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ClientEarth Communications

10th May 2023

Plastics

We're taking Danone to court over plastic pollution

In January, alongside our French partners Surfrider Foundation Europe and Zero Waste France, we took Danone to court over its global plastic pollution.

Danone is a French-headquartered company behind well-known international brands such as Evian, Activia and Volvic. We believe the company's plastic use goes against a key French law that demands companies acknowledge and address the impacts their operations have on the environment, health and human rights.

In September 2022, we issued legal warnings to Danone and a number of other companies including Nestlé France and McDonald's France, for inadequately addressing the risks related to the plastic pollution they produce. Danone responded, but it wasn't good enough. So we filed a court action. 

Months later, Danone issued a fresh document that was supposed to detail its approach to dealing with pollution and rights issues – a new ‘vigilance plan’. Astonishingly, it was still nowhere near good enough. Shortly after this, we headed to our first court hearing.

Now, in September 2023, the judge has ordered that the next stage in our case against Danone will be to enter into mediation with the company – giving us the chance to discuss our demands in detail, guided by an independent mediator. If we fail to find a workable solution, the legal process resumes.

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Why are we targeting Danone?

We think Danone is burying its head in the sand when it comes to plastics.

In 2021, the company used more than 750,000 tonnes of plastic – the equivalent of the weight of almost 75 Eiffel Towers – even more than it did in 2020.

As a producer and supplier of food products generally packed in single-use plastic, it has never adopted adequate measures to address the harm related to its use of plastics.

That’s despite the fact that it’s among the top 10 biggest plastic polluters worldwide.

Plastics are present throughout its supply chain, with a huge amount used to package its products, including water bottles and yoghurt pots.

Danone’s plastic apathy is not just a problem in France. The company is truly global, with its products available in more than 120 countries.

It also has a large presence in countries which are on the receiving end of the Western world’s plastic excesses, such as Tunisia, Turkey and Indonesia, putting further strain on their waste management facilities. 

It has even topped the plastic polluter ranking in Indonesia for the last three years.

Danone is trudging ahead without a serious plan to deal with plastics, despite clear concern from climate and health experts and consumers, and a legal obligation to face up to the issue.

Rosa Pritchard, ClientEarth plastics lawyer

Danone’s main strategy to deal with plastics is to increase the recyclability of its products. But recycling is a limited solution as only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled. After almost 30 years of fossil fuel companies touting recycling as the solution to the plastics problem, recycling rates  remain woefully low, with infrastructure overwhelmed by the sheer volume and number of types of plastics on the market.

It’s unrealistic for food giants like Danone to pretend recycling is the silver bullet.

Rosa Pritchard, ClientEarth plastics lawyer

What are the impacts of plastic pollution?

We’re in a plastics crisis. Global plastic waste nearly doubled between 2000 and 2019 and could triple by 2060.

This is a problem because:

  1. Single-use plastics create huge amounts of waste. If all the plastic waste generated in 2020 alone were melted down, it could pave a 30-foot-wide road to the moon. Plastic pollution is now the biggest killer  of marine life. And even when disposed of properly, getting rid of plastic is not so simple.
  2. It’s not widely enough known, but plastics are made from oil and gas. The process of extracting these fossil fuels and converting them into plastic is also highly carbon-intensive.
  3. Plastic packaging can also contain chemicals that are known to be harmful to our health, including endocrine disruptors, which can have serious consequences for fertility. Of the 10,500 chemical substances that can be found in plastics, almost a quarter are of potential concern for human health and have been linked to diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancer and other illnesses.
  4. Throughout its lifecycle, plastic poses a threat to human rights. The production process is toxic, and in many countries, the waste management system depends on informal workers, subjected to dangerous conditions and lacking basic labour rights.

To protect people and nature, there is a need to reduce plastic use at all levels of society, and businesses have a major role to play in this.

What is Danone legally obliged to do?

The French Duty of Vigilance law is a groundbreaking new law that was adopted in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy – the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh in 2013 which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people. The discovery of labels from famous clothing brands in the rubble moved public opinion. Until the law was adopted, companies were not held responsible for what happens in their value chain.

But now, under this law, large companies with more than 5,000 employees in France, or 10,000 employees in France and their foreign subsidiaries, must publish an annual ‘vigilance plan’ identifying the environmental and social risks stemming from their activities and those of their subsidiaries, suppliers and subcontractors, all around the world. These plans must include mitigation and prevention measures adapted to the severity of these risks, as well as a report on the implementation of these measures. 

Logically, given the scale of the plastics crisis, we believe this law should oblige companies to provide satisfactory responses on the subject. But Danone’s 2021 ‘vigilance plan’ and its more recent plan were nowhere near good enough.

What are we asking for specifically?

Danone should: 

  1. Map the impacts its use of plastics has on the environment, climate, health and human rights from production to end-of-life. 
  2. Provide a complete assessment of its plastic footprint, including plastics used in producing the products it sells, plastics used in logistics and promotions and plastic packaging.
  3. On the basis of this assessment, put together a ‘deplastification’ plan with quantified and dated objectives and act on it. 

What's happened since we filed our court case in January?

Our first hearing in the Paris Tribunal Judiciaire – the equivalent of the UK High Court – took place on Thursday 11 May 2022.

Since we launched our case, Danone came out with a new ‘vigilance plan’ but it falls short. Their plastic use is on the rise this year once again and their existing targets on plastics have been pushed back from 2025 to 2030.  

In September 2023, the judge ordered that the next phase of the process will be to enter into mediation with Danone, guided by an independent mediator. If we fail to find a workable solution, the normal legal process resumes.

In the face of the unfolding plastic crisis, Danone continues to churn out hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastics in more than 120 countries across the world. 

The vast quantity of plastic used by Danone and then destined for the dustbin is harmful to the environment and human health, and it must be addressed immediately. Over the coming months, we’ll be making that case in court.  

In September 2023, Surfrider Europe and Zero Waste France published a report, detailing the progress that the nine companies we initially put on notice had made in assessing and addressing the impact of their plastic use through their vigilance plans.

Plastic litigation is on the rise – and that won’t be changing until companies stop kicking the can down the road and address the plastics crisis once and for all. We’re not the only ones asking for companies to step up – a coalition of 183 investors recently made the same demand.

More of our plastics work