Food and carbon miles
As New Zealand is so far from markets in Europe and North America, its food exports are vulnerable to consumer movements that encourage more food to be locally produced. This is driven by concern about climate change, with ‘food miles’ being a popular measure of the carbon expended in producing particular products for their market.
New Zealand researchers have contested this assumption, arguing that people should consider the amount of carbon emitted in the entire production process – not just in transporting the final product to market. Using this method, many New Zealand farm products have a relatively low carbon ‘cost’ compared to European and American products (for example farm stock in Europe and America are often fed grain, while New Zealand stock mainly eat grass). This more than offsets the greater distance involved in getting these products to northern-hemisphere markets.
The food miles debate raises the question of how much environmental responsibility companies are willing to assume. As in other countries, New Zealand companies have shown increased interest in making money from being carbon-neutral, or marketing their products using environmental branding and imagery.
By 2007, 20 organisations and events were certified by carboNZero (a programme run by Landcare Research), and about 100 more were being audited to establish where carbon emissions could be reduced, and how much offsetting was required for the balance.
Two of the big contributions to carbon emissions internationally were power generation and travel. Industries in these sectors were amongst the early corporate adopters of schemes to reduce or offset carbon emissions. Meridian Energy, which supplies much of the South Island with power generated by hydro dams, was one of the first to publicise its carbon neutrality in newspaper advertisements. Yet, its wind farm developments and hydroelectric dams do not come without their environmental costs or visual effects on the landscape.
When Christchurch International Airport received carboNZero certification, it was only the second airport in the world to do so. However, it was the operations of the airport company that were certified. It did not include that of the airlines and planes that use the airport’s facilities.
The national airline, Air New Zealand, has joined a number of other companies in the tourism sector by offering long-haul passengers the chance to buy credits to offset their carbon emissions. However, the rate of uptake has been very low. Some have criticised them as the equivalent of medieval indulgences, with wealthy patrons able to buy their way out of the ‘sin’ of flying without the need to moderate the extent to which they fly.
Environmentally friendly products
The negative impacts of intensive farming and use of chemicals has led to a growing organic food sector. While consumer interest is high, so are the prices for many products. It is only in some cases, such as apples, that this interest has translated into export success. Organic apples accounted for 14% of New Zealand’s apple exports in 2007.
Some products, such as wine and Merino clothing, are marketed as having environment-friendly values. They offer high-end alternatives to New Zealand’s traditional low-cost, low-value outputs (sheep carcases, wool, dairy products), which are increasingly under threat from trade barriers or cheap-labour goods from overseas.
Expensive foods and beverages, whose qualities are designed to appeal to wealthy export markets, are sometimes marketed as being environmentally-friendly. An example is New Zealand wines. The winemaker’s traditional concern with terroir (the characteristics of wine that are determined by place, such as soils and climate) shows how a product can be marketed as being unique and tied to a locality. Wine is frequently labelled and advertised as embodying its district of origin. Some New Zealand wines also advertise their carboNZero rating on their labels.
Buyers of Icebreaker Merino outdoor clothing can enter a code from their clothing tag on the Icebreaker website, allowing them to watch videos of the sheep station where the wool came from. Environmental and social ethics of companies, and traceability of a product from source to shop, are becoming increasingly important in marketing to environmentally-aware consumers.
Designer clothing made from South Island high-country Merino wool commands premium prices. The fibre has valuable characteristics such as fineness, the ability to repel moisture, and resistance to the build up of dirt. Icebreaker’s outdoor exercise and fashion garments are openly traced back to the sheep stations from which the wool comes – a unique product tied to a locality – and animal welfare is guaranteed.