Element: Personally, how did you come to your beliefs and attitudes around sustainability?
Simon Millar: I have always had an interest in how science and business work together and that is underscored by a lifetime connection to the land and water. A turning point came when I lived in Los Angeles. In 2006 I was developing a TV series based on Elizabeth Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" when An Inconvenient Truth came out. This turned the wheels for action in a major way - I sold my GMC Yukon 4x4 urban assault vehicle and bought a Prius and enrolled in post graduate training in global sustainability at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with the aim of doing future business with a greater purpose.
E: When Pure Advantage presented its 'Green Growth' report in 2012, Prof Jacqueline Rowarth, professor of AgriBusiness at the University of Waikato, said it would be "economic treason" to ignore the report. Given the National government's dismissive response to it, do you agree with her? Has National committed economic treason, and is it continuing to do so?
SM: There is a groundswell of change around the world - let's see how University of Waikato law student Sarah Thomson get's on - she is suing the government for failing to set emissions targets that reflect the scientific consensus on climate change. I think National has ignored, underplayed or eliminated numerous low carbon economic opportunities and as a result we have been eclipsed by leaders in other states around the world. NZ could could have strategically led thinking in the green space with the same conviction that we campaigned to chair the UN security council. However, in a post COP21 world - while there is a huge social aspect - success is largely about capitalising and distributing the technology that already exists. I think it would benefit the business sector and the people of New Zealand for the government to set audacious goals around the green growth opportunities in front of us - or what we call our 'Advantages'.
E: Has New Zealand made much progress towards green growth in the intervening three years? If so, is it a result of government policy or the corporate sector?
SM: Basically our government stated we should be followers in this area so I think we plod along and nip at the heels of progress when we could lead. One of our trustees said recently that "being followers or being a low-cost factory is embarrassing and won't create wealth or do anything for our brand on the world stage. Sir Ed wouldn't have said 'Oh, I will use that old stuff over there and follow you other guys up'.
Despite policy inaction and uncertainty, some corporates like Air New Zealand and BNZ are figuring out how to understand and communicate sustainable commitments. I would like to see every CEO outline their pathway to a clean green future because increasing numbers of global corporations now consider sustainability of their organisation as critical to their future and know that customers will avoid brands that put focus on just profits rather than values.
We should double down R&D investment in primary industries and encourage innovation in the green tech sector. We should invest in our response to climate change, lead in strategic thinking and partnerships, innovation, social behavior and own the space like no-one else.
E: What about our international clean, green image? Are we eroding it overseas?
Let's look at our largest generator of GDP - the tourist sector. I don't think many visitors come here to swim in rivers around the Waikato to make an assessment on the integrity of our image in that way. However, what they do see is that we are a sparsely populated isthmus in the Pacific with a clean green pedigree. They might see the Mackinnon Pass on a clear day, whales off the Kaikoura coast and eat organic food and wine in Hawke's Bay. This ticks a number of boxes yet this is so important for us we must keep raising the bar and not be complacent. The same goes for the food and beverage sector as the demand for better nutrition and traceability across supply chains faces greater scrutiny. On a policy level we are a weak player and yet to show any real muscle on the global green stage and we are consistently called out by reputable climate action groups.
E: Are there any other international examples of a country trading on its clean, green image like we do?
The focus of most nations is mainly around becoming increasingly, or completely, powered by non-fossil fuel energy sources and several countries from Uruguay, Costa Rica, Denmark to Iceland, China and even the UK and India have set goals and are smashing them. Obviously we have natural advantages in that area and some of those states are less squeaky clean than New Zealand in others. However, Sweden stated they want to become the first nation to end it's dependence on fossil fuels - albeit without a timetable - so we could set a goal and get into a race with Sweden and aim to win. New Zealand's primary advantages are it's natural resources and geographical isolation - I am not sure any other developed nation has quite the advantages in this way that we do which is exactly what Pure Advantage investigates and promotes.
E: Are those countries fostering that image, or ruining it?
There were over 190 countries at COP 21 and all of them made a major commitment to foster and deliver on a cleaner greener future. How it plays out will depend on each country's independent strategic alignment to green growth and in turn how that impacts their trading relationships and for how they want to be perceived on the world stage.
E: If you were Prime Minister, what would be the first three things you'd do?
Science and technology is way ahead of humanity and unless we live sustainably we will outgrow the world which is preposterous. I would outline a vision and goals directing us more toward a sustainable future and this includes fostering cultural leadership that I think is sorely lacking - especially with increased migration, growing poverty levels and the widening gap between rich and poor. Second, I would aim for New Zealand to become a world leader in commercial green growth that is relative and that pertains to us, for example; develop premium natural organic products and exportable green IP, become the first country to use 100% renewable energy and stimulate rapid uptake of electric vehicles, infrastructure and innovation around supporting technology. Third we should become the first nation to produce and consume 100% organic food. This will impact the health of our people, the nutrition they ingest, the air they breathe, the water they drink and the soil quality to provide the food. Furthermore, New Zealand is filled with agricultural scientists - we could lead enhanced soil science and pave the way for the rest of the world to sequester carbon in a such way that would offset all our current anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide.
E: Briefly, what's Pure Advantage up to these days?
We developed a media platform to better represent the face of Pure Advantage. This was an effective makeover strategy, enabling us to become a conduit for the voice of green growth and connect with business and wider communities in new ways. We have the potential to become the primary destination for environmental business content in New Zealand. The game plan for the media platform was to produce and profile original New Zealand green growth business content, supported by aggregation of international thought leadership through social media. Since our April 2014 site launch we have published sixty original Advantage-focused articles by twenty-eight contributors drawn from our trustees, green business leaders, investigative journalists, advocates and thought leaders. This strategy has led to a dramatic increase and better understanding of our stakeholder engagement metrics that ultimately help guide future activity. One area in particular covers a number of Advantages and concerns our co-governance role in a massive native tree planting initiative that grew out of a very simple question: "How many native trees are we planting in New Zealand?" that begged another: "How many more could we plant?". There will be a lot more about this initiative in the near future and is supported by a comprehensive interactive research report that will be widely distributed.