Seeking Out Sustainability

The idea of sustainability has been around for awhile now. But, what truly encompasses the wide umbrella of sustainability?

"The word sustainability means so many different things to so many different people," says Stephanie Volo, chief marketing officer at Earth Animal and an advisory board member of the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC). When the PSC first began, Volo says that the first priority was to educate people about the meaning of sustainability and why companies should be thinking about it.

"Sustainability is an integrated effort into an overall business strategy," continues Volo. "Sustainability is taking care of your people, and your communities, and providing governance, trust and transparency around your supply chain. It does mean the environment, but it’s not that alone."

While sustainability is a trending topic in almost all industries, as millenials have consistently proved that they are willing to spend more on sustainable products, it is quickly becoming a necessary consideration for businesses. According to Nielsen estimates, consumers will spend up to $150 billion on sustainable consumer goods by 2021, and the market research firm projects that 25 percent of products in stores will be sustainable within the next year.

The pet industry is likely ahead of that pace, and for good reason. A recent survey of 1,000 pet owners in the U.S. conducted by focused on how sustainability can impact pet owners’ purchasing decisions and found that 81 percent of pet parents felt that taking care of pets in an eco-friendly way is important. Of course, these market dynamics are not lost on vendors.

"We know that sustainability is an economic decision that benefits all aspects of our business and enables us to have a positive impact not only on the environment, but improves our bottom line and aligns Healthy Pet values more closely with those of our employees and consumers," says Leslie Ellis, consumer communication and promotions manager at Healthy Pet.

As animals are the heart and soul of our industry, helping the environment is not only a smart sales move, it is imperative for sustaining the industry itself.

"Our focus on animal welfare and educating fellow animal lovers of the ability to source and supply pet foods that betters all animals lives—not just dogs and cats—has been a key initiative," says Theresa Sabaliauskas, vice president and COO of Tender & True.

Some companies, such as Earth Animal and Kent Pet (World’s Best Cat Litter), have always looked at sustainability as an absolute necessity, and it’s been ingrained in the company’s culture from the get-go.

Sustainability goes hand-in-hand with transparency as pet parents grow more concerned with not just the quality of the food they give to their pets, but how the entire sourcing process can impact the environment.

"Sustainability practices are now considered an essential initiative to remain competitive and relevant through transparency, as more and more consumers are demanding it, actually expecting it," says Ellis.

Navigating Challenges

When a business goes down the path of being more sustainable, there are, more often than not, going to be some speed bumps along the way. From a manufacturer standpoint, finding the right supplier that aligns with a company’s vision might take some time.

"Our biggest challenge [was] finding a good supplier with the correct materials to make our toys," says Ward Myers, owner of Spunky Pup. "In all cases, 95-100 percent of all [our] materials are sustainable. It took me over a year to secure these suppliers and lock up exclusives."

Another common difficulty a business may face with regards to sustainability involves figuring out how to properly track and assess the true impact a sustainable program or initiative may have.

"One of the biggest challenges for us has been developing metrics to assess and measure progress in the subjective areas, like corporate culture improvements," says Ellis. "Thankfully, PSC has made it so much easier with their toolkit, resources and assessment platform to develop our own custom sustainability strategies."

Understandably, rolling sustainable initiatives, especially for a smaller business, may seem daunting and overwhelming.

"The biggest challenge with sustainability for our business and all businesses is cost," says David Yaskulka, CEO of Nature’s Logic. "Unfortunately, many sustainability efforts have a cost associated with them and that cost often is passed on to the customer. And 100 percent all-natural ingredient sourcing is already expensive."

With that in mind, Nature’s Logic works to absorb those costs and works to ensure retail price isn’t impacted.

"Being creative and really doing research is important," explains Yaskulka. "Not all companies are willing to put in that effort."


Education for All

Many manufacturers understand that sustainability is something that their retailer partners have been looking for and will continue to look for when stocking products.

"We found that... retailers are pretty knowledgeable when it comes to sustainability and plastic," says Myers. "We believe the best way [to educate retailers and customers] is to tell [a] story through our products and packaging."

As part of its packaging, Spunky Pup uses recycled water bottles. On each of these packages, the company highlights how many bottles are taken out of the environment.

In addition to making sure retailers are informed and able to pass along information about a product’s impact to sustainability, it’s important that a company’s employees are directly involved or have a role in creating its sustainable goals.

