A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)
A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMay 27, 2020

‘Brand New Zealand’ needs to be more than an empty slogan

A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)
A herd of calves drinking from a river in Otago (Photo: Jill Ferry / Getty Images)

It makes sense to focus on our unique selling points as a country during the post-Covid rebuild. But we also have to live the values we market to the world, writes Jessica Desmond.

Earlier this week ‘future of food’ expert Rosie Bosworth wrote that to turbo-boost our Covid recovery, New Zealand should capitalise on our food and beverage exports and lean on our strong international reputation for natural and sustainable products.

I couldn’t agree more that primary industries have an opportunity to move value-added products, but there is an elephant in this room – or should I say, a dairy cow. If we are going to push a natural, honest and sustainable brand image, the reality needs to measure up.

Any marketing exec worth their salt knows the best brands are authentic ones. If we’re going to capitalise on the perception that New Zealand industries work in harmony with nature, we need to ensure these industries actually do.

Branding that doesn’t reflect reality, or pulls the wool over consumers’ eyes, eventually gets found out. We’ve learned that lesson before. Remember the uproar when freshwater ecologist, Dr. Mike Joy, released a very public criticism of New Zealand’s ‘100% Pure’ tourism campaign on the world stage? Joy put forward compelling evidence of our rapidly declining freshwater quality, citing the slimy rivers and polluted lakes that never feature in glossy ads.

Whether you think Joy is a traitor or truth-teller, the fact remains that water quality in Aotearoa has been steadily heading downhill, largely thanks to industrial agriculture. The government’s latest freshwater report shows nitrogen pollution worsening in 41% of rivers, driven by synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and too many cows. Nearly half our lakes are now classed as ‘heavily polluted’, and 76% of our native freshwater fish species are at risk of extinction.

It’s hard to sell a sparkling vision of New Zealand when there are fish and birds floating belly-up in rivers choked with green sludge.

As Bosworth writes, there are huge opportunities for New Zealand’s primary industries to diversify. We’ve long lacked the infrastructure to produce value-added food, fibre and timber products. And with sales of plant-based food skyrocketing across the world, New Zealand has the chance to become a leader in clean, green foods, like plant-based cheese and milk.

But this kind of new thinking cannot be implemented with old, polluting practices. A widespread shift to regenerative farming that works with the environment, not against it, should be the first move in our rebrand.

With industrial agriculture being New Zealand’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, it makes sense that this be the first through the gate. But we’re going to need more than just a few farmers using regenerative, organic, or biodynamic methods; we need to make it the norm.

The same goes for fishing. If we’re marketing supplements to the health- and eco-conscious on one hand, but using fishing techniques that threaten native wildlife and decimate underwater ecosystems with the other, the spin will unravel pretty quick.

While we invest in R&D, let’s also invest in transforming the fishing industry to use best practice protections for seabirds and other marine life, fish selectively, and operate with transparency and accountability. Imagine what a selling point it would be if New Zealand offered the world’s first zero by-catch seafood; seafood that puts the survival of endangered native creatures like Māui and Hector’s dolphins at the top of the list.

As we think about how New Zealand builds back better, yes: let’s invest in helping our primary industries move to value-added export, over the lowest cost, highest volume race to the bottom. But let’s ensure that they do so on a bedrock of genuine environmental protection. Right now, we have the opportunity to ensure both are realities and garner some real competitive advantage.

By living our values and putting protecting nature at the heart of our primary industries, we don’t capitalise on simply the idea of the New Zealand brand, but build one with that highly sought-after ingredient of influencers everywhere: authenticity.

Jessica Desmond is a campaigner at Greenpeace Aotearoa.

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