"Companies may sometimes wish to keep the questions to themselves as much as answers"

"Companies may sometimes wish to keep the questions to themselves as much as answers"

Major corporations have joined with market researchers to form Paragon Partnerships which aims create an open-access information hub to support actions addressing the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Ben Cooper examines the aims behind the Unilever-led initiative and asks where companies draw the line between sharing sustainability information for the greater good and retaining insights that might offer competitive advantage.

Companies with a strong commitment to sustainability constantly stress the importance of collaboration with other stakeholders and companies including competitors, to meet shared challenges, the solutions to which will benefit them and the wider world. It is in that spirit that a new initiative, Paragon Partnerships, was launched last month. 

Inspired by a call to action from Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Paragon Partnerships aims to bring multinational companies and research firms together to source information and insight that might be useful to any organisation in addressing the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The UN goals are the three-pronged challenge to achieve three "extraordinary things" by 2030, namely end poverty, combat climate change and fight injustice and inequality. Political will, boots on the ground and funding will clearly be vital in achieving these ambitious aims but so will quality information, data and insight. Polman effectively gave life to the initiative while addressing the Market Research Society conference last year, and it is clear it remains a "big picture" vision. 

"Research companies interact with and analyse the behaviours and opinions of billions of people every year", the Paragon Partnerships website states, providing a unique source of "insight into the human condition", while their clients, such as Unilever and PepsiCo, use that information to "sharpen the focus" of their sustainability initiatives.

Yet to have its first meeting, details of what sorts of questions will be asked are sketchy but the process as set out on the website seems relatively simple. A steering committee comprising clients, research agencies, academics, NGOs and government partners will convene every quarter to agree three key questions aligned to the UN Global Goals. Those questions will be segmented by country clusters and added to research to be conducted by the market researchers for their clients during that quarter, allowing for the generation of "granular data and insights on the issues affecting people around the world, and in their day-to-day lives".

While it is early days, 11 partners are already signed up, comprising a mix of companies, NGOs and market research companies, and including two food businesses, Unilever and PepsiCo.

Jane Frost, chief executive of the Market Research Society, has been instrumental in setting up the initiative with ‎Unilever's senior vice president for consumer and market insights, Stan Sthanunathan. Frost says she expects many more companies, NGOs and researchers to join as the initiative progresses. "We're expecting more to come on board as we go forward," Frost tells just-food. "The key for us was to start a ball rolling. The important thing is to get enough people on board fast so that we can start."

For Frost, what sets the initiative apart from other multi-stakeholder partnerships is the involvement of research commissioners with providers. "This is a unique development because research companies haven't got together with commissioners before," Frost says. "You rarely get the commercial partners, suppliers and commissioners together with a completely joined-up vision and to me that's exciting."

Unilever says in a statement to just-food Paragon Partnerships aims to "create a simple central repository of data, specifically targeted at the UN Global Goals". A further purpose is this new data stream will fill gaps in existing data. "This is the market research industry showing that we don't just provide insights on what has happened, we create the raw material to help any programme trying to achieve the Global Goals."

Frost says Paragon Partnerships will also provide the information and evidence NGOs and aid agencies need to support bids for funding, particularly helping smaller organisations with negligible research budgets of their own. By the same token, SMEs should also benefit. "I think the critical point is that it will be open to everyone to access and use," Frost adds. She says aid agencies might, for example, ask for questions to be included on attitudes to public health or vaccination. 

Unilever, meanwhile, identifies six of the 17 UN Global Goals where food companies can have a particular influence, principally through work on sustainable nutrition, responsible sourcing, waste reduction and sustainable agriculture, namely: zero hunger; good health and well-being; decent work and economic growth; responsible consumption and production; life on land; and life below water. 

As laudable as the spirit behind Paragon Partnerships undoubtedly is, and as valuable as it hopefully may prove in supporting the UN Global Goals, its focus on pooling data and insights raises interesting questions around information sharing on sustainability.

The rhetoric may speak of shared challenges but nowadays there are numerous examples where smart thinking in the sustainability arena can lead to commercial advantage, from identifying consumer demand for a new product that may owe its appeal to changing consumer values, or the introduction of a new process or system that boosts resource efficiency.

Brooke Barton, senior director of the water and food programme at US-based sustainability think tank Ceres, says some sustainability challenges require collective action but an element of competition in sustainability is desirable. "Food companies are increasingly racing to brandish their sustainability bona fides with customers, consumers and investors," Barton says. "And many are, and should be, competing to innovate and deploy resource saving technologies and processes that improve their environmental footprint, particularly in their direct operations."

Chris Stanley, a director at UK-based sustainability research and information specialists Anthesis Group, which has worked on industry collaborations such as the Product Sustainability Forum run under the WRAP programme in the UK, says there is competition for ideas in sustainability and welcomes this as positive.

However, Stanley also points out that when information or an idea in the sustainability arena becomes a matter of commercial advantage, companies may be restricted in sharing it by anti-trust legislation. This even extends to protocols in meetings where anti-trust rules may be read out at the start of a meeting and placed in the minutes to ensure what is being discussed is not anti-competitive. "You're not allowed to share that sort of information between competitors because that is anti-competitive practice. So there is a limit to how far you'll go," he says. Perhaps this in itself underlines just how intertwined sustainability and commercial advantage can be.

One notable catalyst for information sharing, Stanley adds, is the circular economy. Companies, he explains, are increasingly working together to make better use of co-products and waste, which often involves imparting detailed information, for example on the composition of products. "They become more integrated as businesses because they're dependent on each other and that is starting to change people's view on what collaborative business is about, because then they have to share information about the composition of those materials, their origins, all sorts of things."

Ideas generation in the sustainability arena, including market intelligence, can not only enhance corporate reputations but also lead to significant commercial benefit. One would imagine Unilever would understand that connection better than most.

Unsurprisingly, when asked by just-food, Unilever chose not to comment on where it might draw the line on sharing sustainability information. PepsiCo has so far not responded to the question, nor given any comment on Paragon Partnerships.

Open platforms and forums to further sustainability goals are positive in many ways, but a company with a game-changing idea would probably be expected to keep it to itself, at least until it has taken first-mover advantage, whether that is in the sustainability arena or any other. And, as consumers become ever more aware of sustainability concerns, and more prepared to base purchase decisions upon them, more such opportunities for commercial advantage are becoming available.

Frost asserts that "you can change the world if you're asking the right questions". Companies are happy to play their part in changing the world but if they can do so while turning a tidy profit, so much the better. And, as asking the right questions is so critical, companies may sometimes wish to keep the questions to themselves as much as answers. 

As is so often the case on sustainability issues, rhetoric on collaboration and information sharing probably runs a little ahead of what companies might actually be prepared or able to deliver.