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Outgoing CEO Marcus Gover on 15 years with WRAP

Over the last six years, Marcus Gover has led WRAP through a time of strategic change, as well as a pandemic. Having interviewed him when he became its Chief Executive, Resource follows up to hear about the experience as he prepares to say goodbye.

It’s noticeable that there are fewer desks than the last time I visited WRAP’s Banbury headquarters. That was 2016, when Marcus Gover had just become Chief Executive. Instead, the extra room has been replaced with breakout and collaboration spaces. A place more akin to a tech start-up.

Marcus Gover interviewNot that WRAP has shrunk during the last six years, rather the opposite. It now has a footprint in 40 countries. Instead, unsurprisingly, the pandemic changed how it did things and an already dispersed workforce became even more of a hybrid. Quite a time to lead one of the industry’s most prominent organisations.

“We completely ripped up the rulebook during the pandemic, basically enabling complete flexibility of when and where you work. And the payback for WRAP has been huge from that,” reflects Gover, sitting next to a wall-to-ceiling image of the Earth, the kind of graphic that’s emblematic of the organisation’s branding.

When he took on the reins WRAP was in a process of transition, having at the time pivoted to become a charity – a strategic decision to reduce reliance on public sector funding – and was widening its focus to sharing expertise abroad. Something Gover at the time referred to as ‘WRAP 3.0’.

As a result, around the world there are now many projects in the vein of its well known homegrown initiatives such as Plastics Pact, Love Food Hate Waste, Courtauld Commitment, etc.

“During the pandemic we actually grew a lot internationally despite the fact that nobody could travel. The pandemic changed the way the world works. Previously, you couldn't have set one of these programmes up without really going there and building relationships and getting to know people. That would have been a lot of travel, but then acceptance of a different way of working came from the pandemic which hasn't changed.”

The fact that these have been able to take root in other countries illustrates how WRAP has found an effective approach. This is due, in part, to a shift in emphasis.

Gover recalls a difficult moment in 2017, when reported food waste figures showed an increase and he had to appear on the Today programme and explain to John Humphreys why this was happening. Much to the horror of Humphreys, Gover told him that the public was in denial.

“So Love Food Hate Waste had a big rethink about how it worked. I was focusing on awareness and that’s important, but how do you help people to change? [It’s] giving people the tools to tell them how they can change… as a result, we had a big focus on changing our approach to behaviour change.”

So, working with behavioural scientists, WRAP has pieced together a methodology focused on actions and is now exporting this.

“We have a blueprint for a voluntary agreement that says if you want to do this, these are the stages you have to go through. This is how it works and we help the local partners to do it. And with that approach, principally focused on plastics and food waste, we've been going to the world,” explains Gover.

“The combined knowledge of the WRAP approach and the local situation with a local partner is what's critical for success. So in Mexico, we work with BAMX [Bancos de Alimentos de México], which runs food banks. It’s been very successful, but that partnership is really crucial.”

Illustrative of the eclectic mix of partners that WRAP links with both at home and abroad, the project in Mexico got started with a study funded by the World Bank to look at the potential for tackling food waste and identify a policy framework for doing this.

It then progressed to a voluntary agreement: “This was funded by the Roddenberry Foundation, which of course is the money from Star Trek. So we were boldly going on food waste where nobody had gone before!”

“In fact, Richard Swannell [presently WRAP’s Interim CEO] was boldly going where no one had gone before. Give Richard his due. Richard has driven this, I think he has been a star in WRAP. Absolutely he has.”

When Gover took on the leading WRAP in 2016, he identified international expansion as a key objective. While this has clearly been achieved, it has mainly been with WRAP in more of an advisory role, as a consultant partner rather than the frontline delivery body. The notable exception has been its foray ‘down under’. This then is his idea of WRAP 4.0, ‘not just advising, but doing in other countries’.

We set up WRAP as a charity in Australia with a view to building a local staff there helping Australia change, but also looking at New Zealand and elsewhere in the Pacific, to help some of the Pacific Islands change,” he says. “We were working on food waste already in Australia. So there's an Australian food waste pact which WRAP helps with and there's also a clothing product stewardship scheme which WRAP is helping to run. And I think when they talk about product stewardship, they quite like that we talk about extended producer responsibility.”

“Claire Kneller has gone to Australia to lead that. She'll grow a team and we'll start to have something that looks like WRAP in Australia. Our future vision is to go beyond that and start building WRAP in countries across the world or WRAP's countries across the world. That's the job of the next person to do that.”

