5 November 2021
Karen Fisher is WRAP’s newly appointed Head of Climate Action Strategy. She has been at WRAP for eight years and has been at the heart of our work with the Courtauld Commitment; most recently spearheading a first of its kind look at how to decarbonise the UK’s food and drinks industry which has been described as potentially transformative. She is at COP 26 as part of WRAP’s delegation and will be talking about this. Here, she provides insights on how we can get there, her new role at WRAP, and her message to world leaders.
As WRAP’s first Head of Climate Action Strategy, what do you think this means for WRAP?
It's a chance really to generate some focus and clarity on what role we want to play and should be playing in climate action; and a reflection of the importance we place on it. We occupy such a unique position as a trusted partner with businesses and governments and we can be that crucial interface between the two – bridging and aligning those two entities so they are working together and complementing each other. Also, because we are instrumental in food, plastic packaging and textiles – all of which are having huge impacts on the environment, so the potential is enormous.
This will be key to success and WRAP I think is absolutely best placed to ensure that harmonisation. We have the opportunity to be a really extraordinary platform for change, and this new role is pivotal. We are seen as the ‘go-to’ organisation in terms of insights into food waste, plastic packaging, textiles, but I think we are not always given enough credit for our ability and potential to be a change agent – for example through our voluntary agreements in each of these areas. And I want to ensure that we leverage all of our potential and expertise in climate action and this cuts across all our work.
It is also important for WRAP to understand what areas we should take a lead on and where we can play more a supporting role, because we recognise that others are best placed to lead. We cannot be as lofty as to assume we can do this on our own. It will take the forging of the right partnerships. Plenty to get my teeth into!
You will be focusing on sustainable food systems at COP26. It’s something you have been working on for more than a decade, Karen. Why is it taking so long for us to make the necessary changes?
Anyone that comes to this subject has an underlying preconception that there is information to access out there, and the reality is that there are yawning data gaps on the environmental impacts of different types of food & drink products, ingredients and production practices even now. Everyone runs quickly to do something then realises that there is actually very little information to build coherent strategies around. I think everyone is beginning to realise that change has to come collaboratively, working towards the same goal, and having access to the same agreed data and ways of measuring things.
This is what essentially drives our approach through the Courtauld Commitment 2030. I was involved in establishing the original collective targets and then in developing our technical programme of work to support businesses to deliver those targets. This has been the recipe for great success. But we recognised that we needed to go to the next level because of the urgency of the situation and the clock ticking.
So, this is what has led to stepping up of ambition on decarbonisation for Courtauld 2030?
It’s long been a target for Courtauld to address this challenge, but I think there has been a turning point in the last couple of years. Businesses have come under increasing consumer pressure and there is more general societal awareness of the challenge. Many leading businesses quickly set themselves targets and then realised the enormity of the challenge; the information gaps, especially when they began to really consider the challenge of looking beyond their own boundaries to the emissions along the supply chain.
I think this led to a realisation that this wasn’t actually a problem they could solve on their own. It was a culmination of all those threads coming together which spurred our partners in Courtauld to agitate for a solution. And from there the Courtauld 2030 GHG Working Group came together. We were all saying ‘We've all got the same problem here. How do we work on solving it together’? It's just grown hugely in momentum since then. We had an amazing response both in the number of businesses eager to get involved, and the consensus around the need to ramp up ambition. So, we were delighted to have secured a hugely ambitious target for Courtauld 2030 to halve the GHG emissions linked to food and drink consumed in the UK by 2030. It will be a major challenge, but also a massive opportunity to lead the world. So that I find daunting, but also immensely exciting.
How did WRAP approach beginning to address the information gap you describe?
So having set the target, the next step was to establish the ‘how’. This is where our UK Food Systems GHG Emissions report came in. This new research is the most up-to-date and comprehensive analysis of GHG emissions linked to UK food and & drink production and consumption. Importantly, it sets out the scale of GHG emissions reductions that could come from different types of interventions, such as eliminating deforestation from supply chains, decarbonising energy, decarbonising transport and preventing food waste.
The significance is that we have set ourselves a very challenging target to halve food system emissions within a decade – keeping us on a 1.5 degree trajectory and on the path to the longer term net zero targets the industry has set. We didn’t know if it was really achievable, and what the report does is that it clearly demonstrates that it is. It shows what we can accomplish if we add up the sum of all those commitments and policies and targets and bring them together under one cohesive plan. It gives us real hope that we can translate a promise into action.
All of the elements in themselves will be difficult, but it gives us a way of really focusing on where we need to make the change. And unlocks the inertia which had previously stultified efforts – because it was too easy to imagine that emissions outside of your direct control – Scope 3 as they are called - were not your responsibility.
