Will millennials lead on pet food sustainability?

Millennials seem willing and have the spending power to pay more for eco-friendly products. Will that extend to pet food and ingredients like by-products?

Photo by Yastremska | Bigstock.com
Photo by Yastremska | Bigstock.com

With millennials now the largest demographic of pet owners, they stand to exert significant influence on pet food trends, product development and marketing, beyond the impact they’re already having. One area that seems ripe for change is willingness to pay more for sustainability practices and products.

While many consumers have been interested in eco-friendly and socially responsible products, brands and companies for at least a decade now, they haven’t necessarily been interested or committed enough to pay what is often a premium price commanded by such products. With newer generations of consumers now driving product and purchasing trends, that could be changing.

“If you look at the millennials, they are the first generation now who are willing consciously to spend more for better quality, for sustainability, for traceability. I think there is a change,” said Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé (parent company of Nestlé Purina PetCare), in a November 2016 article on CNBC.com.

A 2015 report by Nielsen, “The Sustainability Imperative: New Insights on Consumer Expectations,” showed that nearly three-fourths of millennials surveyed said they are willing to pay more for sustainable offerings, up from about half the year before. The generation after millennials seems similarly inclined, with 72 percent of respondents aged 15-20 saying they’re willing to pay more for products and services from companies showing commitment to positive social change and environmental impact.

Actually, it wasn’t just younger respondents who said they are willing to pay more for sustainability: among the 30,000 consumers in 60 countries surveyed by Nielsen, 51 percent of baby boomers indicated this willingness (a 7 percent rise from 2014), and 66 percent of respondents overall said so (up from 55 percent the year before).

Marketing implications for pet food

Yet, it’s millennials who now seem most willing, and increasingly have the spending power, to put their money where their mouths are in terms of buying eco-friendly products. What does this mean for pet food?

For starters, it could indicate marketing in an entirely different way from traditional methods used to sell pet food. And not just in terms of communication channels – we know how much millennials and younger consumers use social media – but also the messages and types of marketing pitches. Science-based claims have been falling out of favor with consumers overall and seem to have even less appeal for millennials, who, more than any other group, tend to respond better to emotional messages and campaigns.

Many pet food companies, including giants like Nestlé Purina and Mars Petcare, as well as scores of smaller players, are following sustainable practices and producing eco-friendly pet foods. Yet, do millennial and other pet owners really know this and believe it? Is that information being communicated and marketed in a way that hits home with these consumers?

Opportunity for brave, bold pet food companies

Sustainability may also present an opportunity for pet food companies to change their product formulations and the ingredients they use – and proudly proclaim their usage because of their high nutritional benefits for pets and their sustainability. By-products come immediately to mind.

“By-products are sustainable and healthy for animals to consume,” wrote Cailin Heinze, VMD, MS, DACVN, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, on GreenBiz.com. “The best way to feed our pets meat-based diets with minimal [environmental] footprints is to use every part of the animals we slaughter for human food, including organs. While the pet food industry is well aware of this issue, many companies persist in telling pet owners that by-products should be avoided to make their own diets more appealing.”

Touché. Heinze and two colleagues at the veterinary school, Lisa Freeman and Deborah Lindner (both credentialed as DVM, MS, DACVN), have a website within the school’s site called Petfoodology, on which they seek to inform pet owners about pet nutrition and pet foods, including dispelling many common myths. For example, they take on by-products more comprehensively (“Don’t be bothered by by-products”) as well as grain-free pet foods (“Grain-free diets: big on marketing, small on truth”), raw diets and other often controversial topics.

These writings and philosophies form the basis of Heinze’s arguments in the GreenBiz.com article; by-products was just one area she cited regarding pet food sustainability. This also begs the question: Presented in a way that resonates, would these arguments appeal to those millennial pet owners willing to pay more for sustainable products?

It would take some bold, brave pet food companies to break from the current trends and buzz words driving the market, changing not only their marketing but also more fundamental areas such as nutritional philosophy, product development, ingredient sourcing and more. Granted, that is an extremely risky, expensive and frightening concept. But it could just be the next big thing for pet food.


Note: Contrary to a comment on the GreenBiz.com article (“The author's funding by major pet food suppliers, Purina, Hills and others, should rightfully be disclosed”), the Cummings School doctors say they have absolutely no ties to the industry: “We’ll be straight with you – we are not employees of any pet food companies, and we don’t have any ownership interest in any companies that make pet food, treats or supplements. Our goal isn’t to sell you anything – we just want to answer your questions about feeding your pet, and help you find a feeding program that works for both of you.”




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