Our Approach 2018-05-15T04:10:18+00:00

Our Approach

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

The COSA Sustainability Intelligence Systems provide everything you need to understand and manage sustainability efforts in agriculture. We can help coordinate moving from Information or Data to Knowledge to Learning

1.  Mapping Strategy

Our strategic advice guides sustainability programs and responsible sourcing efforts from design and inception through execution and learning.

We work with our partners and clients to help them achieve their sustainability goals. This includes articulating objectives and expected outcomes, identifying where and what to measure, determining the most effective approach, and how to optimally use the results.

Advisory Services

Our knowledge and experience can help you generate 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. Our team integrates valuable know-how:

  1. Broad development experience (World Bank, UN International Trade Centre, IISD, Technoserve, World Economic Forum)
  2. Strong academic principles (scholars from leading institutions CGIAR, Harvard, and Instituto de Estudios Peruanos)
  3. Business acumen (EDS (HewlettPackard), Starbucks, Root Capital, Anderson (Accenture)

The road to sustainability starts with a strategic understanding of your needs. We open possibilities for extraordinary effectiveness in project design – difficult conditions are normal for us.

SMART Indicators

Our SMART indicators and unique tools deliver science-based data that always aligns with global norms such as the SDGs and dozens of other multilateral guidelines and normative references – the right data drives clear insights.
We can focus on a number of important areas:

  • Farms and Workers
  • Supply Chains
  • Resilience
  • Gender
  • Producer Organizations
  • Landscapes and Sectors

Defining COSA Indicators: COSA indicators are designed to quantify and clarify information in a manner that promotes the understanding of key environmental, social, and economic issues.

They can serve as proxies for complex phenomena that are difficult to perceive or measure in farming systems. They are calibrated to ensure comparability over time and across regions or countries.

Scientific rigor is a key feature of COSA indicators but they must also be practical so that they can be obtained at a reasonable cost using methods that are respectful to farmers and communities.

There is a direct relationship or pathway between a COSA indicator and the key longer term objectives sought by the sustainability community. A number of advances in recent years and the validation noted above, make COSA indicators particularly relevant and widely accepted as meaningful to the broader community of stakeholders.

Well-defined indicators are a good first step. When appropriately paired with clear metrics (specifically how to measure) and with sound methods for obtaining and analyzing data, COSA Indicators provide accurate insights into vital aspects of sustainability.

Indicators can only serve as signposts or objectives. The actual measurement of the indicators is where the real value is. For example, food security is a very useful indicator but its value and validity is determined by how appropriately, how specifically, and how consistently it is measured. When managed thoughtfully, indicators and their definitions include the precise survey questions and sound analytics that together provide a valid and reliable picture of sustainability.

Sampling of Themes that Inform Major COSA Indicators

SEE Image 1 COSA Website

View Indicators Master ListView Indicators

Aligned with International Norms

Since the mid-2000s, COSA has been working with numerous global partnerships to find a common scientific language for measuring sustainability. We continue to facilitate multi-year discussions among leaders in the field of development, the scientific community, and private companies to maintain stat-of-the-art indicators and metrics. Our experience indicates that SMART indicators must at least be: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable (and Time-bound).

COSA’s origins within the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development enable a broad perspective from which to functionally align with international accords and agreements. These 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.

COSA’s alignment with dozens of important multilateral and multi-stakeholder instruments help ensure the global acceptance of its work. But its indicators and methods are particularly relevant because they were designed and evaluated using global participatory processes that 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.

As contributors to the UN Global Compact, COSA believes in the value of integrating the Food and Agriculture Business Principles into its work. The guidelines make good sense and are part of the alignment that COSA integrates into its work.

2.  Data Mining

Research & Good Data


A COSA Impact Assessment offers an understanding of the intended and unintended longer-term effects (both positive and negative) that can be attributed to specific interventions or investments. It balances state-of-the-art scientific methods with business-like pragmatism.

A COSA impact assessment is distinguished by actively looking beyond single dimensions to include the environmental, social, and economic manifestations of change so as to usefully understand the dynamics of farming and supply chains.

Scientific credibility includes going beyond data to help identify attribution and 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.

Sustainability is intrinsically complex and so its analysis must successfully engage diverse credible approaches. Essentially this means having different tools for different situations. A sampling of the methods includes:

Difference in Differences, Propensity Score Matching, Instrumental Variables Analysis, Stochastic Frontier Analysis, Regression Discontinuity Design, and Sensitivity Analysis. See COSA Methods for a succinct overview to the range of methodological approaches COSA tends to apply in its research

Vetted Surveys

COSA data is collected primarily via professionally structured digital surveys designed to give consistently accurate results. They have been vetted and constantly improved by thousands of uses with Farms and Producer Organizations. Most surveys are conducted by trained local professional surveyors. On average, surveys take 1 to 1.5 hours and include both direct observations and structured questions. We also offer simpler online versions as well as options for Performance Monitoring, a related but much simpler tool that has been developed specifically to serve the managerial needs of a project or investment. It is brief, depending on the client, and provides real-time reporting with minimal training.

Building Local Capacity and Global Standardization

One of the risks of a global framework for sustainability assessment is the potential to lose relevance to local conditions. Partnerships within many different networks are therefore an integral part of COSA at every level. Knowing that sustainability cannot be successfully imposed from the outside, we engage leading institutions as Research Partners in each country to build local capacity rather than merely relying on outside experts. These investments are made possible by the support of key donors.

