meaning that there will be a mix of oils and fats involved”, and that “these will include sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and butter.” It’s here we get to the catch-22s.

For all its faults, the oil palm is very high yield plant, and is up to 10 times more efficient than other crops such as soybeans, rapeseed and canola in terms of the amount of land it needs. Moving away from the oil palm then might not deliver the win for the environment that Iceland and all of us currently moved by Rang-tan’s story are hoping for. It might just direct Iceland’s contribution to deforestation (which is admittedly fuelled by UK consumers) away from Borneo and Sumatra, but towards the rainforests of South America currently being cleared by soybean producers and cattle ranchers, or towards the other valuable ecosystems currently being cleared to make way for lower yield crops. The alternative “oils and fats” Iceland plans to replace palm oil with will have to come from somewhere after all, and this shift could be more detrimental than you might think. According to the WWF, if it weren’t for the high yield oil palm, nine times as much land would need to be set aside to grow crops to meet the world’s current demand for vegetable oils.

Iceland does note that “there are a number of alternatives to palm oil that are not destroying the rainforest” but doesn’t state exactly what these are. As it turns out, if you talk to an ecologist , or anyone working for the WWF (or even Greenpeace) the best alternative to palm oil may in fact be palm oil, provided it is produced sustainably.

‘Sustainable palm oil’ carries a certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that is only granted if its producers have implemented the most sustainable farming practices, committed to the preservation of “High Conservation Value” (HCV) areas (like the primary rainforests orangutans are found in), and supported the local communities they employ. Progress on RSPO-certified palm oil has been painfully slow, with only 19% of global production meeting this standard, but it has gained traction in recent years.

The RSPO currently counts over 3000 major companies, NGOs, banks and social organisations as members, a number that far outstrips similar roundtables for other commodities such soya, cotton and beef whose impact on deforestation have given us fewer beautifully-animated short films thus far. The RSPO hopes to grow beyond the 19% of global palm oil production it currently oversees, but to do this it has to convince more suppliers to sign on to its certification scheme, and convince more retailers to only purchase from its trusted partners.

A complete boycott of palm oil by UK supermarkets like Iceland may jeopardise this plan. When the market for sustainable palm oil is lacklustre and certified suppliers cannot find a buyer, their palm oil may be sold as conventional palm oil without the price premium the RSPO certificate grants. This provides little incentive for other palm oil suppliers to commit to the preservation of rainforest reserves and the use of the best farming practices required to get certified in the first place. This is already happening. In 2015 only half of the world’s certified sustainable palm oil was actually bought.

The RSPO model of palm oil production is by no means perfect, but if retailers and consumers pull out of the market for palm oil completely, they also lose the chance they have to sway that market towards a better, much less environmentally-damaging future, and to put pressure on suppliers to preserve the rainforest as part of their operations. This may derail the collaborative efforts to tackle palm oil-driven deforestation that have been making gains long before Christmas 2018.

This is bad for many reasons, but not least because the production of RSPO-certified palm oil means us consumers actually can influence the palm oil market with our buying habits. Organisations like the WWF have put together scorecards for over 100 companies based on their commitment to purchasing sustainably-produced palm oil (see here: http://palmoilscorecard.panda.org/). You can search your favourite or most-used brands and see how much they care about Orangutans / the planet.

Despite all this, I can’t refute that the Christmas advert that sent me down this rabbit hole is a beautifully-made and fairly powerful short film, and I’m sad that it won’t be shown on TV this December. As I said, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the link between everyday supermarket products, palm oil, and deforestation being made in mainstream British pop culture. The success of the film in generating comment and discussion about this issue outside of environmentally-focused books, journals and other such echo-chambers should not be underestimated. I just think Iceland’s message for the holiday season needs to be taken with a pinch of ethically-sourced and sustainably-produced salt.

As I also mentioned, palm oil is impossibly hard to boycott as an individual consumer, given its prevalence in UK supermarkets. But boycotting deforestation is even harder. So, putting aside the role of public action and commentary around palm oil for a minute, the fate of the world’s rainforests in the face of intensive agriculture and logging ultimately lies with the retailers and suppliers driving that agriculture and logging, and the decisions they make about the way they produce their products and who they partner with. Decisions like Iceland’s.

If those decisions weigh up the whole of deforestation with all its complexities and multiple drivers, rather than just the most publicised causes, and lead to wiser, stricter and more sustainable ways of producing our supermarket products, then Iceland and Rang-tan might be onto something. Otherwise, short films about the plight of the world’s rainforests may start to pop up more than once a year…

Sources (seriously, this topic is a real rabbit hole):

Support rainforest conservation in Borneo! Donate to the World Land Trust:
http://www.worldlandtrust.org/projects/malaysia

Portfolio 2018: 10 Favourite Photos From The Last Few Years

This is a photography website, and yet somehow I have managed to go all this time without writing a single blog post actually about photography.

Yes, I’ve typed out my thoughts on GIF art, German food and literary wolf-children before even taking the time to discuss the very thing I would consider to be my main interest. Today I’m going to fix that and present you with ten of my favourite photos that I have taken over the past five or so years.

The list is a fairly personal selection and is presented in no particular order. I’m also loathe to label these photos as my ‘best’ ones because for me photography, like any skill, is all about practice, learning new things, and trying to improve. Photographer / Youtuber Jamie Windsor actually discussed reviewing your old work and learning to move past it in a really articulate way in his recent video. So, I’m going to add on to this by putting together a record of my favourite shots for now, so I can look back on them years down the line and hopefully see what I’ve improved on and what I’ve managed to develop further out of the aspects I like in these photos. Plus there are a few good stories from what was happening around me when I took them.

Get it? Where my fellow photography nerds at?

 

10. The Edge of the Crown, Lanzarote

IMG_8386-1(ee2)-1

The fun you can have at the top of an extinct volcano with a camera, a polarising filter, and half an island on view. La Corona (‘the crown’) in the northern part of Lanzarote, is the second highest point on the island, and because the rim of the caldera towers above so much of the surrounding landscape, it offers plenty of visual trails and vantage points to make arresting photo compositions out of. I chose this perspective, staring down the northern edge of the caldera as I liked to contrast between the steep, shadowy slopes inside the crater, and the gentle rolling vineyards and villages outside it. Not bad from an island with a undeservedly bad reputation (Lanza-grotty no more!).

See more Lanzarote photos here.

9. Twin Peaks, Busteni, Romania

One of the things I love about photography is that every so often, you can take a photo that authentically captures a particular moment or experience forever. For me this photo does that, taking me back to a hiking trip in Romania with my two friends, halfway through our first year of post-graduate, “real” adulthood. The soft, winter sun and exposed brown trees gave the scenery a desaturated almost muted feel, which was something I then tried to bring out whilst editing this photo in Adobe Lightroom.

The result was this ‘vintage postcard’ effect that I feel helps give off that nostalgic tone whilst also zoning in on the main features of the landscape that struck me the most at the point I took the photo. It’s also pretty representative of the main way I think about photo editing – as a way to bring out the qualities of a particular location or feature that made the biggest impression on me at the time I took the photo.

See the rest of the Romania album here

8. Night Monkey Encounter, Peru

The core challenge of wildlife photography is getting close enough to your subject that it takes up more than just a tiny dot in the picture, but not so close that it runs away, or – in the case of slighter bigger, toothier wildlife – goes into attack-mode. However the flip side of this is to photograph an animal within its natural habitat to give some detail or context to the encounter. This is what I focused on with this encounter with a Night Monkey in the Peruvian Amazon.

Night Monkeys, as their name suggests, are the world’s only truly nocturnal monkeys. However, this guy couldn’t help peeking out of the nest it had made in a tree trunk in full day light, to oogle at the humans like myself looking back from below. Photographing animals in rainforests is always tough. The dense foliage, variable light conditions and the acrobatic tendencies of most subjects provide plenty of obstacles to getting a good shot. With this photo though I like how it captures that feeling of being watched by something much more adapted to the surrounding environment than you are. A representation of another being’s life enclosed within a different world to yours – something I would love to try and capture again if I get another chance to lock eyes with an endangered species.

