Our Approach2018-07-02T13:29:11+00:00

Our Approach

Our integrated solutions help you to better measure and manage sustainability in agri-food systems.


COSA and its global consortium partners have long set the gold standard for sustainability metrics that are both very credible and highly pragmatic.

From start to finish, our state-of-the-art systems help you take full control of sustainability and manage risks in thoughtful ways that take into account the impacts on suppliers, communities, and environments.

Trusted by some of the most dynamic and successful corporations, institutions, and governments in the world, these integrated solutions guide an efficient and human-centered process of:

  1. measuring what matters – selecting what sustainability data you really need
  2. cost-effective systems – established even from challenging countries
  3. transforming data into knowledge for smarter decision-making
  4. integrating functional knowledge into effective policies, risk management, and communication

We can provide everything you need to understand and manage sustainability in the most effective manner.

The basic Fact Sheet outlines the keys to COSA.
Working with COSA is brief synopsis of research institutions partner with us.
COSA Methods is a succinct introduction to the methodological approaches COSA applies

1. Strategic Advice

Our global knowledge and experience can help you understand the playing field and to uncover opportunities and understand risks in new ways. The broad perspective of COSA’s senior strategists help partners and clients to “see ahead, around the corner” and plan accordingly. [1]

We help organizations make sustainability operational from start to finish:

  1. Mapping the optimal strategy
  2. Selecting the right sustainability programs
  3. Designing right-sized measurement systems
  4. Integrating sustainability into their day-to-day organizational functions

The road to sustainability starts with an intentional understanding of your needs and helping express your objectives. We open possibilities for extraordinary effectiveness in program design and execution – difficult conditions are normal for us.

[1] Our teams integrate valuable know-how from experience in Development Agencies such as the World Bank, UN, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Science and Academia such as CGIAR, Harvard, University of California, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, and Business such as EDS Hewlett-Packard, Frutas Sol, Starbucks, Root Capital, Anderson-Accenture.

SMART Indicators

The right data drives clear insights.

COSA indicators are widely recognized as pragmatic and easy to adopt. They give managers clarity and greatly increase their functionality. In most cases, COSA indicators and approaches reduce data costs to a minimum.

View Indicators Master ListView Indicators

Proven Globally

Simple is important but so is credible and our hundreds of available indicators are tested in tens of thousands of applications to reliably deliver science-based data on the Social, Environmental, and Economic aspects of sustainability.

Our SMART Indicators[1] Details matter. Indicator names are just the start, we create real value by specifying every aspect of how to appropriately, specifically, and consistently measure the indicator using precise survey questions and sound analytics that provide a valid and reliable picture of sustainability that stands up to scrutiny

COSA Indicators are always aligned with global norms such as the SDGs, multilateral guidelines, international agreements, and normative references.[2]

COSA Indicators ensure comparability and benchmarking across regions or countries, making it easier for managers and policymakers.

Whether for environmental, social, or economic issues, we uncover performance and impact in many important areas.

[1] All COSA indicators feature SMART principles: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound and Trackable. See our detailed literature for much more on the evolving science of sustainability indicators.

[2] These dozens of multilateral accords range from the Bellagio Sustainability Assessment and Measurement Principles and the OECD Economic Guidelines to the Rio Declaration and the International Labor Organization’s Core 8 Labor Standards.

Sampling of Themes that Inform Major COSA Indicators

SEE Image 1 COSA Website

3.  Data, Research and Analytics

Our science-based approaches ensure clear and credible data that you can count on.Deciding the right approach is not difficult. We can chart the path to suit your needs and budget.

D2K: Information You Can Really Use

We transform data into knowledge (D2K) ensuring that it data can be fully useful not only by managers but also by those who are studied. COSA can thus generate multi-logues that thoughtfully apply data to more fully engage groups and supply chains in their own sustainability journey.

Scaling Lean Research

COSA works with Lean Research principles to ensure efficiencies in any application. See Field Guide with MIT, SFL, Root Capital, and others for more on how we ensure that our work is Rigorous, Respectful, Right-sized, and Relevant when working with farmers and communities.

