The need for a coherent agreement on what sustainability means, and how to practically measure it, was the impetus for the genesis of COSA, the Committee on Sustainability Assessment. Today we are a neutral consortium whose global networks and non-profit status facilitate our commitment to public-service. COSA is based on Partnerships with dozens of leading institutions that are applying advanced methods to measure projects and investments worldwide.
Birth of the idea
In 2005, those working in rural and human development were noticing the failure of many efforts to deliver the promise of sustainability. In agriculture, an overview of major challenges included poverty, food security, water scarcity and pollution, basic human and labor rights, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. For many, the knowledge that two-thirds of the world’s poorest are actually farmers in developing countries represented one of the most profound failures of modern agricultural development.
The impassioned discussions in diverse setting such as Geneva, Nicaragua, and Brazil around the collapse of prices for major commodities like coffee, soon unearthed that there were many significantly different ideas of what sustainability was. In some cases, economic success came with great environmental and social costs. In other cases, environmental benefits were not sustainable in the face of economic hardship.
Despite hundreds of key actors at the meetings – a broad range such as Nestle, UNCTAD, EMBRAPA, Vietnam Coffee & Cocoa Association, ITC, Oxfam, IISD, CIRAD, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and many more – the lack of definitions or metrics impeded clarity and made it very difficult for the many stakeholders to even discuss what was working and what was not. It quickly became obvious that we could not hope to succeed in the complex factors influencing sustainability without a coherent way to measure and communicate in a “common language”.
COSA’s initial challenge – to define consistent and widely-accepted measurements using good scientific methods – would not be enough to enable broad-scale uptake and learning. It would be necessary to do it at low cost and in quick and practical ways to achieve the necessary scale of adoption.
COSA firmly believed that standardization would be critical to sustainability efforts. We knew that any standardization would always be imperfect, but held that “imperfect” was far better than not having any common language or metrics at all.
In 2006, under the aegis of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, COSA emerged as a pillar of the Sustainable Coffee Partnership and then the Sustainable Commodity Initiative. There was some consensus that the existing voluntary sustainability initiatives such as Organic, Fair Trade, UTZ Certified, and Rainforest Alliance were the best starting point to measure the extent of their effects since they already claimed to achieve sustainable impact. COSA conducted an inclusive review of the eight major sustainability initiatives operating in agriculture and investigated the determining indicators for all of their measurable objectives. We quickly realized that no single right solution. Instead, there were inevitable trade-offs that had to be balanced in the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of farming.
This continued as a multi-year international consultative process to test assumptions and approaches with experts from different firms, producer groups, development agencies, NGOs and scientists with specific relevant knowledge. From these discussions, a first critical point of agreement emerged: that any measure or definition must include a balanced look at three dimensions: social, environmental, and economic.