See more photos from Peru here

7. Flam Valley Life, Norway

Norway is probably a contender for the title; ‘earthporn capital of the world’ and out of all the many photos I took there (I got very liberal with my use of the shutter button) this is the one that I hope does the country’s beautiful landscapes justice. I took this photo from the cabin of a train hurtling down the Flam valley towards the shores of the Naeroyfjord. I had just a couple of seconds to capture this view of the valley before the train moved on, but luckily managed to get the town of Flam and its surrounding scenery in full. I like how the pylon cables, usually something I try to block out whilst photographing landscapes, actually guide you through the picture. Also who doesn’t love a bit of red Nordic architecture?

See more of Norway here

6. Glacial Mirror, Czarny Staw pod Rysami, Poland

Reflections are fun to play with, especially when they create trippy patterns like these. I took this photo in the middle of the Polish Tatra mountains by a glacial lake, having spent a couple of hours scrambling up a slope to it with a bunch of other hikers. And also a wedding bride. Yes to this day I still have tremendous respect for that woman I saw hiking up a mountain slope in a wedding dress and sneakers in order to get the perfect set of outdoor, lakeside wedding photos. Oddly enough this isnt the only photo on this list I took in the company of a high-altitude bride. I guess wedding couples in the Tatras love a scenic photo op as much as I do…

See other glacial lakes and landscapes from the Tatras here

5. The Forest Seat, Plas Brondanw, Wales

The most-recently taken photo on this list and also one of the most personal. I took this while travelling round Snowdonia and visiting my family there for the first time in nearly 10 years. It’s also part of my growing interest in architecture / portraiture photography, something I’ve been exploring more and more in the last year as I find myself jumping between different cities of late. With this photo though I was able to bring this new interest of mine to a more rural setting and give an urbanite gaze to the North Welsh landscape.

See the rest of the Snowdonia gallery here

4. On the Wing in the Alps

Of all the ways to beat the January blues, taking a 6am flight from the UK to Munich, and then one day later boarding a train up to a mountain top in the Bavarian alps, will probably go down as my most drastic. Luckily though it afforded me the chance to photograph the views from Mt. Wendelstein in all their wintery glory, and then play around with some new editing techniques after returning home. A little bit of exposure blending here and there and suddenly, with some alpine shots to pour over and post here, January seemed survivable.

3. Nunbird in the Jungle, Peru

Photography, like any art form, has its fair share of trends and motifs that get repeated widely. Stair trails, pastel backgrounds, Boyfriends of Instagram – the list goes on. So, sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge when you jump on the bandwagon for something, as I did with Bokeh. Remember Bokeh? That aesthetic quality produced when a camera lens renders an out-of-focus light source? It not exactly a dead trend but I think it definitely had a ‘moment’ in mid 2000s photography and media. Tumblr posts, wedding photos, that terrible student art film I made about ‘urban wonderland’ when I was 17 – all part of the great 2007 – 2012 Bokeh-fest. The photo above is no exception to this fad, taken in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. However it’s probably my favourite black and white photo that I’ve taken, and five years down the line, I still like how it nicely encapsulates the sunspots and tree shadows you can play with when doing photography under a forest canopy – a nice distraction from the usual high humidity and ever present mosquitoes…

2. Sun in the Tatras, Slovakia

Yep, I saw a bride here too, this time whilst on a fairly suspect chairlift coming down from Lomicke Sedlo (the mountain slope in the top left of this photo). The bride-to-be and the groom where on the up-slope chairlift, with their mountain-savvy photographer perched on the lift in front of them, snapping away as both he and the happy couple ascended into the Tatras. I still don’t know if these marital mountain climbers were part of a great competition for the best outdoor wedding photo that Poland and Slovakia are bitterly fighting each other over, or just hiking addicts like me. Either way they have really raised the bar for if ever go into wedding photography.

Anyway on to the photo. Whenever I’m photographing landscapes, I sometimes try and focus in on a particularly vivid detail in my immediate surroundings, and use a wide angle lens to show that feature in the context of its environment. This is the photo where I feel like I did that best, zoning in on the rocks and reeds underneath the clear waters of Skalnate pleso in the shadow of some of the highest peaks in the Tatras.

1. Morning in Malaysia, Sabah, Malaysia

I’m honestly a little bit sad that I don’t wake up every morning being sassed by a hornbill stretching its wing out towards me. I guess I’ll always have the photo…(and these ones too…)

Finally, to make this a little less about me and my experiments with a camera, here’s are some photographers and photography blogs that have been keeping me inspired lately:

Blogs:

Photographers: