The challenges of 2020 and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it presents the world

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO, WRAP


2020 has been a year like no other. But here at WRAP we believe there is a bright future ahead.

It’s a future where businesses see their bottom line measured in nature and society. Where governments look to the longer term and develop policy for generations to come.  Where people have greater choice, are better educated about the planet, and where new more healthy behaviours become commonplace.

As we set out Our Plan for a Sustainable Planet: WRAP’s Blueprint for a Waste-free World by 2025, our Chief Executive Marcus Gover reflects back on the challenges – and successes – of a uniquely challenging year.

What have been the biggest challenges for you, and for WRAP, this year?

“Like for everyone the COVID-19 pandemic hit us like a tidal wave. We had to focus immediately keeping our colleagues physically and mentally safe whilst also re-adjusting to align our work with the new reality. We were in unchartered territory. We also recognized that our key working partners – local authorities, those in the food and drink industry, retailers, governments were right in the eye of the storm. What could we reasonably expect of them in terms of continuing focus on tackling food waste, plastic pollution and the environmental impact of clothing and textiles when they were in crisis mode?

At the same time, before the pandemic broke, we had seen the Resources and Waste Strategy for England published. It was the response to the industry’s persistent cries for a bold and ambitious shake-up to drive recycling and sustainable resource use. We were also witnessing growing demand for our expertise around the world. And a burgeoning global movement, driven by young people, was emerging from citizens demanding action to halt climate change. The question we were battling with was: Was this all going to be derailed by the crisis?”

How have we/you overcome them?

“As we always do – working collaboratively and using evidence to find solutions.

“We have been heartened by the commitment businesses continued to show in maintaining focus on their commitments to our voluntary agreements – Courtauld 2025, The UK Plastics Pact and the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP). To me it was testament to how their drive to becoming more sustainable has been embedded into their business models. We knew that we had to recognize the pressures they were under, but at the same time, hold them to account as we still have looming deadlines and targets to meet. There have been a lot of honest conversations, and we have not shied away from what the scrutiny of measurement reveals. It highlights where there has been progress, and where there needs to be more effort.

“But I also need to pay tribute to my colleagues at WRAP. The agility and resilience which is our hallmark has been tested to the limit this year during this unprecedented crisis. We have had colleagues juggling parenthood and their work at WRAP; we’ve had colleagues looking after ailing relatives, or even coping with grief and sickness. Yet still talking to partners in businesses, governments, local authorities, facilitating dialogue helping to find solutions. I’ve been humbled, not only what we have achieved, but how we have done it.

What are the standout achievements and why do they matter in the bigger scheme of things?

When I look back on 2020, I’m astounded by what we and our partners were able to achieve against the backdrop of responding to an unprecedented crisis. In the UK and around the world.

The year opened with the fantastic news that for the first time in many years, household food waste was going down – thanks in part to our efforts with retailers, local authorities and through our world-renowned Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This helped the UK to be the first country in the world to reach the halfway mark in the drive to halve food waste by 2030 – an achievement which was held up as a beacon of hope in the Champions 12.3 Annual Report. When lockdown fell, we were able to mobilise our partners in Courtauld to launch an emergency redistribution of surplus food plan into action as the lockdown fell. A massive achievement.

I’m especially proud of the Wasting Food: It’s Out of Date brand we launched in October. It’s brash and bold and taps into what we know is a growing concern among the public about how food waste is contributing to climate change. This will be among the messages we will ramp up into next year as the world convenes under the UK’s auspices at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).  The meat industry has already recognized this. It is what is driving the Meat in a Net Zero World commitment which was launched in June with WRAP’s support – the industry coming together with an ambition to become the world leader in sustainable production. We recognize the need to drive investment in reducing food waste – to take it to the next level. I’m very excited about the potential of the FLAWLESS project we launched in May – looking at how we can incentivize the private sector around the globe to invest in supporting businesses in their food waste strategies.

The crisis has note diverted attention away from the need to stay focused on the ambitious UK Plastics Pact targets. We continued to make good progress in 2020 on our journey to totally transform the way we make, use and dispose of plastics through the Pact. We have though been able to spotlight some very complex challenges which will require our concerted effort. The Pact has most definitely spearheaded a global movement – this year we were instrumental in the development of new Pacts around the world – in South Africa and Europe for example. The potential here is enormous and we are fanning the flames globally. Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our age, and it needs a global response. We will continue to play a big part in that.

We also celebrated the achievements, and recognized outstanding challenges, at the end of SCAP. Members have consistently outperformed the rest of the industry in responding to the huge environmental impact of their industry on the planet. Our new agreement, Textiles 2030, has now been conceived, building on that success and with the aim to engage the majority of UK fashion and textiles organisations in collaborative climate action. It is our most ambitious voluntary agreement yet and will be at the forefront of our aim to build a global sustainable textiles industry.

Our work on recycling goes from strength to strength.  Recycle Now’s annual Recycle Week, which has become a mainstay in the sustainability calendar, was the biggest yet and was a big thank you to key workers who have kept the recycling show on the road throughout 2020.

“WRAP is at the nexus of a growing movement to become more sustainable. And this is reverberating around the world and we can be very proud of that. There are challenges, undoubtedly, but we know we are on the right track.

You wrote earlier in lockdown that you hoped this would be a watershed moment in terms of our global response to the monumental challenge we face to save our planet. Are we on the right track?

In many ways those working in sustainability feared that it would take something on the scale of a global crisis like a pandemic to expose the fragility of our global supply and demand infrastructure and the shortsighted reliance on profit before planet economic models. And force us to confront what that does to cement the inequalities and injustice in our societies. At the same the lockdown hibernation had accidental positive effects on biodiversity, pollution and carbon levels – showing what is possible. There was already a growing demand for action from the world’s youth in terms of the environment and this is leading to consumers demanding change. This is a strong base to build on.

I genuinely believe we are at a crossroads on our journey to a sustainable future. Perhaps the most important juncture in human history as we stare into the existential threat of climate change. There has never been a better, or frankly, necessary moment to recalibrate the global economy into a circular one in which hardwires resilience into the economy recovery. One that protects against future shocks, including that of climate change, and is the architecture for a prosperous, just and equitable society. We wrote about this in our Build Back Better report and have the knowledge and expertise to help make this happen.

We have seen good progress in business and government action in the shift to a sustainable planet. Is it enough?

Whilst the need for a circular economy to drive the shift to sustainability is undeniable, there is still work to be done to remove the barriers to its implementation. Governments need to set the framework for this through policy and fiscal incentives. And these need to be aligned with business action working towards systemic change. The role of consumers is key – they both drive change and need to be informed and incentivized to embrace it. I believe the world is hungry now for a new way, one which puts planet if not before, then on an equal status with profit.

We will continue to build the evidence, bring the actors who have the power to implement seismic change together, and commit them to Target, Measure and Act.

The world needs to guard against isolationism and protectionism as we navigate our way through a very turbulent economic time ahead.

What is your word of the year, as leader of WRAP?

Resilience. The intrinsic nature of the human race to survive and thrive. It has been challenged like never before, and we have all been scarred. But we can achieve remarkable things when we work collaboratively and when we harness the innovation and imagination which resides in all of us. This is what underpins our exciting plans at WRAP. I am optimistic we have the will and the means to conquer climate change – to go beyond net zero to be net climate positive - if we work together.