The Principles and Characteristics of COSA Research  introduces COSA’s basic tenets.

Vetted Technology for Fast Accurate Surveys

Our reputation for credible data is built on professionally structured digital surveys that range from 5 minutes to 90 minutes. We can show you how our survey designs make a difference for consistently accurate results built on tens of thousands of applications around the world.


Quick and low-cost assessment of the performance of sustainability programs can be ongoing to guide immediate action and is readily auditable. It can also link directly with more sophisticated impact assessments for a deeper understanding when needed.

COSA (Committee on Sustainability Assessment) Performance Monitoring Basline and Impact

For Performance Monitoring we extract a subset of relevant and customized indicators from our master list. These performance indicators answer mission-critical questions about the sustainability of a program or intervention.

View an interactive demo of our Performance Monitoring indicators GO

COSA Performance Monitoring – to get low-cost and real-time understanding of KPIs

Assessing the Hot Spots

A Hot Spots Assessment focuses in on what matters most for farming, communities, and supply chains. The COSA approach identifies critical factors to inform any program design or intervention.

State of affairs (i.e. base-line without an end-line)

COSA can rapidly assess the state of sustainability issues for a farming community or supply chain. The systematic insights can support discussion or awareness raising and enable intelligent support especially for quick starts or interventions.


A COSA Impact Assessment offers an understanding of the intended and unintended effects (both positive and negative) that can be attributed to specific interventions or investments. Yet COSA assessments offer additional value:

  • We balance our business-like pragmatism with state-of-the-art scientific methods that include Difference in Differences, Propensity Score Matching, Instrumental Variables, Stochastic Frontier Analysis, and more.
  • We look beyond single dimensions to include the environmental, social, and economic manifestations of change to usefully illuminate the dynamics of farming and supply chains.
  • Not just impact but also the reasons for an outcome. Knowing how interventions such as training, certification, or credit affect an impact opens up practical solutions and more effective investments or policies.

4.  Sustainability Intelligence Systems

COSA’s systemic approach gives you the right information at the right time.

Our modular components draw on our research and metrics developed over 10+ years. Now you can customize how you get credible data to:

  1. Make objectives & results crystal clear to everyone
  2. Track progress in real-time not via end or year reporting
  3. Ensure transparency, traceability, and verification in every link
  4. Identify your risks and gaps easily
  5. Deepen learning, with ROI or impact assessment or predictive planning

To set up and administer a credible responsible sourcing strategy can be costly.  We have experience with systems to avoid costly set-up choices, logistics, reporting, and incentives plan can chew up management time with few tangible results except disgruntled suppliers and costly reputational consequences.

Digital Data Capture and Geo Spacial Mapping

COSATouch surveys work fast on most hand-held devices (Android or Apple) and ensure high levels of accuracy integrating skip-logic, internal validation, data piping, and offline functionality.

COSA geospatial mapping allows a clearer view and allows us to present complex data visually for sharp diagnostics and improved targeting of interventions. It is now easy for remote sensing to show land-use changes and even to ascertain correlations between socio-economic factors and changes in the environment.

Performance Monitoring Improves Tactical Decisions

The COSA Performance Monitoring System offers fast and affordable measurement of sustainability performance that is fully customizable and simple to set up. Managers get data in a ready-to-use form and at a low-cost using relevant KPIs gathered during normal operations.

Now, staff and managers can see what they need at their fingertips in clear visual presentation that improves reporting and accountability across simple programs or complex supply chains.

Performance can be readily audited or feed into impact assessments improving accuracy for more credible reporting.

Traceability and Compliance

Understanding the functional realities of communities and suppliers requires agile data systems that minimize effort and cost while still lending themselves to verification.

We understand the needs of managers and can integrate systems that make supply and project management much more effective and reduce time spent in tracking data.


To ensure that we measure what matters, we must recognize that the value of that information is closely tied to its accuracy. Our range of verification approaches serve to validate and also as learning tools that facilitate continuous improvement.


COSA offers real-time management dashboards that are easy to use. They track standard or customized Key Performance Indicators (KPI). They enhance data-driven decisions in real time and facilitate reporting. For teams or platforms, they get everyone on the same page instantly. Having access means you can see one program or an entire global supply chain at a glance and improve both transparency and accountability.

