Ahead of the Sustainability Curve
Healthy Pet is committed to producing safe, effective, high-quality products for pets, while also minimizing its impact on the environment.
Healthy Pet was clearly ahead of its time when it was founded 30 years ago in Bellingham, Wash., under the name Absorption Corp. An early adopter of the sustainable resource movement, the company’s business model centered on taking waste materials in the form of excess fiber from a local Georgia-Pacific paper mill and processing it into other products—including, eventually, pet litter and bedding.
“The company was actually started as a sustainable business, which was really unique in 1985,” says Samuel Cohen, vice president of marketing and sales. “There weren’t a lot of ‘green’ companies back then.”
Now based in Ferndale, Wash., Healthy Pet remains squarely at the forefront of the sustainability movement today—a position that was strengthened by an acquisition by J. Rettenmaier & Söhne Group (JRS) in 2013. A family owned global leader in natural fiber processing for use in pet care and other applications, JRS has several key attributes that made the marriage between the two companies ideal, says Cohen.
“It has been a really great fit for Healthy Pet,” he explains. “First of all, JRS has been in business for more than 100 years, and it is very stable and very long-term oriented. Second, there is a lot of commonality between Healthy Pet and the rest of JRS’s global pet products businesses. And third, JRS’s principles are centered on the idea of taking sustainable agricultural materials—whether it’s wood, paper, switch grass, hemp or hay—and processing those materials into value-added products.”
One of the first developments to come out of the acquisition was a complete re-branding of the company and its products, including the name change from Absorption Corp. to Healthy Pet. “It started with the adoption of a new strategic plan,” says Cohen. “Typically, when you have an ownership change, the management team needs to align the strategy of the organization with the goals of ownership. So, in 2013 Ted Mischaikov [CEO of Healthy Pet] led us through such a strategic planning exercise in which we identified the need for a name change.”
The team eventually settled on Healthy Pet, a brand name that was already trademarked by the company for a line of cat litter and captured the essence of what the entire organization was all about. But the name change represented just the beginning of the company’s recent evolution.
The next major development came in the form of a new natural cat litter brand—ökocat. Born from a product line that JRS has produced for years in other markets, the ökocat brand is one example of the synergies that exist between Healthy Pet and its parent company. “JRS makes a brand of litter called Cat’s Best, which is the No. 1 brand of natural cat litter in world, outside of North America,” says Cohen. “Part of the integration of Healthy Pet was bringing their natural cat litter fiber technology to America and Canada.”
According to Cohen, ökocat litters are the same exact natural, wood-based products that are marketed overseas as Cat’s Best, so he is not necessarily surprised that the fledgling brand has grown by leaps and bounds since its introduction at Global Pet Expo in 2014. “While ökocat is a new brand, it is a product formulation that has 20 years of testing and refinement, and it is extremely popular with both cats and their owners,” he says. “It is a product that performs fantastically, and I can say, as someone in charge of sales and marketing, that it is a luxury to roll out a product that you know really works.”
As for the Healthy Pet brand of natural, paper-pellet cat litter from which the company got its name, Cohen says that it was folded into the ökocat family as ökocat Dust Free litter. “It’s the same product that we’ve always made, and it’s a really unique product among paper litters, because the paper we use has never been inked,” he says. “Many of the other paper-pellet litters on the market are made from reclaimed newspaper, so they are sustainable and eco-friendly—which is great—but that paper has been inked and out in circulation, which gives it a grey color. Since our product has never been inked, it has a much nicer color, and it is more absorbent.”
Rounding out Healthy Pet’s cat litter offerings is the Simply Pine line that the company acquired in 2014. “We acquired Simply Pine in order to have a value line of cat litter to offer retailers,” says Cohen. “It is a natural product made from cracked pine, but it is very [price] competitive with private-label lines. It is great for smaller retailers that want to compete at a lower price point but for which having a private-label line is not feasible.”
While Healthy Pet has quickly built a winning natural cat litter lineup, retailers and cat owners can expect to see much more from the company in this category over the coming months and years. “Healthy Pet is focused on growing the cat litter business here in North America, and JRS is focused on growing it globally, so there will continue to be significant innovation and significant research and development investment in advancing the performance of natural cat litter,” says Cohen. “Our goal is to keep delivering sustainability without compromise. We want people to be able to move to a natural litter without giving up performance.”
Innovating the Small Animal Department
There is no doubt that Healthy Pet’s aggressive growth in the natural cat litter category has created a lot of buzz in the industry, but the brand that the company has probably been best known for throughout the years is its Carefresh paper-based small animal bedding. According to Cohen, although Healthy Pet originated the paper bedding market and Carefresh has long been the No. 1 brand of small animal bedding in the U.S., that does not mean the company is content to rest on its laurels in the category.
“Last year, we rolled out what we consider to be the biggest innovation in small animal bedding in several years—our Carefresh custom line,” he says. “With Carefresh custom, the pieces of paper used vary in size for different species. So, there is one version specifically designed for hamsters and gerbils, and another version designed for rabbits and guinea pigs.”
These variations in piece size serve two purposes, explains Cohen. “On one hand, different size pieces are simply more comfortable for different size animals,” he says. “But beyond that, the different piece sizes really links to the instinctive behaviors of the animals. For example, hamsters and gerbils really like to burrow; it makes them feel safe and warm, and it attenuates the sound around them. The smaller pieces are easier for these animals to manipulate and allow them to burrow into the bedding and have that burrow stick.”
Healthy Pet’s approach to innovating the small animal category extends beyond litter. The company also continues to expand and improve its Carefresh Complete line, which encompasses diets for five species of small pets, as well as premium first-cut hay. “We reformulated [the diets] last year and really feel good about the products we offer in the line,” says Cohen. “This year, we are focused on growing sales. One of the big things we’ve done in this regard is we have spent a lot of time and money promoting our bedding and food together. Obviously, we are best known for bedding, so we have put instant redeemable coupons for our food on our bedding. This allows customers who buy our bedding to get a free bag of Carefresh Complete food. It has been very successful as a promotional tactic, and we have seen our sales grow dramatically as a result.”
All of the resources that Healthy Pet is focusing on small animal products provide a clear sign of the company’s ongoing commitment to a category that does not necessarily get the same level of industry attention as higher-profile canine and feline products, says Cohen. “We really believe in and are dedicated to small animals,” he says. “So when we look at all of the innovation in dog and cat products—whether its in food or litter—we think small animals deserve that same level of care and innovation.”
Moving forward, Cohen says that Healthy Pet will not only continue to bring its unique brand of product innovation to the marketplace, it will also support the retailers that carry its products by broadening awareness of these products among pet owners. “Over the next few years, we will be doing a lot of marketing to consumers,” he says. “That includes traditional advertising, customer education and promotional support for retailers. We realize that the best way we can help pet stores is to drive people into their stores asking for our products.”
But just as important as investing in product development and retailer support is Healthy Pet’s commitment to staying ahead of the sustainability curve—a position that has been achieved not only through the very nature of its products, but also with strategies such as locating its production facilities as close as possible to its raw materials suppliers and customers to minimize the impact of transport.
“Sustainability is baked into our DNA,” says Cohen. “It is the culture of our team.”