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Case Study

Oct 10, 2013

When Reputation and Reality Clash - Why Shouldn’t New Zealanders Trust Their Own Green Image?

Despite a No. 14 ranking in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index – a ranking that put the country behind 11 other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, a recent survey revealed that the majority of my fellow New Zealanders consider the state of environmental management in the country to be “good, and better than in other developed countries.” However, at a recent environmental conference hosted by the Environmental Defence Society, an environmental NGO in New Zealand, many environmental advocates said the No.14 EPI ranking was too high and was out of line with their on-the ground perceptions of environmental quality. These advocates are concerned outside “validation” from international efforts –like the EPI – will lead to complacency from the government.

New Zealand’s Environmental Performance on the 2012 EPI reveals major differences between environmental health and ecosystem results.  (Graphic by Angel Hsu, YCELP)

The cause of these discrepancies is two-fold: a lack of a local environmental data to discern the truth, and the government’s prominently promoted ‘100% Pure’ tourism campaign. Currently, New Zealand is the only OECD country without a mandate for compulsory environmental reporting. And without reliable environmental data collection and reporting mechanisms, the only way for the general public to gauge the health of the environment is through their own eyes. This creates a problem: according to the EPI, the country generally performs better in areas where the performance is more ‘visible.’(For example, NZ does well in access to drinking water and sanitation, but very poorly in the less visible areas such as SO2­ and fish stocks).

But the public can’t tease out the subtlety of a particular issue without digging into the data, if data is indeed available.

Take water as an example, Duncan Steward, CEO of a major environmental non-profit – Pure Advantage claims that “on a macro level, New Zealand’s water quality still ranks number one. But if you get down to a more granular basis [such as water use], the results are markedly different.” The ostensibly rosy picture ultimately misled the majority of New Zealanders to believe that the country has better environmental quality. This perception is further distorted by the “100% Pure” campaign, which is not grounded in real measurement. The result: a deeply ingrained “clean & green” mindset that causes people to turn a blind eye to signs of environmental problems. A study suggested that many New Zealand households are not actively participating in recycling, despite the fact landfills are filling up at an increasing rate.

From this lack of information comes misperception, from this misperception comes complacency, and from this complacency comes inaction. The government and businesses reap profit from this reputation, while ignoring the impact such complacy may have on New Zealand’s longer-term sustainability. This poses a huge risk for the country – if the “clean & green” image disappears one day through clouds of polluted air and water, so goes with it the very competitive advantage that New Zealand is so reliant upon.

What can be done?

Reversing the pernicious cycle of complacency requires vision and leadership from both the public and the private sectors.  The backbone of New Zealand’s economy – agriculture and tourism, are the very industries built on the country’s reputation as a pristine and pure paradise. This is especially true for the dairy industry, which accounts for 24 percent of the total exported goods in 2012. The sheer size of this industry also means a large environmental footprint, especially on the quality of waterways around the dairy farms. The irresponsible management of pollution runoff and the use of fertilisers have caused severe degradation of the vitality of the waterways, to the point where almost all of the lowland streams and rivers are now unsafe for swimming.

One effective method of management is to fence farms from the waterways to curb contact with cattle and runoffs. However, enforcement has been challenging – there is simply a lack of will from the farmers. It has been shown that farmers choose not to follow the fencing guideline, unless there are obvious financial benefits for doing so. This mindset, arguably, has resulted from a myopic misunderstanding that New Zealand’s green clean image will continue to outlive scandals like the Fonterra dairy contamination scandal.  However, once a tipping point is reached, the damage to this “green” reputation could be catastrophic and irreversible.

In the green race, New Zealand is unfortunately slipping behind. While many countries, including New Zealand’s own government, would like to believe that a No. 14 ranking on the EPI is cause for applause, the reality is that a country that relies so heavily on a clean and green image cannot afford to rest on its laurels. A first step in the process to assuring a sustainable 100% Pure image for New Zealand is in collecting and reporting appropriate data so that all sectors – the private, public, and government – can understand the baseline reality of environmental pollution and natural resources and collaboratively work together on solutions.