Blockchain Revolution and Sustainability: Certification Gone in Ten Years

When I wrote Beyond Certification I took special care, in the Preface, to note that I hoped to stimulate discussion, reflection and deep thinking. I wasn't proposing THE solution, THE system to replace certification. I was rather sharing my thinking on where I had come to, or where we had collectively come to in The Forest Trust.

We have stimulated quite some discussion I think but most of that discussion has happened behind closed doors, between individuals or at best small groups. I know a lot of people have downloaded and read the book. I've had a lot of interesting discussions with some people, not least with the leaders of one of the world's largest forest management certification schemes.

Sadly, though not surprisingly - this is what happens when you say something that challenges people's fundamental belief systems - many others (yes, many) have buried their head in the sand and there have been some hateful reactions. That's a shame but no great drama.

We are only going to grapple effectively with the challenges we face to live happily on this planet if we speak together and share new ideas and challenge each other to break free from anything that binds us intellectually. We have to lay our minds bare, not just open them, if we are to find better solutions to the environmental and social crisis that is unfolding. I'm not 100% sure we're going to make it but I do believe that kneeling and praying unquestioningly at the Alter of Certification will not get us where we need to be.

Here's a central question:

Will certification still have a role in 10 years?

In other words, will it still exist? Will we still use it?

You'll not be surprised, I think, to hear that my answer to this question is a very simple yet resounding NO. I don't believe that certification will be with us in 10 years. I believe that it will no longer exist and that we will no longer use it.

Sorry about that.

Why do I say that? A few reasons:

First:

We all know that certification has huge problems. I outline many of these in Beyond Certification and most people who speak to me, including folk from the certification industry, tell me they think that's the best part of the book. There isn't a lot of dispute with my critique.

Here is the list of headlines, no time for a lot of discussion on the details, that I listed in Beyond Certification as being the issues with certification:

  • A bedrock belief that people can't be trusted
  • An endgame of membership, not transformation
  • A wrong-headed emphasis on pre-competitive processes
  • A code of silence
  • A status akin to religion
  • Standard setting and review processes that contribute to business as usual
  • The lie of multi-stakeholder collaboration
  • Excessive reliance on 'outsiders' and not on local capacity
  • The disconnect between words and practice, the terrible 'dark side'
  • A foundation of sustainability myths
  • High costs and unclear benefits
  • Inherent support for inaction
  • The unspoken question of opportunity cost
  • The stifling of deep, sector-wide transformation

Quite a list. I really let myself go. Not all of those criticisms apply to all certification schemes, and all sectors. Some are specific to Roundtable schemes but overall, as I said, I'm not getting a lot of pushback on these issues. Bottom line really is that after more than 20 years and the rapid growth of what has become a huge certification industry, we still have massive problems and they seem to be getting worse, out of control even. The tool isn't working. Time for a new one.

Second:

People are tired with all the froth and bubble of certification. New schemes continue to emerge but support for existing schemes is becoming thinner as more and more exposés highlight the essence of problems with certification. In the palm oil sector, we have the living drama of the RSPO. Yawn, sigh, it's all a bit boring.

With this, people are searching their minds, hearts and the landscapes in which they live and work for new approaches.

Third:

New approaches are already emerging and much more rapidly than the silly tinkering we get with certification schemes trying to make themselves effective and meaningful.

In Beyond Certification I speak of our Values, Transparency, Transformation and Verification approach but that's just a transitional step to the wild disruption that awaits just around the corner.

Who has used Air BnB? Uber? Strangely, I've not used either but people keep telling me the former is the largest hotel company in the world and they don't own any hotels while Uber is the world's largest taxi company yet they don't own a single taxi.

In the cosseted world of certification, we mostly don't feel this disruption will affect us. How wrong we are.

One of the fundamental pillars that keeps certification going is the idea of Independent Third Party audits. Wise people come and judge how other people are doing and if they're doing OK, as defined by a standard, a certificate can be issued.

There are so many fundamental issues with this idea that we could spend the next four days discussing them. We don't have time for that so let's focus down.

