Chris de Freitas: Scare proves fragility of precious 'pure' brand

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The country as a whole has the superficial appearance of a green environment, but some of that greenness is a product of activities that have significantly damaging side-effects. Photo / Natalie Slade
The country as a whole has the superficial appearance of a green environment, but some of that greenness is a product of activities that have significantly damaging side-effects. Photo / Natalie Slade

Fallout from the Fonterra botulism scare serves as a timely reminder of the value of New Zealand's international reputation.

Incidents like this can challenge the thinking that New Zealand is sufficiently pristine to justify a premium in international markets.

It is enough to damage the New Zealand brand and cost the country billions of dollars in earnings; but is not confined to the country's great export-focused food industry.

The clean, green brand underpins the success of our other great industry, tourism. All are tied to New Zealand's "100 per cent Pure" brand, which is in turn part and parcel of perceived environmental well-being.

Comparative national environmental assessments such as the Yale University Environmental Performance Index prepared for the World Economic Forum are now common. They use standardised performance indicators to measure and rank environmental well-being.

The state of a country's environment is assessed and combined with assessments of the gap between current performance and internationally agreed sustainability standards, or expert opinion when no such standards exist for the issue under examination. Depending on the rating generated, consumers in countries from whom we are trying to extract an environmental premium may have more cause to direct any premium to their domestic producers and near neighbours.

State-of-the-planet reporting is part of a new environmentalism in which New Zealand is measured and ranked irrespective of whether or not we wish to be, and with the internet, it will be communicated and used whether we like it or not.

For this reason, scary events, misinformation, or lack of awareness of existing trends can be disastrous.

The country as a whole has the superficial appearance of a green environment, but some of that greenness is a product of activities that have significantly damaging side-effects. As an example, consider that water quality in many of the country's major lakes and rivers has been declining for 30 to 40 years. The pollution is a consequence of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the lakes, principally from the nutrient load of water that drains from agricultural land used in dairy farming.

It may take many tens of years for such pollution to travel through to groundwater and lakes and, because of historic accumulation, no immediate end to the problem is envisaged whatever the changes to land use around the lakes today.

The story is illustrative of aspects of New Zealand's environmental challenges. Whatever the immediate steps taken, the situation is likely to worsen before it improves, accentuated by the slowness in acting when issues were first recognised.

The problem is embodied in the concept of "new environmentalism". This short-hand term summarises three distinct but interconnected trends that are seen to be framing contemporary issues of environmental sustainability; declining resources, radical transparency, and increasing expectations. Collectively they provide a new context in which New Zealand's clean, green credentials are being evaluated.

Whereas in the past, participation in wilderness conservation and pollution control went a long way to satisfying environmental obligations, the new environmentalism poses new challenges that threaten some aspects of the country's environmental scorecard.

An added concern is that many environmental challenges are particular to the places where they occur. This is partly illustrated in the unusual aspects of New Zealand's contribution to greenhouse gases in which agriculture rather than industry or human population is a major source.

The particular environmental challenges faced are also partly an outcome of the island geography which has supported highly endemic species. Measured by the proportion of its wildlife under threat of worldwide extinction, New Zealand can be considered among the worst environmental performers.

Examine New Zealand according to the proportion of its land area protected from development and it can be considered an environmental champion. The contrast is partly that the protected areas do not give good representation of the diversity of environments that need to be saved.

Ultimately, our success as NZ brand managers will evolve from our skill in tackling the trade-offs between environmental protection and economic development linked to quality food production and controls.

Chris de Freitas is an associate professor in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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