Dr Anna Thompson cringes as she recalls taking visiting Norwegian academics to the saltwater pools at St Clair beach in Dunedin and seeing the "Beach Closed" sign because of faecal contamination. The senior lecturer in Otago University's tourism department feels the same embarrassment driving through the Mackenzie Basin, where the once-golden tussock landscape is giving way to an "artificial" green patchwork, studded with irrigation gantries. "It's completely opposite to the image of the high country that visitors expect."

Clean and green is how New Zealand markets itself to the world - with images of native forests, pristine lakes and rivers, unspoilt coastline and unusual wildlife.

These natural assets underpin the "100 per cent Pure New Zealand" tourism brand, which is credited with leading a 50 per cent increase in visitor numbers in 10 years (though our tourism agency claims 100 per cent Pure is about the experience rather than the environment).

Our clean, green image is vital not just to a tourism industry which now earns $21 billion but to the produce exports vital to our economy.

British consumers watch television advertisments for our butter showing a pair of cartoon cows on a green hillside reading an upside-down map. The voiceover says: "Only our cows are free to roam all day long. Anchor - the free-range butter company."

Our meat is marketed as grass-fed and consumers pay a premium because of it.

"An awful lot of our industry trades on our clean, green image," says Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell.

"Clean and green" is so integral in the marketing of New Zealand and its products that, if one sector stuffs up, it can easily rub off on others. So when overseas reports question our environmental credentials, as seems to be happening more often, we should be worried.

In the past year we've been taken to task for our performance on greenhouse gases (by a columnist in The Guardian) and for the impact on hoki stocks from bottom-trawling (by The New York Times). A report by one of our own, the Cawthron Institute, found we had one of the dirtiest rivers - the Manawatu - in the western world. And our dairy industry was criticised for high use of palm kernel imported from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia cleared of forest where orang-utan once lived.

The focus on our environmental performance coincides with a global shift towards green and ethical consumption, fuelled by concern about global warming. Consumers are rejecting everything from pesticides and GM foods to cage-farmed bacon and choosing eco-tourism when they travel.

Adding to our vulnerability is the ability for bad news to go viral through the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

This week, Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly was the latest to suggest we are setting ourselves up to fail. In an opinion piece in the Herald, O'Reilly wrote:"The danger in holding up 'clean and green' as a banner to describe ourselves is that it is very excluding - it excludes many aspects of our work and our lives. It's more mythology than statement of reality.

"People overseas find our countryside beautiful but they tend to mention our people more ... We seem to have a view that any chink in our environment will badly compromise our clean, green image in the eyes of the world."

Is it time, then, to quietly ditch 100 per cent Pure and other marketing claims which - as reports sourced in this stocktake of our clean and green credentials show - clearly are based on a myth?

100 per cent Pure has always had its critics within the tourism industry, who find the brand too narrow. But many environmentalists and industry leaders argue the other way: why not actually pour more resources into improving our environmental credentials and making industries sustainable? Make 100 per cent Pure the goal.

"It's a no-brainer to get ahead of the game on sustainability," says Hackwell.

"In many places we are - there's some really innovative stuff happening in New Zealand."

But instead of positioning ourselves as a sustainable or green economy, signals coming from the Government have been potentially negative: relaxing environmental regulations, softening measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, investigating mining in national parks, advocating roads over public transport.

Meat and Wool NZ chairman Mike Peterson says our reputation is at stake every day. He says the goalposts are continually shifting, with consumers increasingly concerned about animal welfare and how goods are produced.

"Who would have thought people would be buying on carbon footprint? It's absolutely crucial we ensure our reputation is intact. And it's not just about meeting legal requirements, it's about what consumers want."

The trouble is, with heightened awareness overseas on sustainability and environmental protection we are far from the shining light we claim to be.

We are clean and green, but only relatively speaking and by accident rather than conscious effort. Ours was the last country in the world to be settled by humans; the population remains small in relation to land area and the rugged terrain has spared vast tracts from the scars of civilisation.

We can proudly assert that 44 per cent of land area is covered by native vegetation, and just over 32 per cent in conservation estate - a significant proportion internationally.

Conservation workers and volunteers achieve miracles on a shoestring, even if threatened birdlife has to be removed to offshore islands to survive.

A 2007 OECD report on our environmental performance in the previous 10 years noted that the security of 200 threatened species had improved, some 320 sq km of erosion-prone pasture had been reforested, the energy intensity of our economy had declined and 30 per cent of our energy supply came from renewable sources.

