Sustainability Impact Assessment


Basically, when we hear talk about social, economic and environmental impact in the context of sustainability, we have impact assessment (measures, indicators) in mind.  


This term originates from evaluation research and, as Schäfer, M; Bergmann M., Theiler L. (2021: 485) notice “before transdisciplinarity became a widespread research mode, the criteria ‘input—throughput—output’ have commonly been applied (Hornbostel 1999). This means that the research process ceased with the research results (output) without considering its effects. With the growing importance of TDR [transdisciplinary research], discussions within academia itself, but above all in research policy, shifted their focus from the research results to the societal impact achieved. Consequently, the criteria then were modified to (input-)output—outcome—impact.  

There are various methods, approaches and frameworks of impact assessment (input-output matrix, cost-benefit analysis, modelling, back casting, forecasting etc.), however many experts agree that sustainability impact assessment should include three main dimensions: society, economy and environment, and this approach known as the SIA is promoted in many programmes and by many organisations, including the OECD. 

Thus, in a broad sense, social and economic impact assessment is a methodical procedure in which pros and cons for a whole community or various social and economic processes are shown and studied, and environmental issues apply to measure any impact on natural environment. Here, the aim of the assessment is to explore, understand and evaluate the objective of a given plan/program/policy or intervention along with associated eventual impacts (Ramanathan and Geetha, 2012) 

A broad range of methods, techniques and tools is used in impact assessment. Weißhuhn et al. (2018) on a base of systematic review of 171 papers on agricultural research published between 2008 and 2016, classify applied methods as following:  

The OECD elaborated a set of publications and tools where the SIA is defined as “an approach for exploring the combined economic, environmental and social impacts of a range of proposed policies, programmes, strategies and action plans. Such assessments can also assist decision making and strategic planning throughout the entire policy cycle.” (Guidance on Sustainability Impact Assessment, 2010).  

According to this approach the SIA has two main functions: 1) as a methodological soft policy instrument for developing integrated policies grasping three sustainable development dimensions (social, economic and environmental) and which “include cross-cutting, intangible and long-term considerations”, 2) a whole “process for assessing the likely economic, social and environmental effects of policies, strategies, plans and programmes” before that have been formulated (ex ante).  (Guidance… 2010: 6). Therefore, the SIA is related to public (introduced by local governments, states, international bodies) interventions.  

In this approach several principles are defined (Guidance… 2010: 6-7) 

  • Sustainability in the SIA means that all three sustainable development aspects are fully integrated into the assessment; it also means considering both short-term and long-term effects, spatial impact, and possible conflicts between global, regional and local objectives.  
  • A focus beyond numbers – SIA uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative methodologies 
  • Stakeholder involvement – to ensure input on the possible impacts and trade-offs from different perspectives and disciplines.  
  • Transparency and accountability at different levels (e.g. procedures, methodologies, solutions) 
  • Principle of proportionate analysis - A match between level of detail and policy impact (the depth and scope of the impact assessment is matched to the significance, political and legal nature etc.) 
  • Clear lines of responsibility  

The basic criteria and questions for main impact topics in the European Commission’s Impact Assessment are presented in the table below (see Guidance… 2010: 22-23): 


It seems that the assessment of food systems (programmes, policies, interventions) is more developed, even if – as the state of the art shows (Weißhuhn, P et al. 2018: 40-41) - there is a major interest in economic impacts of new agricultural technologies (…) closely followed by an interest in social impacts at multiple assessments levels that usually focus on food security and poverty reduction”, and “It seems fruitful to invest in assessment teams’ environmental analytic skills and to expand several of the already developed methods for economic or social impact to the environmental impacts”.  

It seems that the conclusion above applies to both sectors/systems (fashion&food) and might be useful in designing the teaching modules in our project.  

a) Academic/peer reviewed 

Schäfer, M; Bergmann M., Theiler L.,  (2021) Systematizing societal effects of transdisciplinary research, Research Evaluation, Volume 30, Issue 4, October 2021, Pages 484–499,  

Weißhuhn, P., Helming, K., & Ferretti, J. (2018). Research impact assessment in agriculture—A review of approaches and impact areas. Research Evaluation, 27(1), 36-42.  

b) Other sources 

Guidance on Sustainability Impact Assessment (2010),  

the list of the references on SIA: