Community · Ecological footprinting · Food · Resources · Transport · Waste reduction

New Zealand’s ecological footprint, or why local food matters even more than you thought

Having just written about the ecological impact of fish (eating them, that is), it seems like a good time to take a look at the average New Zealand ecological footprint.

Each aspect of your footprint can be expressed as global hectares (gha). A gha is a unit of Earth’s ability to produce resources or absorb pollution. A person’s individual footprint in gha can be converted to be expressed as Earths. That is, the number of planets we would need if the entire world’s seven billion people lived in the same way as the person in question.

The global average ecological footprint is 2.7 gha or 1.6 Earths, meaning humans are undermining the ability of the planet to support us. The NZ average is 2.1 Earths.

So how is the average New Zealand footprint composed? You can read about this in more depth in the New Zealand Footprint Project (NZFP) report [1], but here’s a summary followed by some of their findings:

footprint graphic by proportion from NZFP data

  • That’s right – at 56%, food is far and away the largest contributor to the total New Zealand footprint. Use of commercial land for growing, on‐farm inputs and food processing make up the majority of the food footprint.
  • Travel – for work and holidays – also makes a large contribution. In Kāpiti however, our holiday footprints are low in comparison to other communities – it’s commuter travel that pushes this figure up as large numbers of people make the trip to Wellington in single occupancy vehicles (i.e. half of the commuters sampled by NZFP in 2011-12).
  • Consumer goods also have a large impact and are steadily increasing. Between 1960 and 2006, goods consumed per person almost tripled.
  • While political and cultural systems and urban form influence your ecological footprint, a massive 91% of an individual’s footprint depends on lifestyle – food, travel and consumer goods.
  • Due to the high amount of renewable energy that goes into producing New Zealand’s electricity, household energy was proportionally much less than in similar international footprint case studies.

But here’s the challenge. Over the four rounds of Greenest Street/Greenest Neighbourhood/Greener Neighbourhoods to date, we’ve seen a huge range of ecological footprints, including several around the one Earth mark and others which reduced markedly. Who had these smaller footprints wasn’t always obvious at the outset – they certainly weren’t all living visibly radical lives – but when we dug a little deeper it became apparent that these people were consistently choosing to do things a little differently.

How these lifestyle elements – food, travel and consumer goods – translate into differently-sized ecological footprints depends on three overarching influences: time, income and values. That is, how much time we have to do stuff, how much money we have to buy things and services, and how we think about the world and our place in it.

Planting kamokamo in repurposed chook-food sacks
Waimeha Lagoon residents planting kamokamo in repurposed chook-food sacks

Many of the things we can do to lower our footprint require a little more time – slow food from our gardens or sourced locally, slower long-distance travel, mending/fixing/making do. They also save us money, so we need to earn less and have more time to slow down – a self-perpetuating cycle.

Other things may take the same or even less time and money, but require a shift in mindset. For example, cycling to work or walking to the dairy instead of driving to the gym; travelling to Wellington by train instead of battling traffic; sharing tools with friends and neighbours instead of owning multiple replicas.

What this means is we all have the ability to make significant changes to our impact now by making different lifestyle choices – we don’t need to wait for zero-energy technological or built environment fixes. This is borne out by a study looking at the footprints of participants in Kāpiti Coast’s Greenest Street, the Indonesian Greenest Kampung, Findhorn Foundation Community in Scotland, and the Hockerton Housing Project and BedZed, both in England (the latter three all have eco-village components)[2]. While built environment-related changes produced a reduction in the overall footprint, those from combined behavioural changes were very much larger.

Ames St bike repair workshop

Project outcomes since 2010 have shown that the act of becoming more conscious about our choices and coming together as a community do make a difference. Average footprint reductions across groups have ranged from 6% to 29%, but they have all reduced.

And, as Professor Brenda Vale said in 2012,

“It was noticeable that none of those taking part thought this reduction in environmental impact was a reduction in quality of life. In fact the opposite was true, as the coming-together as a collective street to tackle the problem was observed to be life enriching and enhancing. This has much to teach the rest of New Zealand. In the face of constant advertising to do more and have more, realising that doing less together is an alternative route to happiness for self and the environment, is hugely significant.”(pg.89) [3]


[1] Lawton, E. & M. (2013). The New Zealand Footprint Project Report. For more information about the Project, see

[2] Vale, B. & R. (Eds) (2013). ‘The Hockerton Housing Project, England’ in Living Within a Fair Share Ecological Footprint (p.272)

[3] Gasson, S. (2013). Building Sustainable Communities: Kāpiti Coast’s Greenest Streets 2010-12. Kāpiti Coast District Council. Available at

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