Marlborough Express - Marlborough well suited to take lead in creating a sustainable future

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

There is a lingering misconception that the word sustainability is all about environmental issues, but this is a narrow view of the concept of a sustainable future. It is now realised that sustainability is much broader and that it must encompass economic and social issues as well if we are to move forward and keep up with international thinking and trends.

Environmentalism is part of our culture. New Zealanders as a whole are very aware of the importance of preserving our natural environment, as evidenced by the setting aside of land for national parks, campaigns for the preservation of unique landscapes and more. Dame Anne Salmond, at the recent Marlborough Environment Awards, quoted the familiar, "People come and go, but the land remains", to explain the way that concern for the environment is ingrained in the Kiwi DNA. National, too, has always had a strong association with the land and the BlueGreens have worked hard behind the scenes to promote environmental projects and awareness.

While I would acknowledge that there have been some high-profile cases involving flagrant disregard of good management processes in industry and agriculture, the reality is that the vast majority of farmers and business owners are good stewards of the land and the environment. In May at Te Mania on the Conway Flat, more than 400 farmers attended a Future of the Heartland forum. Speakers at the forum reminded those present that there were major spinoffs for businesses that used environmentally sound practices. Those attending heard, among other things, about the environmental revolution that is quietly taking place in the rural heartland. For example, rural people have quietly got on with fencing 90 per cent of our main water courses, replanting 180,000 hectares of natives and planting regenerating native bush covenanted to the QEII Trust.

I would argue that some of the best solutions to environmental issues actually come from business innovation. An example of this was in the news last month when Eion Musk of Tesla Motors announced the Tesla Powerwall, a solution to the problem of solar power load at peak times. The impact of this technology has the potential to turn the traditional energy consumption model on its head.

We live in a rapidly changing world where old ways of doing things are quickly superseded. We have all seen the impact of globalisation on the retail sector, where multi-national brands have replaced local products. Online sales have seen the closure of locally owned specialty stores and large retailers have merged or disappeared altogether.

Whilst some would lament change, others see opportunities. One of these opportunities is the chance to look at sustainable management of resources, products and services. Internationally there is huge interest in businesses that are socially responsible, environmentally aware and that practise what they preach and can provide the evidence to prove it.

Sustainability Model

As I said at the beginning, the traditional sustainability model was almost entirely centred on the environment and environmental issues. While these are key concerns, it is my belief that sustainability, as outlined in a number of international reports, involves the intersection of three elements. Environmental, economic and social factors need to work together to provide us with a pragmatic approach to sustainability. If we are to be a nation that practises sustainability, that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," (United Nations : Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) then we must also take the economic and social impacts into account when looking at the sustainability of future development.

Put simply, economic growth, quality of life and improving the environment all go hand in hand. This is even more evident when we realise that over recent years there has been a shift away from what is described as a 'Linear Economy' to a 'Circular Economy'. What this means is that the old ways of doing things have changed. The mindset of conspicuous consumption and waste is shifting toward one where a high percentage of the population is aware of the need for renewable energy and recycling. This makes sense and consumers are leading the charge. Last month, Los Angeles became the first city in the US to ban the sale of single-use bottled water. The 'Circular Economy' has been described as a 'trillion dollar' business opportunity and Marlborough is well positioned to be a part of this.

New Directions for Marlborough – Business Opportunities

Awareness of environmental issues and the impact on society are factors in consumer preference. Consumers have at their fingertips, for the first time in history, the power to make or break businesses via the web and other media. This is almost instantaneous.

On Facebook, for example, consumers share their experiences and views about poor restaurant service, child labour in clothing manufacture and poor working conditions in Apple assembly plants. When this goes viral, businesses that fail to deliver, or are perceived as being socially irresponsible, soon feel it in their bottom line. The rollout of Ultra Fast Broadband and the Rural Broadband Initiative is a marvellous opportunity for Marlborough. Given that issues of geographic location are largely irrelevant with UFB, we now have a real opportunity for fresh thinking and the fleshing out of ideas about what it will mean for the future development of Marlborough as a result of being 'smart and connected'. I believe we should capitalise and build on existing perceptions of New Zealand being 'clean, green and innovative'.

Brand New Zealand is extremely valuable and will be even more so with the passing of the Environmental Reporting Bill this term in government. Right here in Marlborough we have some excellent examples of businesses that model sustainable practices through the use of good science, social responsibility and biodiversity. In Marlborough, two executive appointments recently in the wine industry have sustainability as a key focus. This is indicative of the importance of sustainability in the future of the region. The wine industry, like many others, realises that high value niche marketing, is far more valuable than bulk commodity production.

My dream is that Marlborough's 'can do' attitude regarding sustainable business practice will see other sectors come on board to create a 'sustainability hub' in Marlborough. We already have expertise a number of primary and secondary sectors including forestry, aquaculture, agriculture, (eg. dairy, sheep, beef and arable farming). All of these practitioners are working at the cutting edge and contribute to the social and economic wellbeing of the community as a whole. Our high country farmers take guardianship of the land very seriously. Marlborough is well suited to take the lead in the transition to a sustainable future built on sound science and a shared understanding of what is good to the community. I believe we have the talent, infrastructure and the knowhow to achieve great things.