Samuel Cohen, vice president of marketing and sales for Healthy Pet, discusses what sustainability means in the pet products arena, and why retailers should care.
Pet Business: From your point of view, what does sustainability mean? Can manufacturers achieve sustainability without compromise?
Samuel Cohen: Sustainability can have many meanings, and people often misinterpret it to mean just eco-friendly or “green.” The best way to understand the meaning of the term “sustainable” is to go back to the dictionary meaning at its root—sustainable is about processes which can be continued indefinitely. Good examples would be products made from renewable resources, like natural plant fibers, rather than crude-oil-derived or -mined products, which rely on supplies that will eventually be exhausted.
Sustainability without compromise is usually achievable over medium- and long-term time horizons. Oftentimes the short-term substitutes we find to make a product or service greener are not as effective, more costly or both. However, these are choices bound by existing technologies and capacities. Through innovation, there are often emerging sustainable choices that are actually superior in performance or cost structure to the conventional options. As an example, filtering water at your home has now become cheaper and more convenient than lugging bottled water home from the store through the development of better and cheaper tools.
PB: Is sustainability a profit driver or just a fad?
Cohen: Sustainability is certainly not a fad. A broad range of retailers and consumers are becoming committed to long-term sustainability. Positioning a product as sustainable is usually a profit enhancer for new brands and products, if done correctly. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for sustainable products whose performance they believe in, and retailers have responded by making more shelf space available to them. Akin to the growth of natural foods, sustainable products are growing share in litter, hard goods and textiles, even at substantial price premiums.
PB: How can manufacturers become more sustainable? How does innovation link with sustainability?
Cohen: Manufacturers should think about sustainability holistically. Usually, product changes and raw materials are top of mind, but there are a host of other areas with which to address sustainability. Energy efficiency and sourcing for manufacturing facilities can be a great enhancer of sustainability and lead to lower long-term costs.
Logistics and shipping efficiency have been a focus for us at Healthy Pet, where our bi-coastal supply system effectively reduces, by 20 percent, the average miles driven to our customers while also shortening lead times. Companies should evaluate their whole supply chain distance, from raw material source location to the customer delivery point, as a sustainability process. Many of the best ROIs for both kinds of green can be found in this area.
PB: How can retailers leverage sustainable products to drive sales?
Cohen: To drive sales, sustainability needs to be obvious to consumers. Clear, front-of-pack claims are essential to influence consumers at the moment of purchase. Even the most engaged and educated shoppers are often making quick decisions right at the shelf. Companies should also be sure that their website and social media properties provide substantial and really transparent information for the consumers who do want to read more. Those sites are being visited on mobile devices at the shelf more often every day.
It’s also important for manufacturers and retailers alike to be honest and emphasize even partial efforts at sustainability. If a product can be made from 25-percent recycled content, that’s a lot better than none, and consumers will be happier to give credit for trying than to not be informed. The conversation needs to acknowledge that true sustainability often requires a long-term effort and being forthright about that long-term commitment, and its short-term challenges is a compelling story for consumers.
PB: How can the industry become more sustainable? Promote its sustainability, etc.?
Cohen: One way for the pet industry to both become more sustainable and to promote the change is to work with the Pet Industry Sustainability Council. Healthy Pet is proud to have been an early and continuing member of this organization, which both helps companies that need it on a path to sustainability and works to communicate the strides our industry is making.
PB: Who is the sustainable consumer? How big is this group? Where to they shop?
Cohen: Depending on the category, between 10 and 20 percent of consumers can be considered core sustainable shoppers. These are people who prioritize sustainable claims in the top three to five purchase drivers when selecting a brand, and they are often willing to sacrifice some performance and pay large price premiums. These shoppers are often concentrated on the coasts in the U.S. and Canada, and they disproportionately shop specialty channels. Mainstream channels are successfully challenging this dynamic though by expanding sustainable product selections for both people and pets.
However, manufacturers shouldn’t believe that gains are limited to just these consumers or customers when evaluating sustainability initiatives or product positioning. Most consumers are significantly interested in sustainable products and perceive sustainable companies as more trustworthy, but they have reservations about performance, price or both. Innovating to achieve sustainability while minimizing these compromises can pay huge dividends.
PB: How does Healthy Pet’s products reflect the importance of sustainability?
Cohen: At Healthy Pet, we are committed to strategic sustainability. The green grass and “natural” are baked right into our logo and tagline to emphasize that we are focused on ecologically responsible, renewable manufacturing at a company level, rather than just turning out a couple of green versions of regular SKUs. Our latest project involves installation of more energy-efficient lighting throughout our Ferndale, Wash., facility. Most importantly, Healthy Pet is structured from the ground up to be sustainable. By having facilities on each coast, and locating them specifically within naturally fiber-rich areas, we have a truly sustainable foundation. Our raw materials can be reclaimed and typically travel less than 500 miles to our facilities. Once converted, they travel less than 1,000 miles to most of our customers. This unique setup enables Healthy Pet to have a deep supply of renewable raw materials while maintaining lower cost and faster service levels to our customers.
At the product level, we ensure that our products are category leaders in sustainability. Our ökocat and Simply Pine natural cat litter brands are made from renewable sources like wood and paper and utilize plant-based formulas. They are both biodegradable, unlike clay litters, which put millions of pounds into landfills annually and whose raw material is mined rather than renewable.
We have a unique process for manufacturing our small-animal bedding from scratch, which has enabled us to be the market leader for many years because it enables us to continuously innovate while using natural paper. We provide a biodegradable product from reclaimed and renewable material that our technology uses to create a no-compromise solution for consumers in areas like dust level and odor control. The material is also not only environmentally friendly and safe, it is a whole lot softer and more comfortable for pets.