2017 Annual Letter
A decade! A lot has changed in our ten years of global collaborations to create innovative and science-based approaches to measuring sustainability. Three major lessons stand out and they have fundamentally altered what we believe are the most effective changes needed to address time-critical sustainability challenges.
It is hard to imagine that today’s mainstream acceptance of rigorously measuring the impacts of sustainability efforts was considered marginal when we started a decade ago. We have always held that if we cannot measure it we cannot manage it for results. Now, we are beginning to also get acceptance for the idea of applying standardized and consistent metrics; a key benefit where our innovation stands out.
Our Learning Partnerships – that now include 55 institutions – recognize that we have to work on common metrics if we are to have any accountability or transparency. For many, COSA serves as the lynchpin for increasing the effectiveness of programs and quickly learning about what works and what does not. And that relates to the first lesson: We all need to have simpler ways to demonstrate or manage our sustainability.
So, we are actively advancing simpler optimized metrics with groups as diverse as The Sustainability Consortium that convenes more than a hundred of the world’s biggest retailers and brands. And the InterAmerican Development Bank, whose SAFE Platform provides funding to innovative sustainability projects for major organizations from Grameen Foundation and Catholic Relief Services to Starbucks and Keurig. Understanding the basics is vital if we are to get a critical mass moving in the right direction. We simply cannot wait for science to confirm with absolute certainty since we can already start moving in the right direction at low cost. Every development project or investment should consider to simply measure what matters first.
The second lesson, learned initially in a multi-country engagement a few years ago with Mars, the extraordinary agri-food giant, is that good data alone just doesn’t matter. We need to be able to assimilate and interpret that data so that it can be integrated as actionable for managers to use on a regular basis. We can even help to understand the return on investment (ROI). When we take the time to think through what information really makes a difference in their work, then it has true value.
Modern managers recognize that sustainability knowledge needs to move in real time – just like data moves in the world of business. When a project or company gets rapid feedback on its efforts, only then can they improve. We like these efficiency ideas applied to something as vital as sustainability and they are a fundamental feature of COSA’s work.
The third lesson is that sustainability metrics really work when they are easy for managers to grasp, and when they point the way to solutions. Sound frivolous? Think again. With increasingly complex jobs, sustainability is just one of many responsibilities that managers face, so getting data in dense tables, long reports, or dull bar graphs tends to mean they can only make limited use of it. Instead, functionality skyrockets with dashboards and an appealing graphic interface of just the right ‘actionable’ information that managers understand and know they need in order to make smarter decisions.
Perhaps our biggest challenge going forward is scaling up. We want to get governments and development agencies to step into the age of sustainability with the pragmatic integration of science-based metrics that empower decision-makers with a balanced and rational perspective. Some, like the government of Mexico, are taking radical steps to improve their policy and investments based on sound sustainability data.
I am heartened by the leadership that companies are taking. An array of leading US-based multinationals stood up for the need to address climate change in the face of business-as-usual government policies. While recently chairing a panel of some of the world’s large forward-thinking companies, a VP of Siemens remarked that their company’s world view encompassed not B2B (business to business) or even B2C (business to consumer) but B2S or Business to Society.
This novel sense of scope reflects a holistic and future-conscious understanding of corporate responsibility that will be fundamental to evolve thinking and practices away from typical philanthropy-oriented CSR, to programs that are integrated into their everyday business operations. Without this reformulation of their core operating systems to essentially alter current corporate incentives that work against sustainability, they will only achieve marginal results and cannot be truly effective stewards of sustainability. Some businesses are already succeeding. It’s not only firms like Patagonia or Mars, we see this happening within firms as diverse as McDonalds, McCain Foods, Nespresso, and Coca-Cola Still Beverages who are integrating next generation sustainability systems.
We thrive on the trust of many clients and partners to make SMART sustainability metrics more affordable, credible, and reliable for an increasing array of world-leading companies, development agencies, and NGOs.
Looking back 10 years, all of our approaches share one commonality: the need to effectively measure what matters. We hope that you join us in unfolding the next 10 as we strengthen our roots in the deep commitment to collaborating successfully and to always accelerating sustainability wherever we work.