Knowledge Platforms

We build and manage customized knowledge management portals for our clients and partners to transform data into knowledge. These Platforms and “Partner Zones” allow up-to-date access to best practices, tools, and data for any group or project. This facilitates the speed of sharing, allows controlled access, and accelerates learning.

Targeting: Producer Organizations

We can help you target specific crops or even areas of importance such as Producer  Organizations (co-ops) with made-for-purpose tools. For example, most of our tools are developed with bodies of international experts – in this case COSA coordinated a network of 30 development, private, and research institutions such as IFAD, FAO, and USDA – to ensure state-of-the-art approaches and global relevance of the work to enhance the sustainability of cooperatives and rural enterprises that serve farmers.

Producer Organization Diagnostic and Standardized Indicators

Targeting: Landscapes

COSA takes a unique Landscapes approach by understanding they can be economic (e.g. labor markets, small farm sizes, transport costs), social (policy, social safety nets, gender exclusion) and they can be environmental (e.g. deforestation, water shortages, pollution).  Understanding their holistic dynamics, makes effective collective action possible.

The COSA Landscape Approach artfully blends big data with small data and consolidates technologies that include hotspots data, GIS maps, and dashboards to elegantly identify problems and solutions that are validated with stakeholders (farmers, community leaders, value chain actors, governments and NGOs). We jointly craft a strategic sustainability plan and how to effectively monitor its implementation across stakeholders.

Targeting: Resilience

The COSA’s Resilience Measurement Tool consists of a set of indicators, defined metrics, survey questions and implementation guidelines. The Tool helps both public and private organizations to quickly and cost-effectively grasp the core issues around resilience (through a set of 11 key indicators), or identify critical resilience hotspots (through a set of 27 core indicators), or evaluate the effects of resilience interventions (through the more than 76 indicator library) on household well-being. The practical structure of this Resilience Tool means that it can be used by diverse groups including development practitioners, civil society organizations, and business supply chains. It is applicable across projects of different scales, including many initiatives or projects that have neither the budget nor the inclination to undertake the sort of scientific research that was previously required to get a sense of the level and scope of resilience in a community.

5.  Learning Communities

Managers benefit from integrated solutions to monitor and improve sustainability performance. Our global learning collaborations scale up impact and increase the public good – we provide pragmatic solutions to your sustainability challenges.

Group Genius

Ensuring relevance and global best practices, COSA designs indicators and methods using structured participatory processes that have involved hundreds of experts and practitioners covering every dimension and perspective of sustainability.

Over many years, these inputs have come from developing country producer groups, commodity traders, leading food companies, NGOs, standards bodies or certifications, intergovernmental agencies, and research institutions.

Strategic Analysis

A central pillar of our work is the ability to distill useful knowledge from data and information. Our considerable experience and world-class science partnerships offer perspectives that are clear and always pragmatic.

COSA generally uses a mixed-method design with an appropriate mix of quantitative and qualitative tools selected to best capture and then focus data to inform decision making. The  quantitative and qualitative approaches range from simple Regression Analysis to more sophisticated techniques as Instrumental Variables, Stochastic Frontier, and Sensitivity Analysis, and Structural Equation Modelling. Concerning the qualitative methods, COSA commonly uses Structured Focus Groups, Narrative Analysis, Interviews with Key Stakeholders and Stakeholder Vetting.

In case of impact assessments the approaches implemented ranges from experimental to quasi experimental designs as Randomized Controlled Trials, Difference in Differences, Propensity Score Matching, Instrumental Variables Analysis, and Regression Discontinuity Design.

Risk Management

The tools to calculate diverse risks to communities, supply, and reputation. Clear insights on practices, compliance, traceability, and transparency help manage risk. We employ innovative approaches that helps make the case for where investments are best targeted.

ROI – Why We Calculate Return on Sustainability Investment

Every manager should know the result of an investment. You can make the case for using resources and help suppliers see the value of participating when their benefit or “return” is clear. Smarter data systems can readily track the returns on sustainability investments and the effect on suppliers and their communities as well.

