Small Data and Peak Certification

My favourite Fast Show character is Rowley Birkin who sits in an armchair and mumbles through a story with just a few random words clearly audible. If he were still in front of the camera today I’m sure “big data” would be one of those audible phrases. It’s a concept that is thrown around, people recognize it and infer all sorts of things, but it’s rapidly becoming a candidate for inclusion in the bullshit bingo hall of fame.

A former boss provided more insights per minute than anyone else I know, and one way of doing that was for him to turn around sayings. He was the first to point out that it’s not “left vs right” in politics that matters today, it’s whether we want to go forward or not. The success of a few politicians these days (mid 2017) proves the point. He also coined the phrase “Talk the Walk” meaning it’s more credible to speak and give opinions once you have a track record: actions speak louder than words. This is important in the sustainability arena, where there are plenty of headline grabbing statements and commitments though often little focus on progress on the ground. In these circumstances cynicism can easily develop and come back to bite you. These days I hardly ever use the original phrase behind “talk the walk”.

So when I saw “Small Data” a book by Martin Lindstrom in my local bookstore, I immediately bought it. The basic premise of Small Data is that it’s really easy to get lots of data, analyse that data, and come up with some conclusions. But if you want insights you have to go after the small data points and link them together as it’s these that allow you to understand the real trends. This involves going on the ground, talking to people, and sifting through the evidence. The book has plenty of fascinating examples to illustrate this principle.

I was reminded of this recently when a report came across my desk. The State of Sustainable Markets 2017 takes big data, crunches it and presents a series of graphs that make a convincing case for how certification is growing in importance and driving “sustainable markets”. Except that the small data shows another trend.

Before I go further, there is one caveat: organic certification certainly is continuing to grow in importance and influence. And it should. Its impact is clear, and it’s success is based on people knowing what it stands for.  It does need to decide if it is a social movement or whether it wants to completely change agriculture, delivering healthy soils, healthy food and a chemical free farming, but it’s future seems assured.

The commodity orientated certification schemes are however in a different place. I recently met one of the main actors in the certification world who volunteered that certification is not delivering what it set out to do. Some of the organizations behind the creation of the certification movement are moving on; focusing upon training, verification, and a suite of next generation tools. And a leaked report commissioned by one of the major supporters of certification is set to shift the debate so that they and we can now move on together.

It’s a sign of maturity when you can start using lagging indicators rather than leading indicators – it takes a few years of running programmes to be able to establish baselines and gather the evidence of impacts. This is where we are with certification: we have had plenty of leading indicator big data, but now there is increasing evidence of the impacts on the ground – and those impacts are patchy. How companies, civil society organizations and key opinion leaders are reacting to that now provides the small data.

And this is where The State of Sustainable Markets 2017 misses an opportunity to educate the policy makers it has set out to inform. Hopefully the 2018 report can add in some small data to its analysis. Even better, a report investigating “peak certification” and what happens next would give us some real insights so we can build something better.

4 Replies to “Small Data and Peak Certification”

  1. Congratulations on the website and great article. I fully agree with the reflection on peak certification and the question of how to engage and support the transformation of the other 70% or more of producers in the world.

    Look forward to future postings!

  2. So pleased to see this website Duncan. Congratulations! This book, with focus on the finer, meaningful, connections is just what I need at this moment.

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