“Top consumer groups turn to sustainability.” That was the headline for an Entrepreneur.com article by Bill Roth, president of NCCT, a San Francisco-based consulting firm specializing in sustainability marketing and business strategies.

Roth, writing about last year’s Sustainable Brands Conference, was referring to US youth, women and CEOS. Representing an annual buying power of about US$10 trillion, these three consumer groups are “shifting their purchasing criteria toward sustainability,” Roth wrote.

Of course, this is not just a US phenomenon. Mintel says nearly half of UK adults view environmental and ethical issues as important, with up to 40% identifying animal welfare as their top food concern. In a Petfood Forum 2010 presentation, Jan Hoijtink, director, Hoijtink Advies BV, cited these statistics:

  • 90% of Belgians believe their employers should care about the environment;
  • 60% of Flemish take the environmental efforts of potential employers into consideration; and
  • 70% of Canadians would consider changing jobs if their employers did not operate in a socially responsible manner.

Judging by the results of a Petfood Industry survey, petfood companies understand how much consumers, employees and other stakeholders value sustainability: 62% of respondents cited consumer demand as a key reason their operations are adopting “green” practices. The next highest response, at 57.6%, was because it’s the right thing to do.

The survey received  a small (just over 100) response, but these industry members weighed in on a variety of questions and offered multiple responses when prompted. For example, other reasons for adopting sustainable practices included:

  • Nature of products or market, 53%;
  • Corporate image and marketability, both at 52%;
  • Anticipating regulations in the near future, 46%;
  • Keeping up with others in the industry, 26%; and
  • Cost savings and profitability, at 22% and 16%, respectively.

Probing further into public perception, the survey asked respondents how they thought consumers defined “green” petfoods. The most popular responses involved ingredients (natural, nothing artificial) and recyclable packing, yet manufacturers’ practices weighed in at 52% (Figure 1).

These results help make the case that there is no single, prevalent definition of green or sustainable. Perhaps one respondent summed it up best: “Everyone has a personal idea as to what green is, and it is inconsistent at best.”

Many respondents’ organizations  are gearing their marketing to meet consumer expectations, with 51% using sustainability claims. Just 33% said they’re not using such claims. Nearly 45% believe the claims are somewhat more important to their marketing; another 28% said they are a lot more important while 16% said they have about the same importance. Only 5% said they are somewhat or a lot less important.

When asked the same question about green claims and sales, responses were similar: 44% said the claims are somewhat more important to sales; 19%, a lot more important; 25%, about the same; 4%, somewhat or a lot less important.

Yet when it comes to their businesses’ success, much of respondents’ thoughts about sustainability are focused toward regulatory bodies. Asked to rate their level of concern with a number of issues, respondents said they’re very concerned about regulations:

  • That impose burdens on business, 42%;
  • In general affecting petfood, 35% and
  • Against certain feed ingredients, 31%.

“I won’t play this game until there is consistency and transparency. Green is eliminating industry in this country!” wrote one respondent.

Other issues registering a moderate level of concern included consumer demands for excluding certain ingredients (33%), availability of proteins (32%) and traceability requirements for ingredients (31%).

To date, respondents’ organizations  are receiving return on investment (ROI) in sustainable practices like energy conservation (54.5%), product formulation (51%) and waste systems (50%). For most initiatives, however, respondents see payoff coming down the road, with potential for ROI delivery highest for production systems (75%) and new facility design and construction (71%). Figure 2 includes a full list of ROI delivery and potential.

Perhaps the levels for currently delivering items are lower because only 28% of respondents said their businesses are applying sustainability to a large extent, with the same amount replying such practices are being employed to just a limited extent. Another 37% said the practices are being used moderately.

Half the respondents rate their organizations’ progress as about the same as other industry companies, while 36% believe their businesses are further along than most in petfood. As for the industry overall, 46% believe petfood is about the same as most industries, though 37% believe it’s behind; only 14% said it’s ahead.

Yet if these respondents’ views are any indication, petfood may soon be moving faster: 41% believe it’s very important for their organizations to be leaders in adopting sustainable practices and 36% said it’s somewhat important. Also, 68% believe increased sustainability is somewhat or very likely to lead to rising long-term profits for their businesses.

Profile of respondents

Sent to the Petfood Industry audience via e-mail in February and March 2010, the sustainability survey received 108 responses. Respondents were mostly from North America (66%) and work for petfood manufacturers (63%), yet Europe (14%), South/Central America (10.4%), Asia (4.7%) and Asia-Pacific (2.8%) were also represented, as were industry suppliers (19%), wholesalers/distributors/brokers (10.4%), consultants (8.5%), retailers (5.7%) and marketers (3.8%).

In terms of functional areas, 59% of respondents work in product development, 47% in sales, 43% in marketing, 37% in purchasing, 26% in environmental/regulatory compliance and 25.5% as nutritionists.

About half (49.4%) of respondents said their job responsibilities do not involve developing or implementing sustainability initiatives; 44.4% said they do. Fewer than half (42%) work for companies that have a person in charge of sustainability initiatives. Titles for such people include sustainability director, VP or chief, but in some organizations the responsibility lies with the CEO or an executive in charge of regulatory affairs, supplies, R&D, quality or market insights.