But if we arrived late, humans have managed a heck of a lot of damage in a relatively short time (see accompanying graphs). The Department of Conservation's list of threatened species rose by 416 to 2788 between 2001 and 2004, one of the highest levels in the world.

Clearance of lowland areas for pastoral farming and forestry has eroded hills and gullies and degraded waterways with sediment and farm run-off. Urban and industrial development has added to the pollution of streams, rivers and coastal waters.

The pastoral land use which continues to drive this country's economy is increasingly seen as its worst polluter. Conversion of more and more land (from sheep and beef farms and forests) for dairying and increasing intensification on dairy farms (with higher stock levels, more fertilisers and supplementary feeds) has increased degradation of streams, rivers, wetlands and estuaries - threatening even marine habitats.

Large corporations are now pushing for factory farm techniques - with cows kept indoors for much of the year - threatening the free-range image that distinguishes our meat and dairy products from Northern Hemisphere rivals.

Agriculture is also our biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The lakes and rivers which form the backdrop to many tourist promotions are at risk of algal blooms because of high nutrient loadings (mainly from dairy farms), treated sewage and industrial waste.

Sow crates, pesticide use, genetic research, palm kernel imports and chemical additives all pose risks for the image of our produce.

Fish stocks have been plundered; introduced pests and weeds have added to the wildlife and habitat destruction caused by forestry and farming. Maui's dolphin, the world's smallest dolphin, is on the brink of extinction, with only about 100 left.

Dependence on fossil fuels for transport (including an over-reliance on private cars), home heating and industry have brought air pollution and contributed to our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.

In the face of all this, successive governments have kept blinkers on as industries responsible (for the most part) failed to take sufficient action. When the last Labour Government moved to protect Hector's and Maui's dolphins from set net fishing, the law change failed when cross party support dissolved in the face of fishing industry lobbying.

The picture is changing. Many dairy farmers, for instance, are committed environmentalists - fencing off streams, minimising fertiliser use, containing and treating effluent. Researchers aim to position New Zealand as a leader in the international effort to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

But a legacy remains for our waterways and coastal environment: nitrate from excessive fertiliser use, consumed by cows and excreted as urine, can take 20 to 30 years to leach through groundwater to reach the sea.

Forest and Bird's Hackwell says the voluntary Clean Streams Accord needs to be backed with regulations to catch the laggards.

He is dismayed by recent moves to relax environmental rules to help business and growth.

"Our future is in the ability to be sustainable - we're going to be judged by that, we're going to make our living by that.

"We need to have good powerful robust environmental regulations not weaker ones. This mantra that less environmental protection will somehow be better for us clearly is not the case."

He points to landscape changes in the South Island high country, particularly in the Mackenzie Basin where conversion to intensive dairying is increasing, creating demand for irrigation. The pre-Christmas application for indoor stall-farming operations on 16 dairy farms in the basin drew submissions in opposition from France, Britain and Australia.

"This could ruin our market image overseas. For the sake of a few farmers in the Mackenzie Country, why would we put that at risk? The bigger picture has to be taken account of."

He notes many of the farms are Crown pastoral leases but rules to protect nationally significant landscapes are lacking. It's not so much a failure of the RMA, he says, as a failure of will by successive governments and local bodies.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman says expansion in dairy farming intensity and production must be capped.

"An economic strategy which aims to continue to exponentially increase dairy production, with associated increases in intensity, is not a viable strategy," he told Northland dairy farmers last month.

"Every report on water quality in New Zealand has pointed to the role of intensification in driving environmental decline."

To compensate, Norman favours reflecting the aspiration of 100 per cent purity to create a national "brand of integrity". Sustainable food production, for instance, would help ensure overseas consumers continue to pay a premium for our produce.

The brand could extend to measures such as public transport improvements or outlawing bottom trawling in fishing, says Norman.

"Remember the coverage of the demise of the Yangtse River dolphin because China is so polluted and dirty - what if the New Zealand [Maui's] dolphin is the next one that goes extinct?"

As he told the dairy farmers: "If brand New Zealand is saying we're all clean and green, and yet consumers hear stories about rivers full of effluent, then we will lose their trust."

Tourism Industry Association chief executive Tim Cossar is another who supports making 100 per cent Pure an aspirational brand, not just for tourism but across productive and industrial sectors.

"We're all in this together - the environmental credentials of all of us will determine the success of this country internationally."

The Government knows it. Conservation Minister Tim Groser, in a speech in July, made the link between the state of the environment and our economic prosperity.

He said of New Zealand's place in the world: "The point of difference is not price or volume but rather brand value based around world class environmental standards." With food in particular, demand for sustainable environmental practices was growing, he said.

The Prime Minister picked up on the theme in a November speech to Federated Farmers - after the Guardian's criticism of the blow-out in our greenhouse gas emissions. Key also noted moves by US and British supermarkets to stock only sustainably produced products -with Waitrose banning our hoki and orange roughy which are harvested by bottom-trawling. (Waitrose gained increased market share as a result).

But Key didn't go on to outline any Government initiatives towards sustainability. His speech was intended to justify the watered-down emissions trading scheme - to dairy farmers who, despite being our single worst contributors to emissions, had been let off lightest.

Anna Thompson: "You can get a bit depressed about it all because you think 'if we can't do it [who can]?' It's been a common theme that NZ has the potential to lead in this area but we just seem to muck it up continually. Our vulnerability has been pointed out time and time again."


New Zealanders know the claims we make are marketing hype. Ever since Government agency Tourism NZ launched "100 per cent Pure" there have been dark mutterings it would come back to bite us and should be dumped. Some operators also argue it is too narrowly focused and doesn't convey the type of experience they are offering.

But what about the rest of the world?

Agency spokeswoman Cas Carter says the international market understands that 100 per cent Pure is a tourism brand and is not meant to reflect the country's environment. "It's about the combination of things you can't do in any other country. The hongi, for instance, is promoted as a 100 per cent pure New Zealand experience."

But, she admits, "the landscape is the main reason by far for people to come to New Zealand. The environment is something that we can't ignore."

The agency celebrated 10 years of the brand in June and cited a 50 per cent increase in visitor numbers and increase in foreign exchange earnings since its launch from $3.5 billion to $5.9 billion.

There's no sign yet that tourists are feeling misled, says Carter. Feedback from surveys is that our environment meets expectations for 99 per cent and exceeds expectations for 36 per cent of visitors.

The Tourism Industry Association can afford to be less diplomatic. Back in August after the Government moved to examine the potential for mining on conservation lands, chief executive Tim Cossar cautioned that our natural scenery and landscapes were "the main reason visitors come here and ... form the basis of thousands of tourism businesses.

"...It may be that tourism is a more valuable and sustainable industry to New Zealand's economy than mining."

Cossar maintains we shouldn't get too hung up about 100 per cent Pure - New Zealand's identity has been forged by things like distance, its pioneering history and rugby and over a much longer period than the tourism brand, he says.


Let's not beat ourselves with a sustainably harvested birch too much. Meat and Wool NZ chairman Mike Peterson says although there's a tendency in our isolation to focus on the negative, the reputation of New Zealand produce remains extremely good overseas.

Tourists come here to experience stunning landscapes and nature within easy reach. New Zealand offers a great variety in a few small islands, from deserted beaches and bays to rugged alps and gorges cloaked in native bush. Our unique wildlife is another drawcard - from whales and dolphins to birds found nowhere else on the planet. Wilderness experiences often go hand in hand with adventure tourism such as black water rafting or heli-skiing.

About 44 per cent of New Zealand's land area is covered by native vegetation, and just over 32 per cent is conservation estate - a significant proportion internationally. The area of public conservation land increased by 4.56 per cent between 2004 and 2007, bringing the total to 9.27 million ha. Covenants such as QEII Trust arrangements on private land protect another than 220,000 ha.

Pasture covers 39 per cent of the land, says the 10-year State of the Environment report released in January 2008. Peterson says farmers need to stand up for themselves and highlight the good - though he believes they have dented their credibility by opposing emissions reduction measures. "My personal view is I'm going to embrace any measures that come along to reduce my carbon footprint."

New Zealand is regarded as a significant contributor to global biodiversity, with an estimated 80,000 species of native animals, plants, and fungi. A large proportion of these species do not occur naturally anywhere else on earth. All our frogs and reptiles, more than 90 per cent of insects, about 80 per cent of our vascular plants (plants other than mosses, liverworts and hornworts), and a quarter of our bird species are found only in New Zealand.

Our marine environment remains something to be proud of. New Zealand administers the sixth largest marine area in the world at more than 4.4 million sq km. This embraces a diverse range of marine life and ecosystems including subantarctic and subtropical waters, seamounts and inter-tidal estuaries. As much as 80 per cent of New Zealand's plant and animal species occur in the marine environment, and 44 per cent of these species are not found anywhere else in the world.

