Looking back: a year we want to forget, but never can

16 September 2021

We’ve been reflecting back on 2020-21 for our Annual Review. It was a period when we not only had to respond to the immediate national Covid-19 emergency, but also prepare for the future enormous and imminent challenges ahead: the fight to save our planet.

At WRAP, we determined that to play our part, we needed to build on our own success. To ramp up our ambition to align with the global climate emergency agenda to reach net zero and beyond. To develop and grow the things we do best and widen our sphere of influence. We realized that we must protect the unique space we occupy; a space which enables us to bring stakeholders together from across the spectrum, often with competing agendas, to find solutions, and commit to act.

Like many others, with normality suspended, we were doubtful of the extent to which we could continue to function. In fact, our expertise and experience in food, plastics, textiles and the circular economy were in demand from businesses, from governments, and from citizens, like never before. Supporting them to reduce waste, greenhouse gas emissions and water use; to tackle pollution, safeguard our oceans, and support biodiversity.

We had one of our busiest years ever. A testament to the continued commitment of our partners, despite being in the eye of the COVID storm, and the dedication of our staff. It was a year in which, amongst many other things we:

  • Set out the eight simple steps the UK must take to reach Net Zero GHG emissions
  • Partnered with The Royal Foundation’s Earthshot Prize
  • Delivered lasting change in 40 countries…while working from home.
  • Partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme to produce the most comprehensive global study on food waste to date
  • Helped launch Latin America’s first food waste voluntary agreement
  • Mobilised 135 partners to deliver the world’s first Food Waste Action Week
  • Tackled the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with £3.4 million of grants to help redistribute food to people who needed it the most
  • Replenished 750 million litres of water back to nature
  • Kept problem plastics out of the environment by making it easier for shoppers to recycle at their local stores
  • Harnessed the influence of some of the world’s biggest beauty brands to encourage 2.4 million people to refill, recycle & return plastic containers
  • Delivered Wales’s biggest ever recycling campaign, the UK’s biggest Recycle Week, and provided pandemic recycling guidance to every home in Northern Ireland
  • Unveiled the world’s most ambitious voluntary agreement for textiles – the first of an international network

The world feels more divided, and debate can so often descend into shrill polemics. So, I remain convinced that more than ever there is a role for the facilitating skills of WRAP to demonstrate the case for change, reconcile divisions, find common ground and solutions. We need more than ever to be the mechanism which can bridge the inaction gap and turn principles and good intentions into meaningful action at scale. Action which drives the right change, the right behaviours and which tackles the right problems. We need to be constantly vigilant to the threat of becoming a business or political fig-leaf. We need to continue to maintain focus on our ultimate vision, to champion accountability and transparency, and tackle inaction where we see it.

Our voluntary agreements continue to set the industry standards and increasingly replicated around the world. We know that the model is not perfect (what is?). For some they will be seen as an ineffective substitute for legislation. But I believe it is the best agent for change we have in this imperfect world and our results demonstrate that. The world cannot always wait for the (necessary but slow) machinations of government, and the pragmatics of politics often unfortunately intervene to make it an often-unreliable change agent. We have proven that people-pressure from an increasingly environmentally aware public, complemented with well-designed policy change, act as powerful levers for change.

We are working with pioneers, with pragmatists and with activists. Politicians, business leaders, community groups, educational establishments. And through our citizen facing campaigns we support millions around the world to live sustainably. The world needs all of these people to work harmoniously if we have a hope of reversing the decline which is threatening the planet’s existence, but also tackle the injustices which keep people trapped in poverty. Climate justice and social justice are intertwined, and our work reflects that.

Partnership working, a renewed belief in science and evidence, and resilience have helped us face down COVID. We will need all that collaboration, commitment and as much human ingenuity as we can muster to respond now to the climate emergency unfolding before our eyes. The partnerships WRAP has built will be tested the most in the coming years. In lots of ways the hardest work lies ahead and not behind us. We have the foundations to be able to ride those challenges, and we are optimists, but we will need to be agile enough to adapt to the changing world, and ready to have difficult conversations.

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said as the latest IPCC alarm bell rang around the world, there is hope that we can avert climate catastrophe. We have to guard against a fatalistic acceptance that the planet is doomed. I firmly believe the planet will respond in kind if we tackle climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly; otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the job I am.

These last months have taught us a harsh lesson in pitting the human race against Nature. As we emerge from our darkest days, though, this is our moment. WRAP will adapt to the present, but also help build the new restorative, nurturing, people-enhancing normal in which we can all thrive. But we must put conflicting agendas and self-interests aside and do this together.