Solutions for the global good
Science-based and effective. These are still our guiding principles after ten years and we can now, more than ever, help organizations directly influence the sustainability of the farmers they work with. Thanks to long term investments in COSA by the Swiss State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (SECO), the Ford Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank we have been able to advance public knowledge and understanding of sustainability with:
- Simple tools to measure Sustainability Performance
- Producer Organization Diagnostics for understanding how cooperatives and other farmer organizations can impact the sustainability of small farmers and their families
- An expanded library of indicators and metrics, available to the public and now including specific distillations for important themes such as resilience, gender, and youth.
We regularly survey our key stakeholders, and they agree that COSA’s most significant contribution to measuring agricultural sustainability lies in our ability to serve as a neutral reference guide for assessing sustainability practices. They also value our contributions to the learning and understanding of sustainability approaches, our ability to foster rigor in measurement processes, and our globally-vetted common indicators of sustainability.
The state of sustainability and the leading actors are evolving quickly. The next era of sustainability requires agile measurement systems that target the effectiveness and returns on investment (ROI) to help organizations determine rapidly if their resources or investments are reducing risk and serving their sustainability objectives.
Our Sustainability Intelligence Systems give sustainability managers functional control over their project or value chain by rapidly integrating simple Compliance, Traceability, Activity, and Verification tools. They have a more accurate picture with seamless data flowing from different sources in order to better assess risks and facilitate sound decision-making.
Our Strategic Advisory services guide clients with a roadmap for developing or optimizing an M&E system to improve and align their sustainability strategies. Building on seasoned insights from decades of combined experience in the field, we can provide a complete understanding of the current state of sustainability programs and determine the best approaches for moving forward with credibility.
We have been working with several sustainability platforms in the last year such as the Inter-American Development Bank’s Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment (SAFE) Fund. This innovative value chain approach to sustainable agriculture includes smallholder farmers more directly into the decisions that impact their livelihoods and supports combined efforts to drive innovation, learning, and collective impact in Latin America. COSA partners with IDB and Hivos to integrate smarter and more transparent sustainability information systems into the selection and monitoring of SAFE funded projects with a range of innovators such as Starbucks, Grameen Foundation, Keurig, and Catholic Relief Services.
Influencing Decision Makers
COSA’s contributions to sustainability were honored with recognition by international and regional bodies in the past year.
- The Global Forum on Agricultural Research featured COSA in a week-long spotlight highlighting its tools and achievements within its community of over 500 research institutions from around the world.
- At the 2017 Responsible Business Summit in London COSA led a panel of multinational firms and was featured in another presentation on how leading organizations apply innovative approaches to collecting and managing data – sometimes collaboratively – to understand ROI and better manage investments and trading practices.
- Sintercafe, a premiere event for the global coffee industry featured a plenary address by COSA President Daniele Giovannucci who gave participants food for thought with his challenge to engage a new wave of technology and efficiency to elevate sustainability
- COSA’s shared alignment with Peru’s Ministry of the Environment was featured in the annual Expo Amazonica an event sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme. The need to focus on pragmatic, science-based approaches to support deforestation-free supply chains was declared critical at the conference there,
- In the Reco Symposium (Budapest) COSA’s plenary address highlighted the characteristics of an emerging era for sustainability and why businesses typically stumble as they face the concomitant challenges
In 2018, we look forward to an event with the Government of Mexico and Sustainable Food Lab Annual Leadership Summit (March 19-23). We will teach Master Classes in Sustainability Metrics at the annual SCA event as well as in Europe at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute.
In addition to editing a new textbook on sustainable global value chains we have shared our unique type of knowledge across several mediums.
- We were honored by the World Intellectual Property Organization, which featured one of Daniele Giovannucci’s co-authored pieces in its major annual publication, “The Powerful Role of Intangibles in the Coffee Value Chain.”
- The American Evaluation Association published COSA Senior Research Advisor Keith Child’s “Evaluation of Research Quality,” which discusses why a shift in focus is needed.
- “Resilience Measurement and Conceptual Frameworks: A Review of the Literature” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the scientific journal Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics. Written by Dr. Elena Serfilippi, with Dr. Gayatri Ramnath, it is a result of the Ford Foundation’s investment to understand resilience among smallholder farmers critical issues and ideas that can lead to better and more equitable livelihoods.