Marketing sustainable soy: 'Invisible but important' or loud and proud?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

'Companies don’t want to talk much about soy [but] we would like to have more attention drawn to it,' said Lieven Callewaert from the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy. © iStock
'Companies don’t want to talk much about soy [but] we would like to have more attention drawn to it,' said Lieven Callewaert from the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy. © iStock

Related tags Soy Sustainability Soybean Europe

By the end of 2017 one third of soy imported into Europe will be certified, says the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, but will consumers know it?

With around 300 million tonnes traded each year, soy is a massive commodity in animal and human nutrition and the amount that is certified sustainable is still a small – but growing - percentage of this.

According to the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) last year the amount of sustainable soy it certified has doubled year-on year for the past two years, rising from 1 million to 2.4m tonnes. It is aiming for 3.5m to 4m tonnes in 2017. Along with other certification schemes, such as Protella and Blue Danube which targets European-grown soya, they are aiming to hit the 10m mark by the end of next year.

“What we’re headed for is to achieve 10 million tonnes certified soy in Europe collectively – so that would mean one third of the soy imported into Europe is sustainable," ​said Lieven Callewaert, responsible for marketing development at RTRS. "In our opinion that’s a tipping point in the market: the moment where it will become mainstream and it becomes an obligation if you want to survive in the market. I am convinced this will happen.”

But whether it becomes mainstream or not, soy seems to be on a journey of stealth sustainability.

There are some niche products that bear the RTRS logo – Unilever has a brand of RTRS-labelled soy milk in Brazil for example. 

Elsewhere, where the effects of soy deforestation is more distant, it is less common.

“Companies don’t want to talk much about soy,” ​says Callewaert. “We would like to have more attention drawn to it but what we observe from the market is that member companies mention RTRS in their CSR reports but won’t put it on the label of the end product.”

“It’s invisible but important,” ​he added.

Euromonitor analyst and ethical label specialist, Alan Rownan, confirmed that commitments are so far limited to B2B publications. “I’d imagine that it’s much like palm oil in the sense that many companies have made CSR commitments but these haven’t migrated (yet) to product packaging and until consumers become aware of sustainability issues around soy, there perhaps isn’t the sense of urgency to revamp packaging to include a sustainable label,” ​he said.

But according to Callewaert, the main difference between soy and palm oil is that palm oil is a direct ingredient which ends up in the products. The vast majority of soy, on the other hand, is cultivated for animal feed and many manufacturers don’t want to draw attention to the fact that there’s another sustainable quandary for consumers to grapple with in the global supply chain.

deforestation in brazil for soy crop, copyright Phototreat
Cleared rainforest in Brazil to make way for soy crops. © iStock

Callewaert is open about the main factor driving manufacturers to sign up to RTRS: “They don’t want to take the risk of attacks from NGOs so they certify.”

Loud and proud

Alpro is not quite in the same situation. As a manufacturer of plant-based, dairy alternatives, soy is its flagship ingredient and although it has diversified to use other ingredients such as almonds and coconut, around 66% of its business still comes from its soy-based ranges. It is therefore keen to talk up its sustainability credentials.

“We are a soy company so we’re proud to have it as a basic ingredient in our range, it’s starting point for us to communicate on that,” ​Koen Bouckaert, strategy & business development director at Alpro told FoodNavigator.

For Proterra-certified Alpro, marketing sustainability to its consumers in the right way is a massive undertaking. For some of its customers, the fact that its products have a lower carbon footprint than their dairy equivalents is enough, but its core ethical consumers look at the label more closely.

It stopped sourcing soy from Brazil and South America completely because merely being associated with the region could be damaging enough.

“It’s difficult to have a clear non GMO certification there,” ​said Bouckaert. “There is more of a risk at least in terms of consumer perception. In Brazil around 90% of the product is GMO, so we had a complete logistic overhaul to increase our sourcing of EU beans. By the end of this year 100% of the beans for our [organic] Provamel range will be sourced from Europe and we aim to get to more than 50% for the Alpro range.”

Koen Bouckaert will be speaking about marketing sustainable products at the Sustainable Foods Summit​, held in Amsterdam next month from 9 – 10 June.

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