We will not tackle the climate crisis without changing our consumption systems

With concern over the climate emergency intensifying in the wake of COP26 but too little focus on the impact of individual consumption, sustainability NGO WRAP has joined forces with not-for-profit social enterprise Behaviour Change to fill this void.

Climate action NGO WRAP today publishes annual updates of its voluntary agreements for the food, plastics and textiles sectors. The publication comes with a stark warning that while the UK is making some progress in tackling key environmental issues, a lot more collaboration and action is needed from businesses to achieve the level of change required, and to keep climate goals within reach.

WRAP launched its first voluntary agreement in 2005 and has since expanded its programme to address food and drink, plastic pollution, and fashion and textiles. WRAP has demonstrated how the voluntary approach can deliver measurable outcomes, with the Courtauld Commitment reducing the UK’s food waste by 27% since its launch 17 years ago. In the last three years of reporting, the UK Plastics Pact has doubled the recycled content in packaging, and driven the significant elimination of unnecessary (84%) and hard to recycle (90%) components in packaging. Launched only a year ago, Textiles 2030 has convened more than 110 leading businesses and organisations and brought the UK one step closer to accurately measuring and addressing the impact of the UK’s clothing and home textiles. Together, WRAP’s annual reports highlight the challenges and pathways for tackling climate action, and detail where leading UK businesses are already acting to address waste, carbon and water usage through The UK Plastics Pact, the Courtauld Commitment 2030 and Textiles 2030.

WRAP’s voluntary agreements bring together Governments, businesses, local authorities, academics, NGOs, industry groups and citizens to take collaborative action. They address how the food and drink, plastics and textiles we use are produced and sold through to their reuse, remanufacture and recycling. The voluntary model operates in tandem with policy development, but can deliver impact faster, and with more flexibility, than regulation alone. Using a systemic approach, businesses address these issues through innovation and collaboration, while generating opportunities for responsible growth and demonstrating to their customers and shareholders commitment to sustainable change. A Target-Measure-Act approach, developed by WRAP, ensures rigorous evaluation of progress, giving transparent and publicly reported updates against targets to avoid greenwashing. 

But with signs that we are not on track to deliver the scale and pace of change needed to deliver on the goals of the voluntary agreements, and therefore to reduce emissions as required, WRAP is using these annual updates to call on more businesses to act on climate change – today.

Catherine David, Director of Collaboration and Change at WRAP, said “COP27 made it clear that we are not on track to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Accelerating action by businesses is paramount. The businesses signed up to our agreements are leading the way in transforming the food, textiles and plastic packaging sectors, demonstrating what is possible, and helping inform government’s thinking on needed regulatory levers. Today’s reports show the mountain we need to climb, and we call on all businesses to join us on this journey and be part of changing our consumption systems in line with a sustainable future.”

Textiles

Under Textiles 2030, WRAP’s newest voluntary agreement launched in April 2021, signatories are adopting a Target, Measure, Act approach to ambitious carbon and water reduction targets and working collaboratively across their supply chains to implement improvements in line with the Textiles 2030 Circularity Roadmap. Today, for the first time, WRAP publishes the Textiles 2030 baseline detailing signatories’ combined carbon and water footprints for 2019. The report also shows results from signatories’ first year of reporting in 2021, which will help determine priority areas for action and track progress over the next eight years. The data gives the clearest picture of the current situation in the UK fashion and textiles industry, and the scale of the challenge.

WRAP warns that the environmental footprint for the textiles and clothing industry is currently moving in the wrong direction, fuelled by enormous consumption rates that see between 4% and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions arising from apparel and textiles. Compared to its baseline year, data from Textiles 2030’s first year reveals that in 2021 brands and retailers’ carbon footprint rose by 4.4% from 11.6MtCO2e to 12.1MtCO2e. And water rose by 1% to 2.7 billion M3. The report also shows a significant rise in the number of improvement actions being taken by the brand and retailer signatories to reduce their footprints – 106 actions in 2021 compared to 64 in the baseline year. Had signatories not made these improvements, their footprints would have increased even further. For carbon it would have been a 6.4% rise (rather than 4.4%) and for water it would have been 15% rise (rather than 1%). The improvement actions helped reduce 2% carbon emissions and 14% of the water footprint.

A key message for industry WRAP is delivering is that fibre switching alone is not enough to counteract growing sales and the massive impact overproduction and overconsumption of textiles is having on the planet. To make serious headway against its enormous global impact (ranked fourth after transport, housing and food) far more textiles businesses must embrace circularity, work collaboratively through Textiles 2030, and accelerate the implementation of new business models. More than 110 of the UK’s biggest brands and retailers and textile reuse and recycling organisations have already pledged their commitment to Textiles 2030. The businesses represent more than 62% of all clothing placed on the UK market. But warns WRAP, far more businesses must join to deliver the scale of change the industry needs to achieve.

Plastics

Since 2018, The UK Plastics Pact has changed how the UK makes, uses and disposes of plastics. The Pact is making good progress removing problematic plastics and increasing recycled content, but recycling of plastic bags and wrapping continues to be a major barrier and WRAP warns that urgent action is needed to reduce unnecessary plastics, and ensure the rest is recyclable and recycled.

Businesses that have been members of The Pact since its inception have higher levels of recycled content, with members also using less plastic than the national average. The UK Plastics Pact targets were set based on predictions of when key policy instruments, including consistency in recycling collections and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), would be introduced. WRAP warns that achieving the ambitious 70% recycling rate for plastic packaging may not be possible without widespread collection of plastic bags and wrapping directly from homes and workplaces, which will not be fully rolled out until 2027. Supermarket collection points will play an even more vital interim role in the meantime. The second target is to achieve 100% recyclable packaging, and that means what is physically captured and recycled at scale, not just technically recyclable. In practice, not all plastic packaging will be recycled through local authority collections by 2025. Despite these challenges, much has and continues to be achieved:

  • Target one – eliminating of problematic plastics – WRAP recorded an 84% reduction in problematic and unnecessary plastics between 2018 and 2021 (734m down to 114m items; 620 million less items on shelf) with tonnage down by 57% to 9,000t.
  • Target two – 100% of plastics reusable or recyclable – 70% of packaging is recyclable today, up from 66% in 2018. 92% of rigid plastic packaging is now recyclable under the Pact, up from 81% in 2018. There has been a 90% reduction in hard to recycle plastics (e.g., non-Near-Infrared detectable colours and PVC.) However, despite these significant improvements, on the current trajectory, WRAP warns that members will not hit this target owing to a lack of at-scale recycling of bags and wrapping through kerbside collections. And the many trials to move to reusable packaging need to be scaled.
  • Target Three – boosting plastic recycling to 70% – 50% of plastic packaging is recycled. Since 2018 there has been a 6% increase in the amount of plastic packaging recycled. Today, largely due to the closure of export markets the amount of plastic packaging processed in the UK exceeds that exported for the first time in nearly twenty years. However, despite this historic reversal WRAP warns that members will not meet Target 3 by the 2025 deadline, largely owing to the timing of implementing key policy reforms*.
  • Target 4 – increasing recycled content to 30% 22% average recycled content achieved, up from 8.5% in just three years. Both absolute reduction in use of virgin plastic and the increase in recycled content delivered a saving of 260,000 tonnes of CO2e. Overall, Pact members placed 205,000 tonnes of recycled content in primary packaging ahead of the introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022.

WRAP is committed to a circular economy for plastics beyond 2025, both in the UK and globally. It is at the forefront of negotiations to ensure the success of the Global Plastics Treaty.

Food

With the food system responsible for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, enormous stresses on fresh water supplies and the primary driver of biodiversity loss, transforming our food system is critical to fighting climate change. As the effects of climate change become more damaging and food security is tested to the limit, the Courtauld Commitment 2030 is more important than ever. Many businesses are working together to transform the food system, but the need for accelerated action has never been more urgent – not least around household food waste – and it is critical that the whole sector unites behind Courtauld 2030 and joins those leading the vanguard.

Since its inception in 2005, the Courtauld Commitment has helped transform the UK’s food system. The agreement is a catalyst for change around reductions in GHGs and food waste, and is delivering sustainable water management. Businesses that have been members of Courtauld for longer have seen greater reductions in food waste. Highlights in the latest progress report include:

  • 16% of UK food businesses measured emissions accurately and consistently through the world-leading Scope 3 GHG measurement and reporting Protocols for the food sector.
  • The Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap was published in partnership with WWF and Rivers Trust. More than 50 businesses that have committed to protecting critical water resources under an eight-year programme are moving the UK closer to delivering UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Seven water action projects are underway that span the UK, Kenya, South Africa and Spain.
  • The Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, launched by WRAP and the IGD in 2018, has seen the number of food businesses involved grow to 300, including all of the major grocery retailers. Now 221 large businesses are implementing ‘Target, Measure, Act’, an increase of 7% year-on-year representing 60% of their sectors with twenty whole chain plans now in progress or completed, double the number last year. Retail food waste has reduced by 19,000 tonnes (8%) between 2018 to 2021, saving almost £62m ending up as waste and the production of some 60,000 tonnes of GHG emissions.  
  • Food Waste Action Week went global with Weeks running in twelve countries, in only its second year. In the UK, the campaign reached over eight million people.

WRAP also pioneered cross-sector collaboration with an 18-month research project with Courtauld 2030 signatories and UK Plastics Pact members, proving that selling fresh produce loose has a huge potential to reduce food waste and plastic waste in the home. Reducing food waste and plastic packaging dispelled the notion that plastic prolongs the life of fresh uncut produce. As a result, multiple retailers began removing Best Before dates with Asda, Lidl, M&S, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose removing labels on a significant number of lines, and Aldi, Co-op and Morrisons trialling removal. Work of this nature, that reduces household food waste, is of paramount importance as that remains by far the most significant area of food waste by volume. Innovations of this type, and citizen behaviour change campaigns, will be critical to success as the current picture suggests that household food waste has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it is only possible to address this through far greater collaboration in projects aimed at the home.

While positive work continues across the supply chain, WRAP stresses the need for significantly higher levels of investment to support its water programme to triple the number of catchment projects by 2030. The organisation also says that more businesses must urgently adopt its reporting protocols to consistently measure scope 3 GHG emissions, and work with WRAP to develop and implement net zero transition plans. Crucially, while reductions in food waste continue in the supply chain, the NGO stresses the need for expanded action through its Target, Measure, Act approach; with the hospitality sector facing significant challenges, and measurement and reporting critical to its success.

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