We go beyond quantifying financial results to the broader social, environmental, and human rights benefits that emerge from adopting responsible supply chain practices. ROI can include reduced supply risk and improved production conditions that have intrinsic value while also contributing to brand image and shareholder value.

As a neutral global consortium (not for profit), our mission is to advance sustainability in agriculture via mutual partnerships.

Examples of Learning Communities

We lead or participate in diverse global learning collaborations providing pragmatic solutions and helping disseminate best practices. Our consistent objective is to scale-up impact and increase the public good. Some of the communities we work with are:

United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of five United Nations agencies that deal with different aspects of sustainability standards, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Trade Centre (ITC), the United Nations Conference onTrade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). As members of the founding Advisory Panel, COSA contributes its technical expertise to help member states address the value and use of sustainability standards in trade and development.

The Sustainability Consortium

The mission of The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is to use the best sustainability science to help companies make the everyday products we use better and more sustainable. TSC convenes more than 200 global organizations and its members represent many of the world’s largest retailers. COSA contributes its expertise on indicators, data streams, and technologies for developing country origins.

Global Coffee Platform

The Global Coffee Platform approach to “Enabling the coffee sector to accelerate its sustainability journey” includes a path of leveraging Collective Action Networks. This is well matched by COSA’s consortium experience and how we catalyze shared learning. By bringing a coherent approach to the diverse GCP members’ indicators of sustainability, COSA provides the logical architecture for credible sustainability approaches. With comparable and structured data for analysis and insight we can jointly increase not only transparency and accountability but also learning, insights and better decision making across the sector globally.

Sustainable Agriculture, Food and the Environment Platform (SAFE)

Co-founded by the Inter-American Development Bank MIF with Hivos and engaging

private sector participants, donors and non-governmental organizations that share a common vision: addressing the challenges of sustainable agriculture while including smallholder farmers and business partnerships. The platform leverages existing knowledge, expertise, and resources from its members to implement projects that pilot or scale up innovative value chain approaches that engage vital sustainability issues of climate change, gender, youth and small farmers.

Resilience Working Network

The network dedicated to advancing the ability to understand the factors that affect the resilience of agricultural communities. Together with our partners Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, Sustainable Food Lab, Root Capital, and others, and supported by the Ford Foundation, we are integrating cross-cutting indicators to help initiatives measure how resilient farming communities are to shocks and stressors like climate change, economic decline, and social disruptions.

The Sustainable Food Lab

A global network of companies and organizations facilitating market-based change for a sustainable food system. We collaborate on several fronts. One important effort has been to formulate our joint development of A Shared Approach to Smallholder Performance Measurement

Producer Organizations Advisory Panel

A multi-lateral effort of more than 30 experts and institutions to help quickly diagnose and understand how to strengthen cooperatives and producer organizations around the world to improve the livelihoods and wellbeing of their members (FAO estimates one billion people belong to them). Co-financed by the Ford Foundation

Living Income & Living Wage

Living income is the net income a household would need to enable all members of the household to afford the key elements of a decent standard of living. Facilitated by GIZ, ISEAL, and the Sustainable Food Lab. We participate with support of SECO (Swiss Government)

Lean Research

Lean Research is a community of practice that COSA participates in to promote more rigorous, relevant, right-sized, and respectful field research across sectors and disciplines. It is organized by faculty and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology D-Lab, Sustainable Food Lab, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Root Capital.

Building Local Capacity and Global Standardization

Global approaches must never lose relevance to local conditions. Partnerships within many different networks are therefore an integral part of COSA. We engage leading research institutions in each country to build local capacity and as valuable advocates of sustainability and rather than merely relying on outside experts.

International Experts of Technical Committee for Tea

Working with the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and a wide-ranging group of International Experts we draw together diverse perspectives to ensure that our sustainability indicators for tea take advantage of existing knowledge and build on proven best practices globally. This advance allows companies, certification bodies, and development agencies access to a consistent set of metrics to better understand sustainability in tea production systems

  • Keys to Sustainable Sourcing