The biggest problem with Independent Third Party audit is that, oh dear, it's not actually independent at all. I pay you to verify me and your business model depends fundamentally on your telling me I'm OK, on issuing those certificates. No certificate, no payment, no salary, no business, no job. Voila. Look up "Tragic conflict of interest" in the dictionary and there's a picture of certification. Certificates get issued, costs get cut, joyous claims of sustainability are made and yet exposés continue, experts visit certified operations and scratch their heads. The world races toward climate change, species disappear, blah, blah, blah. It's all a mess really.

The technology I mentioned a moment ago is going to disrupt this whole auditing system and blow it away. Yes, blow it completely out of the water. Auditors are threatened species. It's just around the corner.

Anyone heard of blockchain?

It's the technology used to power Bitcoin. It's all about globally distributed networks. It doesn't require auditing, it doesn't rely on mistrust and it holds loads of information. In an article in Forbes, Blockchain experts Don and Alex Tapscott say this:

"The protocol ensures the integrity of the data exchanged among billions of devices without going through a trusted third party."

They add:

"Today thoughtful people everywhere are trying to understand the implications of a protocol that enables mere mortals to manufacture trust through clever code. This has never happened before--trusted transactions directly between two or more parties, authenticated by mass collaboration and powered by collective self-interests, rather than by large corporations motivated by profit."

And...

"This protocol is the foundation of a growing number of global distributed ledgers called blockchains--of which the Bitcoin blockchain is the largest. While the technology is complicated, the main idea is simple. Blockchains enable us to send money directly and safely from me to you, without going through a bank, a credit card company, or PayPal. Rather than the Internet of Information, it's the Internet of Value or of Money. It's also a platform for everyone to know what is true--at least with regard to structured recorded information. At its most basic, it is an open source code: anyone can download it for free, run it, and use it to develop new tools for managing transactions online. As such, it holds the potential for unleashing countless new applications and as yet unrealized capabilities that have the potential to transform many things."

Experts in the financial sector are coming together to work out how this new technology will transform their business; there's no question that it will.

Here's another quote from the Tapscott's:

"Big banks and some governments are implementing blockchains as distributed ledgers to revolutionize the way information is stored and transactions occur. Their goals are laudable--speed, lower cost, security, fewer errors, and the elimination of central points of attack and failure."

Let's note these two points:

"To revolutionize the way information is stored and transactions occur."

"Speed, lower cost, security, fewer errors and the elimination of central points of attack and failure"

These sound great for financial transactions but pretty good for quality assurance in the food sector too, no?

People in other sectors are already scratching their heads too. It's not clear yet how it will develop but it's coming to us at light speed, and it's a massive disruption and no sector will be immune. It's with us now but over the coming few years, not 10, it will change the way we operate on a global basis and certification in the food sector will be included in the tornado.

Other technology will play its part to enable this revolution too. Smartphones aren't the sole domain of wealthy people in the rich world anymore. More and more they're getting out into more and more remote parts of developing countries but even without smartphones, with just traditional mobile phones. we already have the technology to connect billions of farmers and other natural resource managers into global, trust based networks. The global distributed network already exists and it's only around the corner that the voices of those people in the network will be connected and heard and trusted and verified to share quality information globally without the need for costly and time hungry, subjective, clunky and conflicted audit systems.

So...for me, Certification is already a dead man walking and the power it holds today - which is substantial - will very soon be ripped away by individuals operating on globally distributed networks.

This is all very new and still unfolding but I recommend, if you want to learn more, that you read Blockchain Revolution by Don and Alex Tapscott.

At TFT, we're already exploring how we can be a part of the Blockchain Revolution. The reality is that it is coming, it cannot be resisted and I believe, that it will be a solution to many of the issues I raise above with certification.

It's going to be an interesting next five years but it really is within that time frame that the major disruption will happen and 10 years from now, the new generation will know very little about certification. It will be a relic from their parents era and those youngsters will be operating their farms, their food processing facilities, their shops and all other businesses along food supply chains using a trust based globally distributed network that runs much more smoothly than certification ever could.

In this context, certification is akin to big, clunky, slow, expensive and ultimately unreliable technology from the past, like the first mobile phones.

It's time has past. No need to mourn, but it really is time to get with the unfolding global revolution.

Thanks to the organisers of Foodpolicy's Outbreak, held in Amsterdam, Tuesday June 7th, 2016. A slightly different version of this blog was delivered as the Opening Keynote address.