This week BBC Radio 4’s PM programme has been running a series on packaging; how much of it there is, whether there’s too much, how easy it is to reuse and recycle. Much of the focus has been on food packaging.

The journalists have been careful to point out how important food packaging is, and how much of it is a response to what customers want. The demand for food packaging is growing rapidly as we all want more goods delivered to our door and more convenient portion sizes. In developing economies, demand is increasing with people purchasing more packaged food and consumables. The negative impacts of this growing sector are of course growing with it and awareness is key to mitigation.

The environmental impact of the food packaging industry is well understood – the main materials used for packaging are plastics and paper/ cardboard coming from the oil and timber industries, both have very significant environmental footprints. The BBC has explored some interesting ideas for how this impact can be reduced, including giving packaging back, changing the materials used and levying taxes.

But there is another impact that the food packaging industry must wake up to. The plastics and paper / pulp industries and their supply chains are amongst the highest risk sectors across the globe for modern slavery and child labour. The risk of these kinds of workplace abuse rises in sectors where survival for suppliers requires very fast turnaround of orders, ever lower prices and handling of very volatile volumes. The food packaging industry and its supply chain frequently experience these kinds of pressures.

The supply chains of food packaging manufacturers extend across the world into countries where there is a well-documented risk of modern slavery and child labour. Many food packaging manufacturers based in Europe and North America have direct supply relationships in countries such as Eastern Europe, Turkey, China and India, where societal conditions combined with extreme commercial pressure can create dangers for workers. Careful screening, auditing and local engagement with suppliers in these markets help to reduce the risks.

A more difficult problem to tackle, however, is the risk of slavery and child labour further up the supply chain. Working with tier 1 suppliers in countries such as France, Germany, Canada and the USA does not mean that risks are absent. Avieco’s research shows that suppliers to packaging manufacturers in these and other well-regulated countries are themselves at risk through their supply chains. This indirect risk requires a different approach, focused on specific issues, high risk markets and based on transparency and partnership.

As British based packaging manufacturers take on the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act, and others in states such as California face similar legislation, they need to be critically aware that some of the 46 million people in modern day slavery and some of the 160 million child labourers may well be working in their supply chain. It is not possible to address every strand of a global supply chain, yet an approach based on high risk sectors, focusing efforts where it matters and developing open collaborative relationships with suppliers is critical to stopping these abuses. As the BBC programme shows, we are often very happy to moan about the size, shape, colour and material of the packaging our food arrives in, but the food packaging industry and all of us who buy our food packaged need to do more than moan to eliminate workplace slavery and child labour.

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