PARIS — Danone, the French dairy giant, is being taken to court by three environmental groups who say it has failed to reduce its plastic footprint sufficiently, in a lawsuit challenging corporate social responsibility in the face of the climate crisis.
The groups accuse Danone — one the world’s top 10 plastic polluters, according to a recent study — of “failing to live up to its duties” under a groundbreaking French law that requires large companies to address their environmental impact and has opened ways to sue them should they fail to do so.
“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, a lawyer for ClientEarth, one of the groups, said in a statement on Monday.
A spokeswoman for Danone said the company “strongly” refutes the accusation, adding that it was taking action to “reduce the use of plastic, develop reuse, reinforce collection and recycling channels, and develop alternative materials.”
The lawsuit is likely to put the spotlight on the explosive growth of plastics pollution, which scientists say is affecting air and water quality, global warming, as well as human and animal life. The issue is so pressing that the United Nations last year agreed to begin writing a treaty designed to curb plastics production.
But Monday’s announcement also spoke to a broader trend in environmental activism, with advocacy groups increasingly suing governments and companies in an effort to bridge the gap between their climate promises and their actual record.
Adam Weiss, ClientEarth program director for Europe, said some could see France’s statute as toothless because of its vague requirements.
But, he added, “the teeth are in the lawsuits.”
By suing Danone, ClientEarth and the two other groups, Surfrider Europe and Zero Waste France, are hoping to shed light on what many scientists say is a global plastic crisis whose potentially devastating effects have yet to be fully understood.
Throughout their life cycle, plastics, which are manufactured from fossil fuels, release air pollutants, harm human health and kill marine life. In 2015, they were responsible for 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, one recent study found, more than all of the world’s airplanes combined.
Figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that, over the past seven decades, plastics production has soared from two million metric tons (there are about 2,200 pounds per metric ton) to more than 400 million — and is expected to almost triple by 2060.
Danone alone used more than 750,000 metric tons of plastic — about 74 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower — in water bottles a, yogurt containers and other packaging in 2021, according to its 2021 financial report.
The company said that it reduced its plastic consumption by 12 percent from 2018 to 2021, and that it has committed to use only reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. But Danone is not on track to reach that target, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which set up a voluntary program with the United Nations for big companies to address plastic pollution.
An investigation last year by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle also highlighted Danone’s shortcomings when it comes to recycled plastics.
Environmental groups also say that recycling has not proved effective at the scale necessary: Only 9 percent of all plastics ever made have been recycled, according to the United Nations, with most of the rest ending up in landfills and dumps.
“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this,” Mr. Weiss of ClientEarth said.
He added that plastics were too critical to Danone’s business model for “voluntary mechanisms” to be effective. “We need the power of law,” he said.
To sue Danone, the environmental groups have relied on the so-called duty of vigilance law, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that France passed in 2017. It requires large companies to take effective measures to identify and prevent human rights violations and environmental damages throughout their chain of activity.
Impetus for the law came from the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, in which the collapse of a clothing factory killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh. Labels from famous brands were found in the rubble, casting a harsh light on the garment industry and prompting politicians and rights groups around the world to press for more corporate responsibility.
The French duty of vigilance law, the first of its kind in Europe, has since inspired similar legislation in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as a proposed European Union directive.
There is nothing like a duty of vigilance law in the United States. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which would require plastic producers to finance waste and recycling programs, and ban single-use plastic bags and the exporting of plastic waste to developing countries, is currently in committee.
However, environmental organizations have increasingly sued big plastic polluters like Coca-Cola over the past few years using mostly state-level consumer protection laws, alleging that the companies’ use of single-use plastic contradicts advertising statements that they are committed to recycling and the environment.
In France, academics and rights groups say, many companies have responded to the law only by listing vague measures or some that already existed before the new obligations.
“It’s often about streamlining existing practices,” said Pauline Barraud de Lagerie, a sociologist at University Paris Dauphine who published a book on corporate responsibility. She added that by suing companies, “N.G.O.s are trying to somehow bring back an obligation of result.”
So far, around 15 legal cases based on the French law have been reported. Half of them have gone to court and are still awaiting judgment, which could take years.
“We’re making up for the government’s lack of political will,” said Sandra Cossart, the head of Sherpa, a group involved in four legal cases, pointing to what she described as a law lacking teeth.
The environmental groups said in their statement that Danone’s 2021 vigilance plan “is completely silent on plastics.” They are calling for judges in a Paris civil court to force the company to release a new plan within six months that would include a phaseout of plastics. Should the company fail to meet that deadline, they are demanding damages of 100,000 euros ($108,000) per day of delay.
In September, the groups had issued formal notices to eight other major food companies accusing them of inadequate due diligence plans. ClientEarth said it had received satisfactory responses from companies such as the grocery chain Carrefour and Nestlé, which promised to step up their efforts, but not from Danone.
The number of climate change lawsuits globally has more than doubled from 2017 to 2022, from about 900 to more than 2,000 ongoing or concluded cases, according to data from the Grantham Research Institute and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Catherine Higham, a researcher at the Grantham institute, said that most cases have been brought against governments, but that increasingly advocacy groups have turned their sights on corporations.
Mr. Weiss of ClientEarth said his group had been struggling to navigate corporate laws “designed to protect investors and companies” in order to press them to better address environmental issues.
“Now, we have a law designed to make companies take action for the environment,” he said. “That’s a step change.”