Barry Brill: Rebalance the economy first

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

One thing is quite clear - "clean green" is not this country's brand. It isn't a brand at all, says a Government Advisory Group reporting on "Greening New Zealand's Growth".

The national brand "New Zealand" carries a collection of attributes for foreigners. Cleanliness and greenness can be amongst its positive attributes for tourism and food products in certain markets. But we need to understand the perceptions that accompany the words.

The report highlights our ranking as one of "the top three cleanest countries" in terms of official corruption. This cleanliness "has definitely become part of our brand". Fonterra notes that our brand is preferred because "New Zealand is seen as a natural safe and pure source of secure food nutrition".

These words are readily associated with clean and unpolluted water, along with high standards of hygiene and quality control. Cleanliness and food safety go hand-in-hand.

The word "green" is associated with our rolling farmlands and forests. Idyllic mental images speak of freshness and nature to crowded food consumers in Hong Kong or Birmingham or Riyadh.

The attraction is New Zealand's colour, not its environmental regulations or its energy intensity. To be sure, activist groups will seek to politicise trade - with slogans such as 'food miles' and 'buy local'.

Fortunately, we don't see any successful campaigns targeted against the sustainability or regulations of a particular country.

Politicians have argued that our energy tax system (ETS) has improved our "clean & green" reputation internationally, which has in turn increased our export sales. Neither the products nor the markets have been identified, and nor have the quantities or values. I don't believe them.

In more than a decade of peddling New Zealand food exports in five continents, I never once heard the expression "clean & green" used by anybody outside this country.

Hordes of importers and retailers remarked upon our magnificent scenery and "beautiful green countryside". They were often concerned with our food hygiene regulations and sometimes with animal welfare; but never with our energy or environmental laws.

I have asked others who are heavily engaged in selling New Zealand foods - with Silver Fern Farms, Fonterra, Sanford and ENZA - about their experiences with the "clean & green" slogan. They don't hear about it in the international marketplace. It is endemic only to New Zealand.

The mission of the Advisory Group included "green growth", "clean technology" and "a lower carbon economy". Definitions pose a special problem, as none of these terms bear their standard dictionary meanings in bureaucratese.

Green Growth appears to be a synonym for GDP growth, along with some emphasis (and rhetoric) on 'sustainable development'. Nearly everybody is in favour of sustainable economic growth - along with 'green jobs' - so it is a clear PR winner.

Clean Technology or 'clean-tech', covers businesses which claim to deliver environmental benefits. The boundaries are superbly elastic. The Economist asks: "Does growing soybeans count? What if you manufacture bicycles? How about the steel that goes into wind turbines?"

A low carbon economy emits fewer greenhouse gases than ordinary economies. In New Zealand, that means less intensive farming and big increases in our trade deficits. Of course, it is very difficult to reconcile this with Growth of any colour.

All these definitional problems won't matter too much unless the Government were to adopt a policy of picking winners, and offering uneven support to firms and sectors based upon a scale of political correctness. That policy has frequently proved disastrous both here and abroad.

The notion of a 'green economic revolution' peaked in about 2009. The Europeans spent up large, then flamed out. The US is still in the throes of morning-after remorse and insolvencies. China's Pyrrhic victory has brought massive over-capacity in a world of falling demand. Green Growth is an idea whose time has passed.

Missing from the earnest concerns of the Advisory Group are any considerations of price. All 26 recommendations will add avoidable costs to an economy whose products are already seriously over-priced. New Zealand's tradeable sector (from which all sustainable growth must flow) has now been mired in recession for eight consecutive years. We are simply uncompetitive.

The Government should leave marketing slogans to the marketers and selling pitches to the sales force. Its critical role is to rebalance the economy, allowing our export sector to regain its place in a competitive world.

* Barry Brill formerly led the International Division of Wattie industries Ltd

- NZ Herald

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