My first three years at the helm of WRAP – successes against challenging backdrop

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP

I was watching the commemorations of the first Moon landing recently. I do just about remember watching the actual thing, although I was very small then. Those pictures of the earth from space remind me of what an amazing planet we have. It still blows my mind that it is only our planet that has allowed life to flourish and evolve into the wonderful biosphere that we have. Billions of years of evolution; millions of plant and animal species. All depending on each other in a carefully balanced eco-system. The pictures of the rugged moon with no life make the contrast even stronger.

And yet as a species, we seem ready to throw this away. The human race has destabilised that balance and is causing irreversible damage to our environment. Our excessive use of natural resources is fuelling climate change, accelerating ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss and polluting the planet with dangerous levels of plastic, nitrogen and phosphorous. As others have said, we have no planet B. So, we really do have no choice but to urgently find a way to live in harmony with our planet A.

I felt that sense of urgency when I took on the role of WRAP CEO three years ago. The UN Sustainable Development Goals had been adopted the year before and much hope was vested in the recent Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. In Europe, the European Commission had just adopted the Circular Economy Package.

So, the stage was set.

I wanted to harness this global consensus and ensure that the great work of Liz Goodwin, my predecessor, was built upon and accelerated. I wanted our vision – a world in which resources are used sustainably – to be just that. I wanted WRAP to take our mission beyond the UK and reach out to the globe.

I wanted to harness of all of WRAP’s expertise and knowledge to work with others to help build the architecture of a global movement for change.

That looked a very tall order when I arrived in post. Especially as we also had a new US President with a different view on climate change and the start of what was to become three years of turmoil following the EU Referendum.

Like many other publicly-funded organisations, we had not been immune from budget pressures, and our government funding had decreased year-on-year. In 2014, we had become a registered charity to help diversify our funding base. I knew when I came into post that this, in an uncertain economic climate, was going to be perhaps our biggest challenge.

It meant thinking and acting differently. We had to be more ‘business-like’ – more focused, and more fleet of foot to capitalise on emerging opportunities.

I’m pleased to say that we have made a good start in securing funds from businesses and other donors - and that work continues to be a main focus for me. Unfortunately, though, it also meant making some tough decisions, which included losing valued members of staff. This is never easy, but sadly necessary if we are going to be able to continue to achieve results in key areas of our business and be financially stable.

It was important that this change also meant not compromising on WRAP’s core mission, and importantly, the unique way we work.

I am more convinced than ever that we have a winning formula. It combines working directly with businesses through dynamic and ambitious voluntary agreements to bring about systemic change to reduce waste in food, clothing and plastics; underpinned where needed with government policy, and engaging with citizens to help them do the right thing and reduce their own footprint.

This requires forging powerful partnerships built on trust and credibility to find practical solutions so can we bring about scalable and lasting change; tackling the complexities that stand in the way of progress.

Our international award-winning Courtauld Commitment is now in its fourth phase and has been a game-changer in tackling food and packaging waste. In its third phase alone it delivered business savings of more than £100 million and the CO2 emissions avoided would have been the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the road.

Courtauld 2025 continues to set the pace and was enhanced last year by the ground-breaking Food Waste Reduction Roadmap – a partnership with IGD in which all the major retailers and half of larger food businesses have committed to Target-Measure-Act and report on food waste by September this year.

In clothing the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, has already outperformed the rest of the industry in tackling waste across the supply chain. And in just one year since we worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to form The UK Plastics Pact, a world-first, we have set out on a journey to totally transform the way we make, use and dispose of plastic waste – keeping it in the economy and out of the environment.

This shows we have been able to move at scale and pace often much quicker than the time it takes policy to grind through the legislative process.

That isn’t to say that government policy, when well designed, and aligned with business commitments, does not play an important role.

The arrival of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for the Environment shortly after I started my role I believe energised Defra. We shared the same eagerness to ‘get things done’. And with recycling rates and household food waste plateauing, and then the unprecedented public pressure to tackle plastic pollution, that change was much needed.

The comprehensive body of evidence we provided for Defra was vital input to the Resources and Waste Strategy – a broad and ambitious set of proposals which have the potential to totally transform the sector. I applaud Michael Gove, and his team, particularly Thérèse Coffey, for their energy and focus in bringing this landmark policy, long called for by the industry, to reality.

We look forward to working with the new environment secretary, Theresa Villiers to bring it to fruition. Now the hard work of implementation begins, and WRAP will again be at the heart of that. We have the opportunity to implement a far-reaching EPR system, to bring about consistent collections and end confusion for householders, drive up recycling and tackle plastic pollution, as well as shift towards a genuinely circular economy where we process more of our waste within our shores.

I am proud of the part we are playing in driving that agenda forward, and for the continuing support we provide to Hannah Blythyn and her team in Wales, as well as in Northern Ireland.

And our influence abroad is growing beyond our own shores. WRAP Global, an ambitious endeavour we embarked on just over a year ago, is building on our success in the UK and already making great strides in supporting governments and countries around the world in developing their own voluntary agreements to tackle food waste and plastic pollution. So, our vision to take WRAP to the world has become a reality and I am proud of my amazing colleagues in making that happen.

I am much more optimistic than when I took up this great job at WRAP three years ago. It feels like humanity is collectively waking up to the challenge of climate change, and, fuelled by the growing voices of the younger generation, environmental issues are moving up the global agenda.

That isn’t to say there are not challenges ahead. We need to hold our partners to account; we need governments to view the environment as important as the economy and implement real and far-reaching change, and we need to do some of our own soul-searching as citizens about how we can be more sustainable in our lives, and wean ourselves off the throwaway culture we have become used to – especially in food, clothing and plastics.

I see WRAP continuing to play a really important role in promoting the message that there is a solution. I believe that we can all do something to tackle climate change and plastic pollution that will make a difference. The old adage ‘small change, big difference’ really does apply. The impact will be huge if we all take small steps to recycle more, reduce the food wasted in our homes, explore new ways to consume goods (leasing, re-using), and make the things they buy last longer.

WRAP will help people to take those small steps through our citizen campaigns, providing the tools so that they can be part of building a sustainable world. Look out this year for the biggest Recycle Week which we have ever embarked on, as well as a high-profile public national awareness raising week on food waste towards the end of 2019.

It’s been an incredible journey as CEO of WRAP so far for me – ups and downs, challenges and opportunities. But I am so proud of my team and feel we are in a great place to work together with our partners and secure a future in which profit, people, and planet can thrive. Here’s to playing our part in ensuring our planet has a sustainable future.