How Clean, How Green? Critics Say New Zealand Doesn't Live Up To Its Image

To buy a carton of New Zealand-produced milk is to be transported to paradise. It says so right on the package with imagery more than words—a contented cow, a lush pasture, a blue sky that is the way blue is meant to look. The marketing folks are simply reinforcing the image held worldwide that New Zealand’s faint ecological footprint makes it clean and green.

New Zealand”s native kiwi is endangered and best seen in zoos. But the country also has an aggressive protection program for native species. © Jim Motavalli

But all the hype about New Zealand being clean and green may be somewhat exaggerated. New Zealand is touted internationally as one of the most breathtaking places to visit and as a conservation leader. But is there truth in the “100 percent pure New Zealand” slogan?

“There is a lot of rhetoric about how clean we are, but when you actually look at us, it turns out to not be the case,” says Cath Wallace, senior lecturer in economics and public policy at Victoria University and co-chair of ECO, an environmental nonprofit organization.

New Zealand falls just slightly behind the United Kingdom in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The country holds the ninth-highest rating of household waste, sharing the ranking with Australia, and is 11th-highest in energy consumption among the 20 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

“New Zealand society is like most Western democracies; it’s very oriented to be a high consumer society,” says Morgan Williams, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, an independent, environmental watchdog. “But that generates all the usual pressures of waste, water consumption, high energy consumption and so on.”

Another problem is that New Zealand’s oceans are being emptied at an alarming rate. The Best Fish Guide, compiled by Forest & Bird, the country’s leading conservation organization, found that not a single one of New Zealand’s 68 commercial fisheries was sustainable.

Many native species, including the national bird, the kiwi, are at risk of extinction as non-native species like Australian possums munch their way through the bush. Agriculture is New Zealand’s biggest industry, and intensive farming methods are taking their toll with pesticides leaching into the soil and polluting the groundwater. At least two thirds of the native bush and forest has been cleared since the country was discovered by Europeans.

“Green is the color of the leaves,” says John Peet, a retired senior lecturer at Canterbury University. “It means the trees are reasonably healthy. It doesn’t say anything about what’s going on below. The first European settlers recorded that the forests were alive with deafening bird song. I’ve only heard two places where the bird song has been anywhere close to deafening.”

New Zealand has a lot at stake to keep up its international appearance. The nation’s exports make up 90 percent of its GDP, and the tourism industry is worth more than $1 billion annually. “We’re a small nation a long way from our market, so we’re at a disadvantage automatically,” says Kevin Hackwell, conservation manager at Forest & Bird. “We have to sell our products at a premium, which we can do if we market them as clean and green.”

In fact, New Zealand’s eco-friendly marketing strategy is so important that the Ministry for the Environment (MFE) commissioned a study, “Valuing New Zealand’s Clean Green Image.” It concluded that if the country’s environment was perceived as degraded, international consumers would purchase 54 percent less dairy products and tourists would reduce their stay by an average of 68 percent. The study concluded that the country’s green image “is likely to be worth hundreds of millions, and possibly billions of dollars per year.”

“The image is hugely important for New Zealand in terms of trade,” says Sean Weaver, environmental studies lecturer at Victoria University. “People buy New Zealand meat and think, “It’s from New Zealand, where the grass is clean and the rain that falls on the grass is clean.””

Some environmentalists and critics believe that this marketing strategy, if not anchored in reality, poses dangers for New Zealand. Says Williams, “If we can’t back it up, someone is going to come whack us on the nose. That’s why we’ve got to walk the talk in everything we do. It’s not good enough for some of our small communities to have really good recycling.”

But Barry Carbon, who heads MFE, disagrees with these critiques. “New Zealand is one of the gems of the natural environment,” Carbon says. “And everybody who comes here thinks so. There’s not a system where you could do better.” Asked about critics, Carbon responds, “Every country in the world has a misery industry. I think the misery industry is well established in New Zealand.” The criticism, he said, is “not unfounded, but is over the top. One of the risks you have when you live in a beautiful country is you can take it for granted.”

New Zealand does have significant environmental armor, including an impressive grid of national parks, nuclear-free and zero waste policies, and a rigorous program of defending native flora and fauna. New Zealand was also the number one nation on the international Environmental Performance Index (EPI), with a score of 88 (followed by Sweden, with 87.8). Forest & Bird’s Hackwell says that New Zealand scores well because of its performance in addressing child mortality, drinking water quality, indoor air pollution and sanitation, but if the EPI rating had used other indicators its score would have been much lower.

New Zealand’s Green Party is also skeptical about the EPI index, which was jointly developed by centers based at Yale and Columbia Universities, as well as the World Economic Forum. “There are many indicators that the authors have not measured,” says Jeanette Fitzsimons, the party’s co-leader. “There is nothing to show the levels of our exposure to toxic chemicals or our handling of waste.”

But with only 3.6 million people, New Zealand is probably better able to manage its environmental problems than most (the pristine South Island has only 900,000 residents). It’s unlikely any other country would institute a nationwide “Zero Waste” policy. Due to the tireless efforts of the visionary Warren Snow, New Zealand became the first country in the world with such a policy in 2002. Today, 38 of New Zealand’s 74 local authorities have adopted zero waste targets, with a projected goal of meeting them by 2020.

Not surprisingly, there are some growing pains. While the country has achieved a record rate of glass recycling, New Zealand has only one glass manufacturer, which has not been able to absorb all the extra material. “The result is that in many small towns, especially in the South Island, we are seeing the growth of glass mountains,” says Zero Waste New Zealand Trust.

Critics want to push the government to expand conservation efforts even further. “We can use our image as a lever,” Hackwell says. “We have to make it real. And if we don”t, we have a huge amount to lose.”

And if they do, then New Zealand has a huge amount to gain. “On the hard data, we don’t see many places where we’ve gone past the point of no return,” Williams says. “We still have room to pull ourselves up. But it’s going to take collective political will. And New Zealanders need to recognize that it’s possible, that it’s good for all of us, and finally, that it’s damn good for the environment.”