Why ‘build back better’ must be bigger than green growth

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP

Life in the UK feels as though it’s moving to a new normal, with the reopening of non-essential retailers in Northern Ireland and England and the resulting queues on our high streets. But with socially distanced shops and empty football stadia and Royal Ascot stands it’s clear that this new normal is going to feel very different from the old one.

As the economic life of the nation starts to restart, there is much talk about building back better; about creating a cleaner, greener future. It’s something WRAP is absolutely committed to, and we’ll be sharing our recommendations on what this should look like with our government partners in coming weeks. You may have also seen the statement in the Financial Times last weekend, which I signed, along with Dame Ellen MacArthur and other environmental and corporate leaders, on the benefits of a circular economy in this context.

This is a view I endorse whole-heartedly. Yet I am increasingly certain that it’s not enough. Surely building back better is about more than the economy and more too about the environment? If we are to truly build back better, we must be more ambitious and aim to deliver multiple benefits.

In this respect I am inspired by Wales’ legislation to place the well-being of future generations at the heart of policy-making. The Well-being of Future Generations Act, introduced in 2015, compels public bodies including the Welsh Government to consider the long-term impact of their decisions and to deliver and measure themselves against wide-ranging goals linked to equality, resilience, global responsibility and cohesive communities.

The introduction of the Act gave WRAP the opportunity to rethink how we measured the success of our work in Wales, and it made me realise how much WRAP is about delivering multiple benefits wherever we’re working in the world.

I remember in the early days of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act hearing about a single parent in Cardiff who, thanks to becoming better at preventing food waste in her home had saved enough money to put towards a holiday. This month I was heartened to hear about Mandalay Wellbeing, a community interest company in Norfolk, which thanks to the support of the WRAP-administered COVID-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant, was able to buy vital personal protective equipment to keep volunteers safe whilst distributing food to vulnerable people during the pandemic. The fund is still open; if you know an organisation which you think could benefit from it please share this link – deadline is 3 July.

Reading a newspaper story at the weekend about what will happen to all the strawberries which would normally be sold at Wimbledon I was also reminded that, for many farmers around the world, a glut can be just as devastating as a poor harvest as the resulting low prices can mean that they can’t afford to harvest their crop so not just does food go to waste but they risk their families missing out on essentials they need to buy, including fuel for cooking, medical supplies and education because it’s simply uneconomical for them to take their produce to the market.

I am constantly inspired by the stories of how WRAP’s work makes a difference to people’s lives. And I am excited about the opportunity to work with our partners in the UK and further afield to tell more stories about the health and social benefits our work delivers, as well as the benefits to the environment and economy. I don’t want to underplay the severity of the situation in which the world finds itself, however I know that times of crisis act as drivers for rapid and often unforeseen growth.

This is why I want to use this opportunity as a catalyst for the next stage of WRAP’s transformation, as our work takes on an increasingly international focus and the number and range of our partners and collaborators continues to grow. But rather than look outside WRAP, this stage should also be about looking within, as we reflect on how we as an organisation respond to changing global needs and reflect the communities and societies with which we work.

This year we committed to take concrete steps which will help us attract, develop and retain a more diverse workforce. I was pleased by all the positive feedback from staff when we announced this to them at the start of the financial year. And I know our citizen campaigns are also working to ensure the channels and creative materials they use both attract and reflect the diverse audiences which are representative of the UK today.

However like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the news reports about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests here in the UK as well as in America prompted me to ask myself ‘am I – and WRAP – doing enough?’

WRAP is absolutely committed to equality and diversity; we strive to be inclusive as an employer and as campaigner. But I believe that I – we – must do more. I am talking, and listening, to WRAP staff about what this ‘more’ should be and I am proud of how engaged staff have been in our initial discussions.

I do know, however, that the environmental sector as a whole isn’t very diverse; I want WRAP to lead the way in changing that. That starts by listening, by inviting more black voices to join the conversation – and by all of us as leaders admitting there is more we can do.

We have a unique opportunity to consider what we as a sector want to look like in the future and how we can deliver wider societal benefits through our work. I recognise the economic challenge ahead but this cannot be used as an excuse for inactivity because from unusual times come extraordinary solutions to the world’s problems, which to me is what ‘build back better’ is all about. 

WRAP is committed to being a diverse organisation, with equality of opportunity for all. As we experience the protests taking place following the death of George Floyd, we are naturally asking ourselves if we are doing our bit, where we can, to live and promote these values. The conclusion: now is the right time to be amplifying our efforts and we’ve begun a conversation with our staff on how we can all make that happen. We want to play our role in a fairer society and are committed to doing so.