Going beyond a leap of faith: what is the evidence telling us?
As sustainability professionals, we often ask ourselves what works: What works to address deforestation? What works to improve farmer incomes? What works to address labour rights in supply chains? Are our programmes, policies and decisions based on evidence or are we making a leap of faith?
To know which strategies deliver impact, we need to commit ourselves to evaluating the impacts and effectiveness of our work, then commit to working with that evidence.
This is the thinking behind Evidensia, a new evidence platform that ISEAL, WWF and Rainforest Alliance launched earlier this year. It aims to make it easier for sustainability practitioners to understand evidence on the impacts and effectiveness of supply-chain sustainability approaches.
The good news is that there is growing commitment to evaluate the outcomes and impacts of some of these approaches — from both practitioners and researchers.
What does Evidensia offer?
In a recent presentation, ISEAL demonstrated that the idea that there is no evidence about the impacts of standards just isn’t true anymore.
Our challenge is to interpret and work with what the evidence is telling us: that’s the harder job. Evidensia’s Visual Summaries equips practitioners with an overview of what the most robust evaluation research says about the overall effects of a specific approach or tool on key issues.
However, we need more synthesis reviews, covering a wide range of sustainability approaches and interventions, to start generating insights on what works.
As new methods such as landscape and jurisdictional approaches, bans and moratoria, company-specific sourcing codes and multi-stakeholder roundtables take off, we will soon need insights on their effectiveness and impacts as well. To learn how these approaches are working, we need solid commitment to evaluation and sharing of results.
Evidence is only useful if it exists. Our first roadblock to knowing what works are the gaps in our evidence base. If there is no credible assessment of what difference specific sustainability approaches or tools make, we are none the wiser on whether to scale up, scale down, adopt or abandon those approaches.
What are we missing?
Evidensia’s Knowledge Matrix is designed to highlight where there is and isn’t evidence on key issues, sectors and approaches of interest.
It already highlights significant gaps in our collective knowledge, calling for more focused research efforts. The same conclusion can be drawn by plotting evidence availability geographically, as Evidensia’s Geographic Map does.
Is there evidence on the impacts of the full range of sustainability efforts active in key deforestation hot-spots? Does research tell us anything about how to work in regions of high water stress? As our sustainability programmes get more geo-specific, our research and analysis needs to as well. Evidensia allows users to dig into individual site-specific studies (the trees) while also highlighting trends from synthesis research (the forest).
We hear all the time that what is needed to solve sustainability challenges is action — more action, better action, scaling-up action. We also need informed action.
We need practitioners to be open and committed to evaluation, researchers to pursue key knowledge gaps and businesses and policy-makers to commit to work with evidence.
How can we move forward?
Working with evidence involves committing to a cycle of implementation, evaluation and reflection — a process that always highlights new knowledge gaps but can also spur innovation and new solutions.
At a panel discussion I was recently moderating, an impassioned practitioner said that capacity-building is very difficult, to which the impassioned evaluator said that that makes evaluating the impacts of capacity-building even more difficult. Our choice is not between action and evidence but to complement action with evidence and make it more informed.
We hope that Evidensia can be a useful tool in that learning journey and truly enable us to inform our actions with evidence.
We welcome inputs on research, analysis, partnerships and collaboration to achieve our ambition of informing sustainability action with evidence.