On September 9, 2021, the non-governmental organization ClientEarth announced an investor brief on plastic packaging-associated risks relevant to food manufacturers and grocery retailers with a significant share on the European market (termed as ‘Big Food’).
With single-use plastic packaging having “become a public enemy” and the increasing response of policymakers with legal action, the authors of the briefing consider that Big Food “face[s] snowballing plastic-related risk.” The report claims that the Big Food sector is responsible for the plastic packaging on the market but neither recognizes nor reports or acts on the risks associated with these materials. Instead of treating the plastic pollution problem as a “serious source of risk to their business” they would rather treat it as a public relations problem. In addition, large consumer goods companies and supermarket groups are not communicating material risks to investors and other stakeholders despite the legal requirement to do so, the authors outline. This failure puts Big Food and its stakeholders at risk to face legal action.
The report identifies three areas being impacted the most by single-use plastic packaging – waste, climate, and health – and analyses these three fields for their regulatory, reputational, and liability risks. For example, concerning health, it is outlined that consumer awareness of potentially hazardous chemicals in plastics and their unknown effects may lead to reputational risk.
The authors highlight that investors and asset managers have a great impact on Big Food and recommend that they either stop investing in that sector to avoid financial consequences for their businesses, or request better performance. The report pushes investors to engage with retailers to “demand more transparency on their exposure to risks relating to single-use plastics, challenge the ambition of corporate targets; and scrutinize the adequacy of the policies in place to achieve them.” The briefing also outlines ‘false solutions’ to the plastic problem, often favored by Big Food players over “committing to the only real answer to the problem – reducing their plastic footprint.” Mentioned ‘false solutions’ include the sole substitution of one material by another, addressing symptoms of plastic pollution (e.g., by clean-up activities) instead of the sources, and downcycling of plastic products.
There are also large and small retailers that have recently made commitments to increase the sustainability of their supply chains. The Food Packaging Forum has created a Brand and Retailer Initiatives Database to track chemical safety and sustainability commitments related to food contact materials and articles.
ClientEarth (September 9, 2021). “Supermarkets could face legal action for failure to act on plastic.”
ClientEarth (September 9, 2021). “Material issues – Big Food and the rise of plastic-related risk.” (pdf)