In its bid to transform Europe into a “100% responsible soy” market by 2020, the Round Table on Responsible Soy has enlisted the help of Swiss-based management consultants Malik. Ben Cooper spoke with Lieven Callewaert, the RTRS’s European representative, to find out more.

The slow pace of change is a constant criticism faced by multi-stakeholder initiatives uniting NGOs with corporations. It is not just campaigners who remain outside these organisations who question the pace of change. The more progressive companies and NGOs within the coalitions also become frustrated, sometimes vocally so, which itself can undermine the collaborative spirit that is so important to their effectiveness and credibility.

The latest attempt by one such alliance, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), to up the rate of progress saw the organisation turn to Swiss management consultants Malik. Some 31 participants, representing a cross-section of the RTRS membership, attended a four-day “syntegration event” at the Malik Management Institute earlier this year. 

The focus of the event and subsequent report was the not inconsiderable aim of achieving “100% responsible soy products for food, feed and other applications into and inside Europe by 2020”. This represents precisely the sort of transformational change multi-stakeholder initiatives must aim to achieve if they are to answer their critics. 

However, campaigners will instinctively be wary. Another frequent criticism is such organisations are just talking shops, big on process and mission statements but not so good on tangible achievement. Activists of different hues have varying demands but none so far has been known to call for the immediate creation of what the consultants at Malik have decided to call a “transformation navigation hub”.

Turning to a management consultant is unusual. Lieven Callewaert, European representative for the RTRS, believes it is a first for a multi-stakeholder alliance. Working with a multi-stakeholder coalition was also new ground for Malik, the organisation being keen to expand its remit beyond advising individual corporations.

Offering the “outside in” perspective is the way management consultants have been successfully persuading companies to part with their money for decades, but Callewaert maintains it offered something new to the RTRS. “If you turn around within your own perimeter, you can’t see alternatives,” he tells just-food. “Malik’s approach is innovative and has a proven track in many businesses. It helped us think out of the box but in a structured way and with a fresh view on feasible actions to realise the objective.”

Malik’s report identifies 12 principal challenges central to achieving the stated objective, along with 34 actions to realise them. Some appear to be relatively obvious reflections of the goals behind the RTRS, such as “develop financial and long-term incentives for farmers”, “drive a pull market through engagement with retailers, brand manufacturers and food service providers”, and “manage the transition from credit scheme to mass balance scheme”. Other conclusions from the Malik process appear more innovative, such as “leveraging public procurement” and “create a taskforce for government engagement”. 

Key to the Malik process is the mathematical analysis the consultants apply after the discussions in order to help their clients prioritise actions. According to Malik, 64% of the actions identified during the RTRS “syntegration” event would lead to 80% of the desired impact of the actions. Twelve on their own would lead to 50% of the impact.

The RTRS will hold its eleventh annual conference in Brasilia next week. After more than a decade, it is facing the same challenge as organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and Bonsucro of how to accelerate and bring about transformational change in their respective commodities. Many involved in these initiatives speak about the need to go beyond certification, the primary tool used by these coalitions to date.

In January, the RTRS reported a 70% rise in 2015 of volumes of RTRS-certified responsible soy to more than 2.3m metric tons, following increases of 50% in both 2014 and 2013. The organisation is targeting volumes 4m in 2017, though Callewaert says this is an ambitious target. Even if achieved, it will still be a drop in the ocean in comparison with global soy volumes, which are forecast by the US Department of Agriculture to reach 324.2m metric tons in 2016/17.

Callewaert believes the Malik objective analysis and prioritisation of the numerous different actions offers the opportunity to identify critical new directions for RTRS in pursuit of transformation. “If you want to make market transformation you have to take account of their systemic analysis. It is not always what people think they should do which is the best to make the transformation. We are studying now these recommendations more in detail and we want to use the Malik recommendations to take the next steps for this commodity.”

He continues: “In my opinion, the syntegration event came on the right moment. We also carefully invited people in order to have a balanced and representative group. The result is not radical change in perception but an objective view on key areas to address, regardless of individual strategies and divers interests.” 

Malik’s conclusion the single most effective action out of the 34 would be to create a “Responsible Soy Alliance” that may cause the most interest, not to mention some raised eyebrows. The term requires some qualification, for what is the Round Table on Responsible Soy if not a Responsible Soy Alliance?

The RTRS, the RSPO and others are supposedly already coalitions of the willing but the problem is always some are more willing than others, slowing down progress. In attempting to take the RTRS mission to another level, the Responsible Soy Alliance could be viewed as sharing some common ground with RSPO Next, the enhanced palm oil criteria launched by the RSPO earlier this year

Callewaert summarises the Responsible Soy Alliance idea as a means of unifying the diverse approaches taken across the soy sector by different companies. However, he concedes during the discussions there was a lot of debate about the merits of creating a further alliance.

“There was during the syntegration event a lot of criticism of the idea of a Responsible Soy Alliance. There is a fear it would downgrade the RTRS standard. However, this is not at all what it is aimed for. It’s about creating synergies and joining forces to move forward in a constructive way. It was seen by Malik as an important lever to achieve the opening question.” 

In addition, Callewaert says the Responsible Soy Alliance will be a “platform for dialogue” and might facilitate the implementation of another recommendation from the Malik process, namely the creation of the aforementioned “transformation navigation hub”, which he says is aimed at “real-time impact monitoring”. 

Whichever of the Malik recommendations are eventually followed up, the proof of the pudding will most certainly be in the eating. Translating management-speak into action is now the critical challenge. However, in spite of the abundance of jargon in the report, Callewaert is adamant the focus is on action.

“The outcome is a very pragmatic report with precise actions, priorities and guidelines. It’s a public report to serve all those who are involved in the sustainable soy movement. For RTRS, it will support strategic orientations to be taken in the coming months. I’m convinced, that this event will be a great milestone in RTRS’s future.”

If his prediction proves correct, it may prompt some to reappraise their expectations of what multi-stakeholder initiatives – and management consultants – can achieve.