Danone in the dock: Campaigners take corporation to French court for plastic vigilance failings
10 Jan 2023 --- A group of environmental organizations is taking formal legal action against Danone in France for failing to implement a sufficient plastic pollution reduction strategy, as national law requires. The action follows a legal notice issued to nine “Big Food” corporations last year, of which Danone is said to be alone in refusing to take any remedial measures.
The company strongly rejects the accusations and their legal implications, saying it is “surprised” and claiming it “has long been recognized as a pioneer in environmental risk management.”
France’s Duty of Vigilance law was implemented in 2013 after the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, in which over 1,100 people were killed when a factory used by numerous Western brands collapsed. While many of these brands refused to sign accords on improved safety, and some refused to pay any compensation to the victims, several national governments passed litigation.
Duty of Vigilance was introduced in France in 2017 and required any company with more than 5,000 local employees or 10,000 internationally to publish an annual plan identifying the environmental and social risks stemming from their activities and those of their subsidiaries, suppliers and subcontractors.
Speaking to PackagingInsights, Rosa Pritchard, a plastics lawyer at ClientEarth, says: “Danone’s vigilance plan – which is supposed to list the company’s environmental and social impacts – is entirely silent on plastics.”
“The other companies we put on notice responded to our demands by publishing or modifying their vigilance plans. But Danone responded by rejecting our demands.”
ClientEarth says that Danone uses “almost 75 Eiffel Towers worth of plastic per year.”
According to Break Free From Plastic, which collects data on plastic in the environment every year, it is also one of the world’s top plastic polluters, ranking at number eight.
“If the judge finds in our favor, Danone will be ordered to produce a new vigilance plan, adequately addressing the topic of plastic within six months, with financial penalties for delay. Ultimately, we want Danone to start a pathway toward deplastification, says Pritchard.
“If the company answers our demands, the legal proceedings can be brought to an end.”
However, Danone says it takes its duty to reduce plastic pollution seriously. “We are implementing a comprehensive framework of actions aimed at reducing the use of plastic, developing reuse, strengthening collection and recycling schemes and developing alternative materials,” reads a company statement.
“We have already made significant progress on each of these fronts, particularly on plastic reduction, with -12% at a global level (-60,000 tons) between 2018 and 2021.”
Companies, consumers and governments
The French food giant also argues that the onus of ending plastic pollution should not rest solely on major companies.
“Putting an end to plastic pollution cannot come from one single company and requires the mobilization of all players, public and industrial, while respecting the imperatives of food safety. This is why we support the adoption, under the aegis of the United Nations, of a legally binding international treaty,” it says.
Other industry players are voicing concerns that the focus on plastic pollution is misguided and could lead consumers to abandon their own environmental responsibilities.
Henry-Christian Henry, head of brand and sustainability at Wipak, says he is “alarmed” by the “vendetta” against plastics. “Polls show that most consumers believe metal and glass to be more sustainable than plastics due to their perceived history of recycling. LCAs show a different story. Especially with flexibles that package 40% of goods but provide only 10% of the packaging material,” he says.
Henry also says raising company taxes for waste management can have an inverse impact by reducing consumer responsibility and making them feel justified for littering.
“In order to not accelerate climate change, we need to have a discussion based on science and use the lowest footprint material. And we need to be accountable consumers that stop polluting and make greener choices. Legislation should make greener choices easier and not confuse the issue,” he asserts.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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