ECOsystem-based assessment of Sustainability standards and their EFFECTiveness

The ecosystem-based approach named ECOSEFFECT (ECOsystem-based assessment of Sustainability standards and their EFFECTiveness) was designed as methodology that proposes a comprehensive and holistic assessment of sustainability standards in terms of reducing identified human-induced threats and their underlying drivers that cause environmental stresses and degrade biodiversity.


ECOSEFFECT - Booklet published by WWF Germany with description of method
The ECOSEFFECT method is developed to assess the effectiveness of sustainability standards taking various possibly influencing circumstances and stakeholders into account, being a very holistic and systemic approach that seeks to capture the whole complexity of anthropogenically changed ecosystems.
PDF-Dokument [4.2 MB]

ECOSEFFECT facilitates a transparent process "enabling every party interested to retrace and understand developed outputs and causal relationships.


As ECOSEFFECT follows an adaptive cycle it includes the constant ability to learn from experiences and incorporate lessons learned into the future adaptive management. The participatory procedure guarantees relevant stakeholders a voice and includes their input into the analysis. (...) ECOSEFFECT can be applied to assess any sustainability standard worldwide" (extract from the booklet).

ECOSEFFECT methodological cycle

The ECOSEFFECT approach is structured in an adaptive cycle and allows for including additional information and knowledge at every stage and involves continuous knowledge management. It enables a constant learning with growing experience and helps to continuously rethink and adjust the elements involved in the system and the performance of the sustainability standards.


The division of the method into an initial phase of a theoretical plausibility analysis ensures that profound conceptual framework is given for the subsequent phase of empirical plausibility analysis.

A. Preparation and conceptualization Ecosystem Diagnostics Analysis

1. Ecosystem Diagnostics Analysis

Available spatial data and satellite images are used to gain first insights in the landscape conditions and land use dynamics. The assumed ecological impacts are supported by ground-truthing exercises and field observations. If possible, visible differences in certified and non-certified production or extraction practices are assessed.

Spatial analysis of forests and tree cover loss in Arkhangelsk region
Ecosystem Diagnostics Analysis on the ground

2.  Ecosystem-based Situation Analysis

Similar to the MARISCO method knowledge about the target system is collected, either in a participatory workshop with experts and stakeholders or in a desktop-study and then verified. The situation is analyzed and the often complex web of relevant system components, processes and interactions is visualized in a conceptual model. Factors that contribute to the generation of human-induced pressures, threats, which in turn degrade the fundamental requirements for a functional and resilient biodiversity causing stresses are evaluated in order to detect the most relevant and influential elements.

Elements of the systemic situation analysis (conceptual model)
Exemplary situation analysis
Evaluation of stresses, threats and contributing factors regarding their criticality, dynamics, knowledge and manageability. A concentration of many red boxes indicates a high strategic relevance of the elements

B. Systemic Analysis of Sustainability Standard

3. Strategic interpretation of sustainability standard

A sustainability standard is analysed strategically. The set of principles, criteria and indicators is translated into thematic strategic complexes that constitute strategies that are sets of activities designed to achieve a certain goal. Some strategies are closely interrelated to other strategies while some are even dependent on the fulfillment of other strategies.

4. Leverage points

Together with relevant experts and stakeholders who are familiar with the situation in the area of interest as well as the sustainability standard the entry points of the standards are identified. The standards that are used as sustainability strategies are mapped into the conceptual model. The direction and intensity of change that is assumed to be produced by the standards is documented and visualised in the model. 

Mapping of standards as strategies into the situation analysis identifying their leverage points

5. Theory of change and secondary risk analysis 

Those factors that were addressed by the sustainability strategies in a positive way can be translated into intermediate results and can become opportunities. If the positive character of the strategy leads to an adequate change the positive impact can continue and causes a further positive impact to the following factor and so forth towards a reduction of threats and the alleviation of stresses.

However, if factors remain unaddressed or are affected by a strategy in a negative way they remain in their original state, still provoking the subsequent factor and therefore still generating threats. Some factors may even be intensified in their contribution to produce harm to biodiversity.

Stepwise conversion of the situation analysis in a results web as required condition for analysing the plausibility of effectiveness of the principles and criteria (strategies)
Plausibility analysis of threat and stress reduction

6. Gap analysis

In order to assess the plausibility of the postulated changes it is important to identify those factors that were not tackled by the sustainability strategies. Through gaps in the chains or webs of potential change the postulated positive outcomes could be at risk. Also the complex interrelations between the strategies within the standards must be considered. Sometimes the implementation of one specific strategy is dependent on the success of a previous strategy. This step helps to detect principal shortcomings in the conceptual framework of the standards. 

C. Empirical Plausibility Analysis

7. Study site selection

Available spatial data is used to identify potential areas that are most interesting and adequate to conduct field measurements. Landscape characteristics, land-use dynamics such as deforestation, logging, or crop rotation patterns but also climatic factors and types of soil are considered when identifying comparable study sites. 

Exemplary spatial analysis of abiotic and biotic conditions for selecting appropriate study sites with and without certification

8. Field Measurements

To verify the assumptions from the theoretical analysis diverse indicators from various parts throughout the theory of change are measured and compared between the non-certified and certified land-use system of interest, before and while the certification is active, and in relation to the reference system, preferably natural ecosystems.

9. Evaluation

The data that was collected during the measurement phase is analysed statistically and differences in certified compared to non-certified or pre-certified systems are emphasized. Geo-statistical spatial analyses are key to the procedure. 

10. Conclusions

The findings from the first theoretical and the following empirical analysis are consolidated to draw final conclusion about the effectiveness of the standard of interest in reaching their postulated outcomes.

11. Recommendations to fill the gaps

In communication to stakeholders and especially to representatives of the standard examined constructive and robust solutions to improve the standards and overcome shortcomings that prevent the success of sustainability standard systems in biodiversity protection and the long-term persistence of ecosystem functions and services humanity depends on.