Knowledge for a sustainable world

Authors: Adrienne Martin, Valerie Nelson

ISEAL, which is the global membership body for a range of sustainability standards, commissioned NRI to identify how sustainability standards can better use case study research.

The members of ISEAL, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council, Union of Ethical Biotrade, Goodweave, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, work together to promote credible standards and to build a movement that will increase the sustainability of products and services worldwide.

In the past, case study research has been under-valued in comparison to other research strategies such as experimental approaches and modelling. Yet, case oriented research studies can be sophisticated, rigorous and appropriate – depending on the research question and the particular features of the programme, project or event being studied. They have specific strengths and weaknesses enabling them to complement other approaches to research, especially in evaluations where the aim is to generate rigorous evidence to inform policy-makers, and particularly where the initiative being studied is complex in nature.

The NRI study seeks to understand the potential of using case study approaches more strategically in monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Many voluntary sustainability standards supported by ISEAL have been working to improve their M&E systems in recent years and this new study will support them and other researchers in the field in this task.

Valerie Nelson and Adrienne Martin of the NRI have produced two reports, developed with the collaboration of three voluntary sustainability standards, which are available on NRI's Equitable Trade and Responsible Business Programme website.

The first is a detailed NRI working paper, which will be of use to researchers and evaluators in international development more broadly, as well as those focused on sustainability standards. The second, a guidance document, provides practical advice on the design, selection and conduct of case studies in the context of M&E of sustainability standards. It explains the theory regarding case study research and the extent to which findings can be generalised. Specific recommendations are made for standard systems, illustrated with examples from the Union of Ethical Biotrade and Fairtrade.