ClientEarth set to take Danone to court over its plastics footprint

ClientEarth has filed a case against Danone with France’s equivalent of the High Court, hoping to force the consumer goods major to disclose more information on its plastics use and to reduce plastic pollution across its value chain.

ClientEarth set to take Danone to court over its plastics footprint

Danone owns brands including evian, Volvic, Activia and Actimel

The environmental law firm has today (9 January) confirmed its filing of a case at the Paris Tribunal Judiciaire, accusing Danone of flouting its requirements under the French Duty of Vigilance law. Danone has stated that it is “very surprised” by the move and “strongly refutes” ClientEarth’s claims.

This law was implemented in 2017. It requires large businesses headquartered in France to publish ‘vigilance’ plans each year, setting out the environmental and social risks and impacts of their operations, suppliers and subcontractors. The plan must be global in scope and cover all owned brands and subsidiaries. As well as identifying risks, plans have to include prevention and mitigation measures and information on how the company is implementing these measures and results delivered so far.

ClientEarth is arguing that, as a major plastic packaging producer and distributor, Danone should be obliged under this law to include measures on plastics pollution across the value chain. Danone sells products in more than 120 countries and, according to Break Free From Plastic, is one of the world’s ten largest plastic packaging producers. The campaign also dubbed Danone the top plastic polluter in Indonesia.

In announcing the case, ClientEarth does acknowledge that Danone has implemented a plan relating to plastics. However, it criticizes the corporate’s decision to focus on recycling after consumer use., citing stagnating plastic recycling rates in major economies in the Global North and poor recycling infrastructure development in the Global South. Danone is targeting 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025 and its latest annual report reveals that a proportion of 81% has been achieved.

“Recycling is a limited solution as only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled,” said ClientEarth’s plastics lawyer Rosa Pritchard. “It’s unrealistic for food giants like Danone to pretend recycling is the silver bullet.”

Without adequate recycling, ClientEarth is arguing, plastics pose an array of environmental risks. These include emissions associated with landfilling, dumping and burning, plus the impact of plastic pollution on nature and human health. Research is ever-evolving on this latter topic. One recent study at the University of Hull found that members of the general public are ingesting microplastics “at levels consistent with harmful effects on cells, which are in many cases the initiative event for health effects”. Effects include disruption to hormone imbalance, organ inflammation and allergic reactions.

ClientEarth also mentions the social impact of plastics. This includes exposure to chemicals in the production process and informal waste management space, particularly in low-income nations.

ClientEarth is asking Danone to measure its plastic use across the value chain, including logistics and promotions. It then wants Danone to map the impact that plastics have on the environment and on humanity across its entire value chain.

From there, the company would be able to update its plastic plan. ClientEarth wants a commitment to reduce absolute plastic use over time.

These measures could be forced by a court intervention or agreed upon outside of court. The court will decide when to hold an initial hearing in the coming weeks and will likely set a date in the first half of the year if it does decide that a lawsuit should be opened.

Supporting ClientEarth with this case are the non-profit Surfrider and NGO Zero Waste France.

Danone’s response 

edie approached Danone for a comment. A spokesperson said: “We are very surprised by this accusation, which we strongly refute. Danone has long been recognized as a pioneer in environmental risk management, and we remain fully committed and determined to act responsibly.”

The spokesperson went on to call Danone’s plastics targets “comprehensive”, covering reuse, recycling and alternative materials. They also noted Danone’s support of strong international agreements, through the UN, on a new plastics treaty: “Putting an end to plastic pollution cannot come from one single company and requires the mobilisation 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 UN, of a legally binding international treaty.”

Negotiators have until 2024 to finalise the treaty, following agreement on the broad terms last year.

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