Where are the challenges?
Fundamentally, the challenge is we need to get information from farms. And you're basically talking about tens of thousands of small businesses who are likely to be overwhelmed if we aren’t careful. And it’s quite complex information; not simple things. There isn’t even a common agreement of what ‘sustainable farming’ means. So, WRAP is supporting a coalition called the Global Farm Metric which is seeking to establish that – to define the metrics and measures that are needed to agree on what sustainable farming is. And to guard against the risk of displacing the environmental cost elsewhere – for example, focusing on GHGs at the expense of another equally as devastating issue like water scarcity or biodiversity.
How do you strike that balance between big businesses needing to take a lead here but avoiding the risk of exploitation of those with less power in the dynamics?
Yes, we absolutely have to be alive to the challenge that businesses set themselves a target to reduce supply chain impacts but might risk passing that burden onto their suppliers, who are then left with the problem but with far fewer means.
I see WRAP’s convening power as playing an important role to make sure that, for example, supply chain bodies and organisations have a voice in establishing the rules of engagement, as it were. Bodies that represent farmers, for example, or who are promoting sustainable production practices. They need to be at the table as much as the retailers in trying to develop and design solutions. They have their ears to the ground, they work with farmers, understand their challenges and needs. Because if whatever we propose doesn’t work for farmers it’s not going to work at all. A lot of the burden – and opportunity – for change lies with them. But you need good measurement to understand the benefits of what they are doing and what their natural capital is before you will unlock investment so they can be rewarded for the safeguarding of the resources and ecosystems in their care. And we need to provide farmers with the right support every step of the way.
At the other end of the scale, there is a huge challenge with re-educating citizens around food, and especially food waste which is where they can make their individual contribution?
I take some encouragement from the public reaction to plastic pollution and how that has galvanised the industry. But I have to admit it is more challenging with food. It’s stitched into our cultural psyches, and we have a complex relationship with it. We can be cognisant about our food choices and waste in our day to day lives and then throw it all out of the window at other times like Christmas, right? It is so fundamentally ingrained in our culture, so needs really careful thought to get the right approach. WRAP has long been at the forefront of behaviour change interventions when it comes to this, with campaigns and brands such as Love Food Hate Waste and Food Waste Action Week. But you’re right there is a lot more that can be done to help us all see the link between wasting food and climate change. and we will be working on that.
You are at COP26. What will you be telling the leaders and delegates you meet?
I will be stressing the point that you cannot be just focusing on your own territorial emissions but to look at the issue in the round. It is tempting, and easy, to just offshore the problem and shift the decarbonisation burden to another country. I will also be saying that we need to look at emissions and consumption footprints together. This is really the elephant in the room, and I understand why there is some sensitivity around it, we need to avoid sounding dictatorial around asking people what to eat/buy and so on, but it is a conversation which needs to be had.
I think we have to move away from it being such a slightly oversimplified, polarised and often judgemental debate. But the fact is that over consumption is as damaging as waste. We need to be measuring food waste for example not just in tonnage but in the carbon saved, so we can always make that connection. And citizens need to know and be supported to make the right choices – buy what they need and eat what they buy!
And the same applies to textiles. Our Textiles 2030 agreement aims to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and keep 1.5 degrees alive. Much of the carbon footprint is overseas, and citizens will play a vital role by changing how they shop, care for, resell and dispose of their clothes.
I will also be making the case for my personal passion – the need for data. Henry Dimbleby said that of all the recommendations in the National Food Strategy he led in the UK, the first one he would want to tackle is the lack of data. That was music to my ears!
What keeps you awake at night and what drives you to get up in the morning?
Well firstly I am an absolute born optimist. So, I absolutely think we can get there. But there are a huge number of moving parts, and if we fail on fixing our food system it’s really hard to see how we can move forward. I focus on the things which I know we can change and get cracking. I love a challenge which is why it gets me up in the mornings and excited about the opportunities ahead.
What gives me confidence are initiatives like the emerging collective projects that we've been leading on. One of the pieces of work I am most proud of is a new Roadmap towards Water Security for Food & Drink Supply that we are launching at the end of November. It is a great example of collective water stewardship work from businesses who have really stepped up where they have traditionally found it hard to take action because of the complexity of the nature of water issues. But they have really realised that they have got collective ‘skin in the game’ and that they can work together for a more meaningful outcome.
To end on a positive note: I’ve been working in this area for 20 years and there has never been a moment in time like now where businesses are so engaged and where the problems that we've been talking about are so well recognized. There are loads and loads of solutions out there. The balls are all in the air and we just need to gather them in and work together. That is the message I will be hammering home at COP26.