COSA (Committee on Sustainability Assessment) selects a Research Partner institution to develop permanent institutional capacity in a developing country...With adequate initial COSA support, the Research Partners in a country become valuable advocates of sustainability and are ideally placed to ensure the contextual validity and relevance of the findings within their own agricultural sector. They also serve as a resource for anyone wishing to better measure or understand sustainability in that particular country, so that new efforts can benefit from, and build upon, the lessons already learned. It is expected that after 3-4 years, our institutional Partners will be able to conduct this sort of research at a world-class level on their own, using COSA mostly in an advisory capacity. One of our institutional Partners now conducts so many sustainability assessments for private firms, NGOs, producer groups, and even governments that this type of work has become its primary source of research revenue.

Digital Data Capture and Geospatial Mapping

COSA uses diverse technologies to accelerate understanding in sustainability. For example, our COSATouch surveys have skip-logic, internal answer validation checks, offline functionality, and automatic capture of place and time. Surveyors can use any sort of hand-held devices (Android or Apple tablets, laptops, smart phones) to make the process of interviewing farmers and group leaders speedier and more conversational than would be possible with sheets of paper and a clipboard. Combined, these efforts make it faster and easier to collect accurate data in rural areas.

Mapping data geospatially refines diagnostics and can improve the targeting of interventions. This makes it easier to contextualize the situation in a region. Opportunities exist to also integrate farm-level data to the remote sensing of land-use changes to ascertain the correlations between certain socio-economic factors and changes in the environment.

Performance Monitoring

The COSA Performance Monitoring System offers fast and affordable measurement of sustainability performance that integrates vital information feedback loops to management. The Monitoring gathers simple survey data during normal field operations from traders or local staff. It is customizable with a range of tailored indicators and mission-critical questions that reflect key concerns and objectives. It can capture KPI and it presents management with necessary data in real-time dashboard formats to improve their tactical decisions. Our Performance Monitoring System can link directly to the more sophisticated COSA baseline and impact assessments for a deeper understanding and it is readily auditable (if desired) to improve accuracy and reliability for more credible reporting.

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 indicatorsGO

Understanding and Working with Producer Organizations

A “Sustainable” Producer Organization is one that combines good governance and sufficient economic activity to support necessary social and environmental services that benefit their members and the enterprise.

COSA is coordinating a network of 30 organizations, representing a mix of private, development, and research institutions with the goal to guide Producer Organizations (PO) toward sustainability.  The PO assessment tools will be administered by buyers, lenders, NGOs and Producer Organizations to move PO management systems and farmer services towards economic, social and environmental sustainability. This tool will be used in combination with COSA’s farmer level surveys to gain a complete understanding of the diverse impacts of participating in supply chains.

Traceability and Compliance

Understanding the functional realities of communities and suppliers requires agile data systems that minimize effort and cost but still lend 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.


The value of data must be ascertained to ensure that we measure what matters and value is closely tied to the accuracy of that information. We look at our range of verification approaches as learning tools that help everyone continuously improve.

3.  Refining Knowledge

We transform data into knowledge and we can verify it – our extensive experience guides your path toward impact


This is a central pillar of our work – the ability to work closely with others to distill useful knowledge from data and information. See “COSA Methods” for a succinct overview to the range of methodological approaches that COSA tends to apply in its research including Difference in Differences, Propensity Score Matching, Instrumental Variables Analysis, Stochastic Frontier Analysis, Regression Discontinuity Design, Stakeholder Vetting, and Sensitivity Analysis.

Risk Management

Manage diverse risks to communities, supply, and reputation by having clear insights and the tools to calculate risk from the perspective of practices, compliance, traceability, and transparency. We employ innovative approaches that helps make the case for where investments can be well targeted.


Calculating Returns On Sustainability Investments goes beyond quantifying the financial results of adopting responsible supply chain practices, corporations can also benefit from insight to the valuable returns to social, environmental, and human rights investments or practices. Returns can come in different forms as well such as reduced supply risk and improved conditions that have intrinsic value while also contributing to brand image and shareholder value.

For some, even simple initial forays into designing a sourcing strategy or implementing a code of conduct for suppliers, can be a headache. The logistics, reporting, and incentives to administer a plan can eat up management time with few tangible results except disgruntled suppliers and costly reputational consequences.

Strategic systems can be relatively simple and can be scaled progressively to achieve results smoothly while steadily reducing supply chain risks. Smarter data collection and reporting systems can readily track the returns on sustainability investments and the effect on suppliers and their communities as well. It is an area where we invite learning and collaboration.

4.  Sharing Solutions

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.


COSA offers real-time management dashboards that are practical and easy for managers to use. They can track standard or customized Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in real time and at the level of detail and nuance that makes sense for them.

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 real-time access to the up to date best practices, tools, and data for any grup or project. This facilitates the speed of sharing, allows controlled access, and accelerates learning among the users.

Learning Communities

We participate in diverse learning communities, dedicated to learning across sectors and geographies to distill optimal approaches and to disseminate best practices. When managed adroitly, these learning communities can contribute to collective impact. Here are samples:

Sustainable Agriculture, Food and the Environment Platform (SAFE)

Co-founded by the Inter-American Development Bank MIF 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 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, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Root Capital, and Tufts University. We participate with support of SECO (Swiss Government)

As a global consortium that is neutral and non-profit, our mission is to advance sustainability in agriculture via mutual partnerships. These collaborations support the science-based assessment tools in understanding and managing social, economic, and environmental impacts. There are a number of ways that COSA Solutions can be shared and understood. Some key documents help understand COSA.