James Frankham is the publisher of New Zealand Geographic magazine. Based out of the Generator co-working space at Britomart, the magazine publishes six issues a year and in its 25 years has won seven Magazine of the Year awards. It reaches over a million New Zealanders every year through its print magazine, website, social media and events, taking a broad view of sustainability and society. 

MELINDA WILLIAMS So that we’re starting out on the same page, how do you like to define sustainability?

JAMES FRANKHAM The sustainability question is always more difficult to answer than it appears. We’re living on a very finite planet, with very finite boundaries, and an increasing population that is consuming more. For us, taking that really wide view, sustainability is about living inside a finite space in a way that you could go forever without impacting the environment around you, and that includes the natural environment and the intrinsic right of other things to exist.

MELINDA What are the key areas you focus on in your own sustainability approach as an organisation?

JAMES We try to maintain a really small footprint. That is part of why we’re in a shared office space because you get to share those big responsibilities with other organisations and keep your organisation as lean as possible. We use Forest Stewardship Council approved paper for our print magazine. We’re careful about how we do that, but fundamentally the print magazine doesn’t require any power for users to operate. We’ve got a website as well, but digital isn’t necessarily better. Data centres are responsible for an enormous amount of power consumption. There’s a balance of these things, and you try and optimise all of it and create a small wake as an organisation. But then, that’s looking at the liability side of the ledger. On the flip side, we hope that our reporting and our communication as a media outlet can move New Zealand along in terms of the kind of transformation that we want to see as a country.

MELINDA As a publisher of a magazine where one of the central remits is to reflect on how New Zealand values and prioritises environmental, cultural, and resources or assets or taonga, what do you feel have become the most important sustainability issues for New Zealand to confront?

JAMES Where do you start? At a climate level, acknowledging that we are confronting twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. If you are looking at the climate example, half of our emissions come from agriculture and right now, we’re not progressing that through our Emissions Trading Scheme. Because it doesn’t get priced into the cost of doing business, not only is it not priced into the final product, but also there is no market created for innovators and people who need funding to explore that problem and come up with market-based solutions. Say, for instance, you’re a scientist who wants to build on research that reduces the methane output of dairy cow. If it was priced into the Emissions Trading Scheme and if people were actually paying a higher price for it, there would be much more pressure on the agricultural sector to look to your solutions to solve the problem. You would get funding as a scientist, as a researcher, to develop a solution. Until that’s priced in, that market is undeveloped and all the responses of “the market will fix it” – it won’t work and it won’t happen. In terms of the biodiversity crisis, 90 percent of New Zealand is actually the sea, and 80 percent of our biodiversity is in the sea. We have no problem extracting from the sea as resource. The government has regulations around it based on what stocks you can take out of the water and sells leases for that, but the effect of that is that it manages those commercial stocks down to around 20 percent of the original abundance. At 20 percent of the original abundance, that dramatically changes the structure of the marine environment.It’s quite different on land; we protect around 30 percent of the real estate on land and we’ve protected less than 1 percent of the sea. On land we have a land-use crisis. We’ve cut down 90 percent of our lowland forest, so the habitat is a problem. The warming climate is a problem because it allows invasive species to extend their range further.The tragic aspect of this is there are solutions for all of these things. They are very well studied. We have unequivocal science on all these things. We understand these problems very, very well. We just haven’t done most of them yet, and the reason is because there’s resistance to change from people who have a stake. That might be individuals. That might be commercial organisations. That might be lobby groups, interest groups. That failure to move will cost all the stakeholders in terms of the things that they want to protect the most. Ultimately, they will lose the things they are trying to protect. 

NEXT / Find out how Edge Impact is leveraging science, strategy, and storytelling to deliver sustainable outcomes, in an interview with Regional Principal David Maucor.