As I write this, many people around the world are celebrating Earth Day 2022, including some pet food and treat companies marketing their brands’ and products’ environmentally friendly, humane or socially responsible features. But are sustainability focused consumers—which these days encompasses many pet owners, especially younger ones—buying such claims and campaigns?
In a survey conducted earlier this year by Cargill, 55% of nearly 6,000 consumers from 11 countries said they’re more likely to purchase a packaged food item if it has a sustainability claim. With human food and pet food now so intrinsically linked, that type of sentiment very likely carries over to pet food.
In fact, another survey shed insight into pet owners’ opinions on sustainability. Of more than 1,500 pet owners in Belgium, Canada, France, U.K. and U.S. surveyed by Yummypets, a France-based social community for pet lovers, 82.2% said they believe it’s important for a pet product to be manufactured by an environmentally friendly company.
Yet that survey also indicated just how wary pet owners are of “greenwashing”: claims made to give a product, brand or company an environmentally friendly sheen but not backed by data or any other proof (and, in some cases, proven to not be true at all).
In the Yummypets survey, 41.7% of respondents said they’re skeptical of pet food companies’ sustainability claims, with only 29.6% believing them, reported David Palacios Rubio, editorial manager of GlobalPets magazine. “French (48.5%) and American (43.3%) pet owners are the most skeptical,” he wrote.
That could explain why relatively low percentages of the pet owners surveyed said they’re willing to pay more for sustainably produced pet food products: only 24% of U.S. respondents, 37.8% for French pet owners and 35.4% for British (the three country results cited by Rubio).
How can pet food and treat companies address these attitudes and beliefs?
First, have a truly sustainable story to tell. Ideally, that starts from the very top of the company, with leadership committing to a sustainability strategy, including by investing in knowledgeable experts and sustainable materials (e.g., ingredients, packaging) and processes (e.g., production that requires less energy or produces less waste). In other words, the company has to put its money where its mouth is to convince consumers that it’s following a sustainability oriented path.
Don’t shy away from tooting your byproducts horn. Pet food has long had a powerful sustainability story with its use of byproducts from human food production, such as brewers yeast and rendered parts of livestock that humans normally don’t eat. Yet especially with the latter, counter-marketing has led to demonization of such ingredients, even though they are highly nutritious and palatable to dogs and cats, not to mention highly sustainable.
Byproduct usage should be a significant sustainability story for the pet food industry, Elizabeth Barber, executive vice president for Emmert, told my colleague Tim Wall. Yet people in the industry take for granted that others know about it or that pet owners just won’t accept byproducts. That may be changing, especially among younger consumers: Surveys by ADM in 2021 and earlier this year show growing acceptability for other previously demonized pet food ingredients such as soy, corn and wheat. (Gary Davenport, Ph.D., companion animal technical manager for ADM, will report on the surveys at Petfood Forum 2022.)
Back up your story with third-party verification. Many certifications and similar standards are available, with more coming online all the time. Examples include B Corp certification (which can include climate neutral certification), 1% for the Planet, Non-GMO Project Verified, Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade Certified, for starters. Consumers are starting to recognize, even seek out, these types of seals and marks on product packaging, websites and other places.
Partner with like-minded organizations. If you’re a pet food or treat manufacturer, reach out to your ingredient suppliers and other companies in your supply chain to learn if and how they source sustainably—and if they don’t, find those who do. (Most do these days.)
And don’t overlook organizations like the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), which exists to help companies understand their carbon footprints and similar sustainability measures, then improve them. Among PSC’s many worthwhile projects are research into pet food protein sustainability and plastic pet food packaging recycling.
Considering all these steps and tips, I can envision the pet food industry banding together and partnering with a credible third-party entity to establish a sustainable ingredients—including byproducts—seal. Perhaps it could incorporate elements, or additional certifications, verifying humane animal treatment, responsible treatment of its human workforce and similar aspects.
That may come across as my wearing green-colored Earth Day glasses, but given what consumers today expect and demand, as well as increasing climate change concerns, such a verification may need to become a reality sooner than you might think.