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The Big Interview: Liz Goodwin

Six months ago, many of WRAP’s 180 staff were based in a rambling, listed building in Banbury, Oxfordshire, with creaky corridors and little headroom.

Now it boasts a modern open-plan HQ in Banbury to mark its recent charitable status and the start of an enterprising five-year programme. Chief executive Liz Goodwin believes that moving offices was more than symbolic.

“Helping colleagues to understand their role in the plan is the way we have been driving the change,” she said. “Moving offices was a key part of that and I wanted it to happen this year. Everyone has had to change their desk and nobody was sitting in their comfort zone. It had a huge effect, and the feedback I’ve had from staff was that it made a big difference.”

Goodwin has overseen considerable change since heading the (then) Waste and Resources Action Programme in 2007. An advisory body on recycling, almost wholly dependent on UK Government funding, it has now become a charity with a growing international presence and goals that major on waste reduction and the circular economy.

“It has been an exciting year,” said Goodwin. “We knew that getting the paperwork was probably the easiest bit, while the hardest was ensuring we had a pipeline of opportunities. Getting that work and the momentum has been really important, as has making sure we have the right skills in the organisation.”

I’ve had to push my own boundaries and go outside my comfort zone

That included the appointment of Suzanne Jeffrey as head of fund-raising. Jeffrey, after a dozen years at Oxfam, will help WRAP to “get the language right and be more aspirational”.

WRAP, no longer an acronym, launched its five-year strategy in the summer with a triple emphasis on food and drink, clothing and textiles, and electrical and electronic goods. It means a new set of goals and new ways of paying for them.

“That’s the challenge and that is why it has been important to work with people like Suzanne, getting to how we secure both more charitable and business funding,” said Goodwin. “Being a charity was not just about getting in income. It was about new ways of working with organisations and partnering to do things we couldn’t do before.”

The new status, for example, allows smarter partnerships with public bodies without the hindrance of “rather legalistic” procurement rules.

Goodwin is comfortable with retaining WRAP as the brand, using words such as reputable, solid, research-led and rigour. “When we were considering our strategy, we asked ourselves: what is our unique selling point? It is a brand grounded on robust evidence. We are quite unusual for a charity in the amount of evaluation we do.”

WRAP’s heartbeat is still about producing evidence and bringing people together for a common understanding and finding workable solutions: “We hadn’t changed overnight but are on a journey.”

Goodwin herself has been on a personal journey these past 12 months, one that required some reflection as well as the help of others.

“I’ve had a little ‘mind conversation’ going on that I need to be scared about or else I’m not going to be taking WRAP in the right direction,” she said. “I’ve had to push my own boundaries and go outside my comfort zone in order to get the organisation out of its comfort zone.

“I’ve certainly got some friends I’ve talked to quite a lot – not directly in the charity sector, but people I trust – and they come at it from a different perspective. It has been useful.”

He asks lots of questions and that is because he wants to understand. He is listening, which is good for as long as we can keep him

I suggest that one thing that could make a big difference to resource efficiency in UK business culture would be to switch policy from Defra to the business department.

“It’s a cross-Government responsibility,” she countered. “If you are talking about sustainability it is all departments – for example the Department of Health should be involved in the debate on food and sustainable diets. Education should be ensuring that our leaders of the future have the right knowledge.

“One of the roles WRAP has played and continues to play is to provide some of that joining-up across Government.”

Goodwin has “no strong feelings” for a centralised ‘office for resource management’, as mooted by the Lib Dems before the election, but noted “refreshing” recognition within Defra and by the new resource minister of the need for joined-up thinking.

“Rory Stewart is already talking about the relationships with other departments, but he is clear why are we doing this. It is to make the UK more sustainable and therefore it is driven from a sustainability perspective.”

She said she thought Stewart was “fantastic” at a recent meeting: “It was one of the most engaged discussions I’ve had with a minister. He asks lots of questions and that is because he wants to understand. He is listening, which is good for as long as we can keep him.”

Length in post could well be crucial because Stewart is the fourth waste minister in as many years. I suggest it is not a great time to be a torch-bearing ‘environment’ minister when several coalition Government policies around renewable energy have been ditched.

Goodwin does not bite at my invitation to criticise these policy changes, but acknowledged a wariness about managing resource issues when the economic climate is so tough. Stewart could be a key figure, she believes.

“In him, you have a minister with some ambition who cares about the subject, and that will help to overcome some of the challenges,” she said. “It is easy to see the glass as half-empty. The challenge is to find ways of helping to make that ambition happen, in ways the country can afford.”

We need to be careful we do not over-invest in energy from waste because I think it will constrain us for the future

Next month, Defra is introducing the single-use plastic carrier bag levy in England but, uniquely in the British Isles, is exempting SMEs. Surely, I suggested, lessons have not been learned and this is where WRAP could take a critical view, based on empirical analysis and logic. This is one of those moments for discretion: “It was a policy decision.”

A more definitive part of conversation comes when I broach the growth in energy recovery, and the fear that it could affect recycling levels. Goodwin is concerned that the UK does not end up with excessive capacity like some other member states, and she cautions waste management companies to “think quite carefully” about their investments.

“What we can recycle today, we could not necessarily recycle in an economically sustainable way five years ago. The boundary between what is best to recycle and what is best to recover energy from moves over time, so to invest based on today’s technology is missing a trick.

“We need to be careful we do not over-invest in energy from waste because I think it will constrain us for the future,” she concludes.

That future, according to Goodwin, for WRAP and its five-year plan is a voluntary one, building on agreements such as the 10-year-old Courtauld Commitment within the UK grocery sector.

“They are not always the panacea. Sometimes you need legislation but I think that, when they are designed and run properly, measured accurately and people report against them, then they can be very effective and allow businesses to come up with solutions rather than doing something that is forced on them,” Goodwin maintained.

And it was a business case that secured the goal of halving waste to landfill in the construction sector: “It was hard to get it going but, when businesses saw the results, they piled in.”

WRAP’s new five-year plan builds on the principles and the success of these agreements and the ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ campaign, which is also gaining international recognition. Where will WRAP be in five years?

“We will be working on the same things,” she said. “I would like to think we had developed our work on clothing and electricals to the same extent we have on food, so that we are really working down the supply chains to make sure we are making those products more sustainable. I’d really like to see us pushing forward with hard evidence on different business models that are really starting to fly.”   

WRAP milestones under Goodwin’s leadership

2007 Liz Goodwin becomes chief executive

2007 ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ launches

2008 WRAP launches a voluntary agreement for the UK construction industry, ‘Halving Waste to Landfill’

2010 Courtauld Commitment 2 (2010-12) launches, looking again at food and primary packaging waste, but also secondary and tertiary packaging, along with supply chain waste

2013 Courtauld Commitment 3 (2013-15) launches, which aims to further reduce the weight and carbon impact of household food waste, grocery product and packaging waste

2014 ‘Love Your Clothes’ campaign launches, and major retailers, fashion labels and textile producers agree to cut environmental impact by 15%

2014 The Electronic and Electricals Sustainability Action Plan is established to revolutionise the WEEE market, with more than 50 signatories

2014 WRAP becomes a registered charity in December

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