New Zealand is a marine mammal and seabird hotspot. At least 38 species of dolphin and whale are found here, just under half of the world's total. We have over 80 species of seabirds, more than anywhere else in the world. Again, many are endemic to here.

Seventy per cent of 400 monitored coastal sites meet swimming guidelines almost all the time; only two per cent breach guidelines regularly.

By international standards, freshwater in New Zealand is both clean and in good supply. A 2006 report on lake water quality painted a broad picture of "high water quality in deep lakes at high altitude and in unmodified catchments and of lower water quality in modified catchments".

Underwater visibility in South Island lakes is commonly more than 10m. Lakes in natural catchments have water that is on average five times clearer than in lakes in pastoral catchments. Of 49 lakes monitored for long-term trends in nutrient levels, most have shown no signs of change since 1990.

For freshwater fish communities, the health of rivers surrounded by native forest remains good compared to those in developed areas. Rivers in undeveloped catchments make up around half of our total river length and generally have good water quality, the State of the Environment report says.

Despite more intensive dairying, our most nutrient-enriched rivers have about half the average nutrient levels of rivers in Europe, North America and Asia, says the OECD.

Our low population and high rainfall mean we have more freshwater per person than most countries.

Air quality is good in most places most of the time and we're doing better at recycling and making housing more energy efficient.

Our use of renewable sources for electricity generation is high by international standards.

In 2005, 28 per cent of New Zealand's primary energy supply consisted of renewable sources, the third best in the OECD.


Government moves that could tarnish our green image:

* Softening greenhouse gas reduction measures
* Investigating mining potential in conservation parks
* Easing environmental rules (RMA, council red tape)
* Ban on high country lakeside land sales reversed
* Additions to conservation estate ruled out
* Road building favoured over public transport
* Marine Mammal Protection Bill scuppered
* Tougher drinking water standards delayed
* Mandatory eco-lightbulbs cancelled
* Staff cuts for DoC, Fisheries, Biosecurity and Environment Ministry


SCORE: 3.5 OUT OF 10

Wildlife and habitat loss
* Since human occupation, NZ has experienced one of the highest species extinction rates in the world, largely due to habitat destruction and introduced pests and plants.
* Extinctions include 32% of endemic land and freshwater birds (including all moa species, Haast's eagle and the huia).
* Threatened species rose by 416 to 2788 between 2001 and 2004; 55 species were added to DoC's two highest threat categories. Including the Fiordland crested penguin and the grey duck.
* 3% of marine species are listed as threatened. (444 out of almost 16,000 known). Includes Hector's and Maui's dolphins, New Zealand sealion, southern right whale and Bryde's Whale.
* Nearly two-thirds of oceangoing seabirds are threatened.

Native birds
Kiwi: All five species are in decline and considered threatened.
Kakapo, fairy tern and black robin: Critically endangered.
North Island kaka: Almost absent from many large forested areas.
Kokako: Inhabit just 2% of their estimated natural range. The South Island kokako is extinct.

Maui's Dolphins

The world's smallest dolphin is now the world's rarest. Found only off the west coast of the North Island, fewer than 100 Maui's dolphins remain and they have a high chance of becoming extinct in the near future. Slow to breed, they are vulnerable to set nets, trawlers and collisions with ships and boats.


SCORE: 3.5 OUT OF 10

* Under the Kyoto Protocol, NZ committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels. But emissions in 2007 were 22 per cent higher than in 1990. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture comprise 47 per cent of our total emissions. Scientists say 1kg of nitrous oxide has the same greenhouse effect as 310kg of carbon dioxide while 1kg of methane emits the equivalent of 21kg of carbon dioxide.
* 5th highest greenhouse gas emissions per person out of 27 OECD countries (2005).
Agriculture: 48% of emissions from this sector.
Fossil fuels: Use increased by 22% between 1998 and 2007, mainly road transport.
Cars: Reliance on private vehicles over public transport and increased trucking contributed to 39% increase in emissions in energy sector since 1990; 2nd highest in OECD.


SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10

* Overall air quality is good but in some locations during winter (particularly South Island) and in peak hour traffic in Auckland, pollution is at harmful levels.
Home heating: Use of coal for heating and traffic emissions can mean poor air quality in about 30 locations where 53 per cent of NZers live.
Particulates: In 2007, just 42 per cent of monitored airsheds complied with the standard. Particulate levels in main NZ cities are comparable to Sydney and Melbourne.



