Time to put good evidence to good use

The recently released UN 2020 Sustainable Development Goals Report makes clear that there is a long way to go before the global goals are achieved. Although a sobering read, it does note a silver lining in that the pandemic is a ‘wake-up call for governments and businesses to formulate the kinds of transitions needed to build a healthier, more resilient and more sustainable world’. 

Markets and market-based sustainability approaches will have a key role to play in achieving sustainability targets for people and the planet. But, a lack of credible and timely evidence on their effectiveness has often been cited as an obstacle to learning. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. 

Evidensia (www.evidensia.eco), launched last year as part of the Good Growth Partnership, is now a go-to source for credible evidence on key sustainability issues. With 750+ resources in one place, it is the largest online repository of credible information on the impacts and effectiveness of market-based sustainability tools and approaches. 

Evidensia is a huge leap forward in promoting easy access to existing evidence. But accessing evidence is just half the problem solved. Most decision-makers and practitioners struggle to find the time to delve into research detail, let alone digest it. To address this, we need to find innovative ways to help people absorb research results and extract key lessons. The team at Evidensia does this through podcasts, webinars and by inviting experts to offer key insights through short articles. 

In the last year, the team has run successful webinars on the impacts of Marine Stewardship Council in the fisheries space, the potential of standards to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the case of sugarcane and what we are learning about smallholder livelihoods and pro-poor development. There’s also upcoming webinars about the effectiveness of landscape approaches and spillover effects of certification impacts in the palm oil space. 

Sense-making is an integral part of supporting learning goals, and expert insights and blogs have helped make sense of diverse topics such as the impacts of organic agriculture, responsible business initiatives and impacts on food security

Another often cited obstacle to applying evidence to action is the long lag time taken for research results to materialise - the problem that research ‘looks back’ while decision-makers ‘look forward’. This is a challenge, and, whilst it is a fair ask that research keeps pace with practice, it is also important to allow robust research to run its course. 

For those looking for something closer to real-time data, there is good news on this front. Platforms such as Global Forest Watch and TRASE are now making datasets available, often in real time, and breaking new ground in helping bridge research and practice. Evidensia complements these, as such data, analysed alongside insights from empirical research, can be a powerful source of learning. 

In addition to new types of data, a growing number of modelling studies help us understand the potential effects and impacts of current approaches. From modelling the effects of extending the Amazon Soy Moratorium to the Cerrado, to looking at scenarios with 100 per cent global organic cultivation, such research is helping look forward based on data and research that looks back. Valuing different types and sources of evidence but being transparent about what each type of evidence means and can be used for is a guiding principle behind Evidensia. 

While the research base is growing, we must acknowledge that critical knowledge gaps remain. For those working on supporting smallholder livelihoods, Evidensia is now a comprehensive source of empirical research in this field with more than a hundred credible empirical studies. There’s also a growing number of synthesis and review papers that help make sense of the empirical research, aided by a visual overview of study results. But much of what we know about impacts on smallholder livelihoods is based on research that looks at coffee. As Evidensia’s Knowledge Matrix shows, we have negligible insight into the impacts of supply chain sustainability approaches in sectors such as cotton and sugarcane, which have reached significant scale and uptake

Gaps also persist in many countries and ecological zones of interest. While there is growing evidence of how such tools support efforts to reduce global deforestation in sectors such as soy, palm oil and cattle, there is much less to help understand impacts on biological conservation and habitat preservation. 

Finally, as the table below shows, most research focuses on sustainability standards, with very little on company sourcing codes or supply chain investment programmes that have also been around for a decade, if not more. The lack of research into these newer approaches is both a knowledge gap and a transparency concern that needs attention.


Availability of evidence on key market-based sustainability approaches: snapshot from Evidensia

Key market-based sustainability approaches: snapshot from Evidensia

Understanding what works can only come through learning what has or has not worked, under what conditions and to what degree of success. Our collective ability to meet the challenge of the SDGs in the coming decade hinges on our ability to first learn and then act.  Evidensia now shows that a lack of evidence is no longer an excuse.