A noticeable difference between the start and the end of his tenure as Chief Executive is how much today Marcus Gover credits the people in his team, quick to name check, highlighting their expertise and achievements. He observes that it’s only through doing the job that it becomes apparent how different a role it is and to adapt ‘to helping great people do great things, not do their jobs’.

Reflecting on what has been achieved by WRAP during the past six years, Gover is keen to point to its accreditation for Investors in Diversity and, in doing so, winning the 2022 FREDIE Award for Small to Medium Business.

He explains: “Another personal mission has been to change the equality, diversity and inclusion focus of WRAP over the last few years. I need to pay tribute to Angela Pulley, our HR director who has brought a passion to move us in this direction… I learned a lot from this process and the wealth, the richness that it brings.

“If we're trying to deliver consumer campaigns and we don't represent the audience we're trying to work with, then how can we possibly hope to change them? So that's been really important to me.”

While Gover places special emphasis on the personnel, it is the outcomes that WRAP is more widely measured against. For the 22 years it has been around, it has played a central role in delivering the UK Government’s objectives for managing waste. Today, this has to be seen through the lens of tackling climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We produced a report last year called, 'Net-zero: Why resource efficiency has the answers', and that was eight strategies for saving two billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050 for the UK. And half that price basically came from food and that was through food waste, but it was also through lower carbon bias as well.

“The other half was coming from the circular economy and recycling, and I'll say it like that, because recycling is the last bit of this. It’s the last thing that the circular economy is about. It's really about the waste prevention side of things and keeping stuff in circulation.”

To achieve this requires all participants in the flow of materials to engage and play their part. And as much as there has been an emphasis on enabling the public to take action, arguably WRAP’s most distinctive contribution has come from its work with business through pioneering voluntary commitments.These are important pieces in the jigsaw.

While legislation is necessary, it ‘takes a long time, that’s the trouble.’ Given the pressure to act, voluntary agreements are also necessary, contends Gover. The advantage is that they are quicker to implement than government regulation, the challenge is that they aren’t easy to effectively deliver.

“WRAP is about doing what’s difficult… and being up for changing the entire system.That’s what the Courtauld Commitment is about. Not just saying let’s have some good projects on food waste reduction, but let’s change the whole system. It works if you get all of the players together, and they all commit, then change the system.”

He points to the fact that 95 per cent of all food and drink consumed in the UK is supplied by businesses that are part of the Courtauld Commitment. Similarly, 85 per cent of all grocery packaging is supplied by members of the Plastic Pact. However, it’s not simply a case of companies signing up to broad objectives without a substantial commitment.

“You need to have a roadmap of how targets are going to be delivered and the stages on the way. They have to be held to account and that's part of the WRAP blueprint for voluntary agreements. You've got to be clear of the targets, and clear how they're going to be achieved and clear how you're going to hold people to account to it.”

In doing this, WRAP has found that it doesn’t need to play the role of bad cop because, notes Gover, ‘lots of chief executives are personally very committed’. Peer pressure is also quite powerful, as participants hold one another to account or rather do not wish to fall short of others in an age where brand credibility is in part built on environmental commitment.

Key to this is ensuring that everyone is on the same page, able to agree on the actions they need to take. “As WRAP, we always look for what’s the game changer to make a difference. That’s a common thread throughout my time. My 15 years at WRAP have been [spent] looking for the game changers. Changing the rules of recycling in the early days, but on Courtauld and food waste, food waste measurement is the game changer… It took about two years to agree on a common way to measure food waste, but once we had that everyone could report and there were no excuses not to measure and report.”

Gover is impressed how business leaders have embraced this, wanting to make a difference: “I saw it at COP26 last year when I went to see the business stands in the green zone. They got [the issue] of consumption. The countries were all focused on the territory and emissions and much more parochial. Businesses were ahead of the governments.

“Consumption is the piece that’s missing. We won't we won't get to one and a half degrees without tackling consumption. Not enough people are really talking about it. That's what has to be done. If we don't tackle consumption, climate change will not be limited.”

This then remains the shared mission for both Marcus Gover and WRAP 4.0, as each goes boldly forward seeking new challenges. 

UPDATE: It has now been announced that Dr Marcus Gover will be joining Minderoo Foundation to lead its No Plastic Waste Initiative.