Adventures in Pet Food

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry, shares her insights and opinions on all things pet food, addressing market trends as well as news and developments in pet nutrition, food safety and other hot topics for the industry.

Petfood companies need to define sustainability for their markets

In yet another trends list for the year (and yes, I’m guilty of issuing one of those lists, too), Leslie May, founder of Pawsible Marketing, identifies one of the top trends for the pet industry as “quality, healthy, made in the US, green, eco-friendly.” Whew! That one trend covers a lot of ground. But I agree with May's general concept that pet owners increasingly are seeking pet products, including petfood, that they believe are healthier for their pets and the planet.

Of course, what “healthier” means differs among various groups and segments of pet-owning consumers; and we all know that terms like “green” and “eco-friendly” are especially subject to marketing hype. Yet at least most people understand those terms in particular are related to the environment. What about a term like sustainability that sounds more profound but is even more confounding?

Even businesses that base their marketing strategies and campaigns on a sustainability platform don’t always know what that means, according to Suzanne C. Shelton, founder, president and CEO of Shelton Group (an advertising agency self described as focusing “exclusively on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices”). She argues that consumers, at least in the US, are also confused by the term, so now is the time for organizations that believe they have a sustainability story to tell (and sell) to define it for their own businesses and customers. And, as with most things, let the market dictate the best direction.

For example, a study by Shelton Group, 2013 Eco Pulse, showed that 12% of US consumers are impacted by a company’s environmental reputation in deciding whether to buy its products, while only 8% of those surveyed said a company’s maintaining high corporate social responsibility standards was a key factor for them in making purchasing decisions.  (Neither percentage seems very impressive to me.)

On the other hand, it you market to other businesses rather than directly to consumers, another Shelton Group study, B2B Pulse, showed the opposite: 5% of business professionals surveyed said a strong corporate environmental track record was very important in making product selection decisions, while 9% rated strong social responsibility as very important.  (Again, the percentages are too small to claim much of a mandate in either case.)

Despite that rather weak evidence, Shelton’s point is valid, I think: if you want to succeed with a sustainability strategy, you first need to define it in a way that your customer base will understand and respond to.

If you succeed at that and can pursue your strategy to the point of certification, you might really see a payoff. According to, production of certified sustainable products– meaning they legally carry labels such as fair trade or organic – enjoyed a 40% increase in production in 2012, with a corresponding increase in market penetration in certain product categories. The data was highlighted in a recent report from an alliance of international organizations that also emphasized several sustainable sourcing commitments from some of the largest consumer brands globally, including the “big two” in the petfood world: Mars and Nestlé.




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