Noted science writer Fred Pearce writes a regular column in the UK’s Guardian called Greenwash: Exposing False Environmental Claims.
The title of his latest column, published last week: New Zealand was a friend to Middle Earth, but it’s no friend of the earth. Pearce takes NZ to task in particular for what he regards as the country’s failure to meet its pledges on greenhouse gas reduction and its current weak position on climate policy.
After slamming a number of other countries for their greenhouse gas emissions, he says:
“But my prize for the most shameless two fingers to the global community goes to New Zealand, a country that sells itself round the world as ‘clean and green’.
“New Zealand secured a generous Kyoto target, which simply required it not to increase its emissions between 1990 and 2010. But the latest UN statistics show its emissions of greenhouse gases up by 22%, or a whopping 39% if you look at emissions from fuel burning alone.
“…the country’s minister in charge of climate negotiations, Tim Groser, has been busy reassuring his compatriots that ‘we would not try to be ‘leaders’ in climate change.’
“This is not just political spin. It is also commercial greenwash. New Zealand trades on its greenness to promote its two big industries: tourism and dairy exports. Groser says his country’s access to American markets for its produce is based on its positive environmental image. The government’s national marketing strategy is underpinned by a survey showing that tourism would be reduced by 68% if the country lost its prized “clean, green image”, and even international purchases of its dairy products could halve.
The trouble is, on the climate change front at least, that green image increasingly defies reality.”
As I write my article, there are 112 comments on Pearce’s column, virtually all of them critical of NZ and many amplifying the claim of brand “greenwash” by noting other environmental shortcomings.
In the internet age, this viral process is how brands unravel … and it can happen fast.
I tracked down the study Pearce mentioned. You can download it here (including a readable executive summary). Prepared by NZ’s Ministry for the Environment back in 2001, it includes a rigorous attempt to calculate a data-based economic value for NZ’s “clean, green” brand. Without doubt, the same methodology would yield an even higher value today.
Or conversely, an even higher cost for damaging the brand today. It would be great to see the study updated … it might give some backbone to National as it deals with environmental issues.
Consider another study released last week by Edelman, the world’s largest privately-held public relations firm. They surveyed consumers in the UK, US, China, India, Japan, Brazil, Canada and several European countries and found overwhelming evidence that, across cultures, consumers are placing higher and higher importance on the environmental and ethical behavior of the companies and brands they will purchase from or associate with.
Said the study’s director: “People all over the world are now wearing, driving, eating, and living their social purpose, as sustained engagement with good causes becomes a new criterion for social status and good social behavior.”
The consumer expectations reported here apply equally to any brand that is used to drive consumer behavior, be that an individual company or a nation, like NZ, that projects a particular brand image to sell itself and its exports.
Globally, consumers are headed in a direction that should favor New Zealand’s “clean, green” brand, but only if we can deliver on its promise. The danger? No one really knows when an epidemic of comments like this one on the Pearce column — “Truly a country with, as far as its green credentials are concerned, a triumph of style over substance” — might tip our brand over.