* About 10 per cent of NZ is classed as severely erodible. Intensive dairy farming has increased nitrate contamination of surface waterways and groundwater. Rough estimates in the early 1990s put the number of contaminated sites between 7,000 and 8,000. There are now thought to be over 50,000 contaminated sheep dip sites alone.
* Nitrogen fertiliser use doubled since mid-1990s.
* Intensive farming may make it difficult to reverse declining soil quality.
* Hill-country erosion estimated to cost New Zealand between $100 million and $150 million each year.


SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10

* Our performance is mixed among OECD countries in terms of disposal of potentially reusable materials to landfills. Overall, New Zealand has a low proportion of paper disposal, average proportions of glass, organic waste, metal and plastic waste disposal, and a high proportion of 'other' waste disposal.
Recycling: about 73 per cent of New Zealanders had access to kerbside recycling in 2006.
Treatment: Slightly over half our sewerage plants treat wastewater to a secondary level (remove biosolids and associated contaminants).
Organic waste recycling: NZ ranks 19th out of 30 countries.


SCORE: 5.5 OUT OF 10

* NZ is a marine mammal and seabird hotspot; many species are endemic to NZ. In the Firth of Thames, nutrient-rich sediment from dairy farms is smothering shellfish beds and encouraging mangrove growth, threatening the food chain and migratory bird roosting areas.
Sewage contamination: Makes swimming unsafe within 3 days of heavy rain at many urban beaches.
Faecal contamination: Threat to mussel and oyster farms.
Undaria: (exotic seaweed) Threatens to overtake native seaweeds.



* The quota management system won international praise as an attempt to sustainably manage fisheries. But over-fishing and bottom trawling have pushed several stocks below sustainable levels. 68 per cent of 117 fish stocks whose status is known are being fished at levels considered safe. Bycatch threatens seabirds, dolphins and whales. Set nets kill an estimated 110 to 150 Hector's dolphins a year.
Stocks at risk include: Orange roughy, west coast North Island snapper, Tasman Bay and Golden Bay scallops, two rock lobster stocks, three paua stocks, bluenose, Bluff oysters and longfin eels.
Theatened by bycatch: Includes seabirds, dolphins, whales, seals and sealions.


SCORE: 4.5 OUT OF 10

* Overall river water quality is good by international standards, especially in native forest and high country areas. But rivers running through pastoral areas are degraded by nutrient enrichment from nitrate and phosphorus, faecal contamination and sediment.
* 40% of monitored freshwater swimming spots breach health guidelines some of the time; 8% do so regularly.
* Manawatu River branded the most polluted river in the western world by the Cawthron Institute.
The Manawatu is laden with nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus from farm runoff, treated sewage and industrial waste.
* Didymo threatens to smother beds in pristine angling rivers.

Waikato River
* Laden with nutrients including farm run-off and treated effluent. The equivalent of 97 truckloads of nitrogen-rich urea fertiliser enters the sea at Port Waikato each week.
* 70% of rivers and streams in the Waikato unsafe for swimming.


The picture is similar for lakes: High water quality in deep lakes at high altitude and in unmodified catchments, but lower water quality in modified catchments.

* Rotorua lakes and Lake Taupo: Threatened by algal bloom. Rotorua lakes to have $72m spent on clean up. Lake Taupo gets $82m.
* Lake Ellesmere: In serious decline.
* Even central Otago lakes including Hawea have been closed due to algal blooms.



16 per cent of New Zealanders drink water that falls short of drinking water standards. Sources include farm effluent and septic tank seepage. This year, Local Government Minister Rodney Hide gave councils more time to comply with standards.
Contamination: In 2006/07, 103 of 607 school supplies in rural areas were contaminated by faeces.
Illness: A 2007 report estimated between 18,000 and 34,000 cases of gastrointestinal disease occur each year from drinking water.


SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10

Our food is increasingly under scrutiny for sustainability, ethical production and health concerns. Pesticide use and enthusiasm for genetic modification in agriculture and horticulture risk a backlash.
Butter, cheese and red meats: associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Caged pigs and chicken farms: Risk of consumer backlash
Intensive dairy farming: increasing pollution of waterways.
Overfishing and bottom trawling: several stocks depleted.

Sources: Ministry for the Environment "State of the Environment 2008"; Niwa; Department of Conservation; Ministry of Health; OECD "Environmental Performance Review of NZ 2007".