A woman bathing in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland The hot water in Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon spa is a byproduct from a geothermal power station fed by volcanic energy.

Sustainability around the world: Spotlight on Iceland

For the fourth instalment of our sustainability blog series, we spoke to Tanja Teresa, our Local In-Market Expert based in Reykjavík. She made the intriguing argument that the issue of sustainability is linked to independence in Iceland – and that from a political viewpoint, sustainability is often framed as the path to a just society. Here’s what she told us:


Sustainability is linked to independence in the Icelandic psyche

The Icelandic word for sustainability, “Sjálfbærni“, embodies the essence of self-sufficiency and resilience, closely mirroring the word for independence, which is “sjálfstæður”. While there may not be a direct etymological link between these two concepts, they offer an insight into how Icelanders have evolved their understanding of sustainability. Throughout the centuries, independence has been paramount for Iceland, a small island nation heavily reliant on imported goods. To secure their sovereignty, Icelanders have cultivated exportable products, expertise, and skills. In this context, the intertwined values of sustainability and independence have been crucial to the nation’s identity and prosperity – there is a real sense that without sustainability, we cannot secure our independence.


Historical resilience in the face of Nature’s fury

For early settlers arriving in Iceland from Norway in 874 AD, the rugged Icelandic terrain presented formidable challenges. They encountered a land where the weather could change in mere minutes, a place where the sun refused to set during summer and seemingly never rose in winter. In such unpredictable conditions, self-sufficiency was a lifeline. Relying on the bountiful fish resources and harnessing Iceland’s geothermal energy proved sufficient to sustain the early settlers and lay the foundation for modern Iceland.

Today, Iceland is known for its abundant and sustainable sources of energy, primarily geothermal and hydropower. This energy independence has allowed the country to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and minimise greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 100% of Iceland’s electricity production comes from renewable sources.


Globalisation has created challenges and opportunities

As modernity transformed the world, Iceland, like many nations, became increasingly interconnected with other countries. Globalisation brought with it a new set of challenges and opportunities. Iceland embraced knowledge exchange, harnessing geothermal energy, mastering agricultural practices, and importing and exporting expertise. Companies like CarbFix, renowned for their pioneering work in carbon capture, have gained international recognition, reinforcing Iceland’s image as a sustainable powerhouse.


Sustainability is really an umbrella term for different issues

Sustainability in Iceland encompasses a broad range of issues, including sustainable tourism, fisheries, dietary changes emphasising reduced meat consumption, and eco-friendly construction. Whaling, a contentious topic, has been scrutinised, leading to a temporary cessation because of ethical concerns. Food sustainability has also gained traction, with 53% of all food consumed in Iceland produced domestically.


In Icelandic media, sustainability garners significant attention

Iceland is highly aware of its vulnerability to climate change, given its Arctic location and the potential consequences of warming temperatures. Public awareness of sustainable practices is high, though scepticism lingers, particularly concerning corporate greenwashing. The media tends to favour positive coverage of smaller companies and initiatives championed by governmental and non-governmental organizations. Pioneering entrepreneurs and eco-conscious entities, such as CarbFix and Young Environmentalists, are celebrated as heroes of sustainability.


The politics of sustainability in Iceland

Sustainability is a prominent political issue in Iceland, often framed as the path to a more just society. Political debates centre on the sustainability of policies and initiatives, reflecting the nation’s reliance on natural resources. Leading figures, including the Prime Minister, have established sustainability councils to engage experts and civil society actors in shaping sustainable policies.


Greenwashing and its critics

While many companies prioritise sustainability, some have been accused of greenwashing. Notably, a major shipping company faced allegations of outsourcing vessel disposal to countries with inadequate waste management standards, contravening Icelandic law. Another area of concern is the tourism industry, where companies often tout their commitment to sustainability, while continuing to contribute to issues like over-tourism and resource depletion.


Challenges and unanswered questions

Iceland grapples with questions surrounding the role of sustainability experts in institutions like the Central Bank and concerns about their influence. (In a Central Bank context, the debate focuses on the extent to which environmental considerations should shape financial regulation and supervision.) The sustainability discourse in our country is continually evolving, with more information needed to clarify the practical impact of these experts.

In conclusion, Iceland’s commitment to sustainability is intertwined with its pursuit of independence. While globalisation has reshaped the landscape, the nation remains dedicated to self-reliance, adapting to a changing world while preserving its unique identity. Sustainability is more than a buzzword in Iceland – it’s a way of life, a testament to our enduring spirit of self-sufficiency.


You can read Part 1 of our sustainability blog series – which focused on India – here.

And you can read Part 2 on Nigeria here, and Part 3 on China here.

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To find out how Oban’s LIME network can help accelerate your brand’s international growth, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion.
Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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