The Natural Facts
By Seth Mendelson

The great debate continues. With more and more manufacturers introducing products that they claim are “natural,” the pet industry is being compelled to determine what exactly constitutes a natural product and how to make shoppers aware of these items and their benefits.

This discussion rages as natural products become the buzz in the retail world. Make no mistake about it, we are talking about millions of dollars in sales and profits here, and everyone knows it. Proclaiming that a product is natural has become this decade’s go-to strategy for consumer marketing. It is a proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as more consumers look for these items and are willing to pay a few pennies more for them, even in a bad economy.
The question remains, however, how the industry will define the term “natural.”

The fact is, so many products on the market today can lay claim to the classification of natural. After all, everything originates from the earth, and all it takes is the use of some natural ingredients and great packaging and, whammo, you have a product that seems to fit the bill. The practice is so widespread that there is already a term for it: greenwashing, and it is not exclusive to the pet industry.

Still, the onus is now on the pet industry to decide what “natural” means as it applies to the broad range of products it encompasses. Does natural mean that the product is made only of naturally occurring materials, or does it imply biodegradability or some other attribute depending on the category? And will the term mean the same in the food category as it will in cat litter or grooming supplies?

What is clear is that customers will ultimately be the judge and the jury. Both retailers and manufacturers lose if pet owners decide that the claims made on their products’ packaging are deceitful. The only way to avoid such a fate is to clearly define the term natural and what that means across all categories.

Establishing industry-accepted standards for what makes a particular type of product natural will take time and effort, and the task may or may not be on anyone’s agenda (although, it should be). In some cases, the definition of the term will boil down to an unofficial general consensus among the suppliers in that product segment.

Meanwhile, retailers will be left to make their own determinations on product claims, since they are on the frontlines, selling directly to the consumer. Independent pet retailers need to be able to stand behind the products they stock. More importantly, they need to be able to accurately educate and guide consumers on purchasing decisions, especially when those customers are looking for products that meet certain criteria, such as eco-friendly or organic products. What they don’t want to do is to be complicit in misleading the customer with questionable claims.