Liz Godwin steps down as chief executive of WRAP at the end of June (2016). She has overseen the transformation of the organisation from a national public body facing up to substantial cuts in its budget to a charity with international aspirations. MRW editor Robin Latchem invited Goodwin to reflect on her time in charge.
When you started in the job, what did you think would be the key challenges, both for you personally and for WRAP as an organisation?
Becoming chief executive was a personal challenge.Here was this great organisation doing great things,which I was proud to be part of.But, all of a sudden,I would be the one making the tough decisions,and with that comes real responsibility.
Truthfully I was nervous,but ultimately excited.When I look back now,I’m not sure why I ever worried – it has been the best job in the world and I like to think I have made some sound decisions along the way.
For WRAP, one of the challenges was to convince people of the need to change behaviours.I remember comments such as ‘you won’t manage to do that because we’ve tried it before’.I also recall a certain meeting when I said that milk bottles would be fully recyclable back into food-grade plastic. People in the room at the time laughed and said it couldn’t be done.
What turned out to be the main challenges?
I can think of a number of them – for different reasons.
Our work on collections was challenging for many years,and we had to be really careful about what we said and how we said it.I know the team found it very difficult.Fortunately, things have changed in the past couple of years,and it has been great to be able to work with [resource minister] Rory Stewart to define the vision of what recycling in England could look like.
There have also been areas with technical challenges.For example, the work to establish the plastics reprocessing industry is one of WRAP’s finest achievements,in my opinion.Reflecting on that,what has happened in the past couple of years has been truly tragic.But I firmly believe in the business case for plastics reprocessing and think the industry will weather the storm.
In terms of convincing people of the need to place resource efficiency at the heart of what they do, there is still work to do.This is true of governments and businesses,and I wish we could have gone further and faster.It is probably the thing that still nags away at me.
But the chances of making this a reality are far greater with WRAP in the world than without it.I remain optimistic because it is in all our interests to act sustainably.
In recent years, there has been a continuing cut in Defra funding. What changes did that mean for WRAP?
It meant quite a few changes, to be honest.But we have managed to adapt and focus on the priorities,so perhaps in some ways it has not been a bad thing. That is why our five-year plan looks to tackle the areas of food,clothing and textiles, and electrical and electronic equipment, all underpinned by resource management.We offer the evidence base, the practical solutions and deliver value for money.In Stewart,we have a minister who understands the importance of the resource efficiency agenda and WRAP’s role within it.
What difference in terms of attitude to waste did you detect at Whitehall as regimes changed from Labour to coalition to Conservative?
Waste and resources affect everyday life in business and in the home,so it can be a real political issue.There have been different approaches as a result of the alternative political environments,and I’ve enjoyed working out how we best adapt to those approaches.
When WRAP was founded it was all about recycling.We have moved to tackling waste prevention,resource efficiency and,more recently,product sustainability and we are increasingly looking at sustainable lifestyles.
In reality the resource efficiency agenda is above political colours.Whoever the government of the day is,WRAP has to make the case for why our industry matters, and the benefit it has to the economy,environment and society as a whole.We all know the importance of what we do,so we must keep telling the story as to why resources are important and the need to manage them effectively for many reasons:the sustainability of our economy and of businesses, and the future for our children and grandchildren.
You’ve had to deal with different secretaries of state and, at times, almost annual changes of waste minister – that cannot have been easy?
It is worth noting that this was not the case in Scotland. Richard Lochhead became cabinet secretary at roughly the same time I became chief executive, and we leave at similar times.But it is true that I’ve seen a few Defra secretaries of state and a few changes in Wales and Northern Ireland too.
But I try where possible to view challenges as opportunities.After all, for every new secretary of state, there is an opportunity to convince one more person of the value of the work that both WRAP and our industry does.And with new people coming in you get different perspectives but, of course, it ultimately depends on the individuals.
Who has been your favourite minister?
It is important to remember the importance of the junior ministers.I recall a good working relationship with Lord Taylor, as I did with Lord de Mauley – who really understood what we did. And none has been more enthusiastic,passionate and willing to listen than Stewart.He has been a breath of fresh air, and our work to create greater consistency for recycling in England is vitally important.
You are an implacable advocate of voluntary agreements for recycling across the various sectors of our economy. Do you seen any virtue in legislative changes, such as VAT relief for recycled materials?
I am an advocate for voluntary agreements.Our experience shows that it is often far more productive to adopt a voluntary approach – it is a grown-up way of working and often more costeffective too.It allows businesses to work towards common goals,but have the flexibility to do so in a way that fits their business model and own objectives.
However, that doesn’t mean I am anti-legislation,because there is a time and place for that.For example,when I look at opportunities to help the resource efficiency initiatives, there is an argument that some kind of resource tax could be an option.I also think that legislation is important when you need to set a minimum standard – the leaders can show what is possible but that does not mean everyone always improves their standards.
There has also been a growing relationship with the Welsh and Scottish Governments, which are clearly happier to drive policy from the centre. What difference does that make?
That may be your opinion but, actually,I think there is evidence that policy is being driven from the centre in the UK too,but there is always more to do.
There are many myths about recycling and resource efficiency in the wider community. What more can we all do to achieve a wider understanding among the public?
Let us all first pause for a moment and take pride in what we have collectively achieved as an industry.When I joined WRAP,the UK was the laggard of recycling, but not now.We had no idea about the scale of food waste – no real concept that waste is,in fact,a valuable resource.
When I think about WRAP,you cannot fail to see the ‘Recycle Now’ swoosh on the side of lorries,in towns and on products.Nor can you go to a supermarket without coming across innovations that were ignited by the Courtauld Commitment or ‘Love Food Hate Waste’.So much has changed,but we have much more to do.
We have to work together to present a united front and, as an industry,utilise our skills and expertise to communicate the importance of the resource efficiency agenda.Communication is key:let’s not turn people off with big numbers that have no resonance to daily lives and businesses.Let’s instead tell stories of individuals and what has and can be achieved, and the economic,environmental and societal benefits for doing so.
What will be key challenges for your successor in the next few years?
Increasing the understanding among governments,businesses and consumers of the importance of the resource efficiency agenda.He or she will also need to work out what space WRAP needs to occupy in promoting sustainable lifestyles and the portfolio mix of potential funders in the future.They join at an exciting time,but also an important one.
What’s next for Liz Goodwin?
First I will take a well-needed break.I love WRAP but I do need to recharge my batteries.Then I have plans that I look forward to sharing soon.But I am committed to helping tackle food waste and rethinking how we consume so that we act more sustainably.