"Employee understanding and involvement are essential to the implementation of this environmental statement," says Spencer Williams, CEO and president of West Paw, about his company’s sustainability initiatives. "Employees at all levels of the company are involved in supporting our goals."

West Paw prioritizes taking the time to gather employees together to share ideas and gather input. This way, they can work together to find new ways to support each other and customers.

When looking to hire new employees (especially millennials), companies should consider how important sustainability is to them, and why working for a company with sustainable values is a draw for potential workers.

"Cone research shows that 83 percent of millennials would be loyal to a company that helps them contribute to environmental issues, while 75 percent of them would even take a pay cut," says Yaskulka. "And 88 percent also say their job is more fulfilling when provided the chance to make a positive environment on social and environmental issues."

Sharing information not just with customers, partners or employees, but with the industry as a whole, can encourage the entire pet industry to share what they know, and work towards creating more sustainable solutions together. Earth Animal, for example, shares everything it has learned with the rest of the PSC, so that other pet businesses can benefit from the knowledge they discover, too.

It’s also important to note that, given the popularity of the sustainability trend, there may be companies looking to cash in without truly doing their part to ensure that their products are truly sustainable.

"Many people make certain claims about their product, but when you dig into it, you find that a small portion of the overall product is recycled, but not really sustainable," says Myers.

Being properly informed about products can help prevent retailers from investing in products that, at the end of the day, aren’t much different from non-sustainable ones.

"As demand for naturally safe products has grown, we’ve seen many brands adopt ‘natural’ claims and it can be confusing for consumers," says Jean Broders, senior brand manager of Kent Pet (World’s Best Cat Litter). "We’re working to help retailers understand that a product can be made of ingredients that are technically ‘natural’ but surely not the healthiest or most sustainable choice.

"Are those natural ingredients renewable? Is the manufacturing process damaging to earth? Are they truly safe? We are working hard to ensure they have those answers so they can direct consumers to the right products." 


Creating a Sustainable Plan

Thinking about where to begin with sustainability, and transforming your business to accommodate these practices, may not be easy at first. It starts with education, and then needs a plan.

Determining what sustainability means to you, your business and the ability to execute a plan that is feasible for the company, without compromising your product or service’s quality, is easier said than done.

"West Paw continually looks for ways to innovate in sustainable materials and manufacturing practices while keeping pricing in line with retailer expectations," says Williams.

Each step as an organization when it comes to packaging, production, promotional materials and product ingredients (protein alternatives, nose-to-tail eating, renewable resources) can make a difference.

To do that, the PSC has a wide variety of information and resources on its website to get started. Volo encourages anyone with questions about sustainability to reach out to a board member like herself, or to the PSC to learn more.

"The pet industry does have a tremendous opportunity to improve sustainability," says Williams. "We encourage people to engage with the Pet Sustainability Coalition to find inspiration, data and practical support which all help move a business forward."

As a retailer, learning that a product has a certification is a simple way to clearly see that a product is considered to be sustainable. For Tender & True, all of its products carry at least one certification, which includes the USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verification, Global Animal Partnership and Marine Stewardship Council.

However, companies that can’t afford these certifications can also be sustainable, and it’s up to manufacturers and retailers to do their research and make informed decisions when choosing a product to carry or materials to incorporate into products.

Beyond just looking at products themselves, businesses can look into other sustainable practices or initiatives beyond their primary focus—such as energy efficiency and sourcing for facilities.

Earth Animal may be focused on factory farming, but the company has consistently made efforts to contribute to sustainability in a variety of ways. Recently, the company embarked on its Flex Forward pilot program, which aims to reduce landfill waste and deliver sustainable packaging solutions. Its goal is to collect 5,000 total pounds of post-consumer plastic over a total collection period of three to four months. Earth Animal is providing a variety of items to assist its partnering retailers, including a collection vessel, retail associate training, digital content, incentives and consumer support.

West Paw, as another example of how manufacturers are getting retailers directly involved with sustainability initiatives, offers its Join the Loop program to encourage greater return of its Zogoflex material from customers for recycling. Retailers participating in the program can have an in-store drop-off area to collect toys that West Paw can recycle into new ones.

After getting started, revisiting and revising your plan to keep up with current trends in sustainability and technological advances may help you reach your sustainability goals sooner.

"Everyone in the pet industry should evaluate current sustainability practices throughout their company, to proactively identify business practices that may need implementing and improving in order to maintain and grow," says Ellis.

"We constantly ask ourselves, ‘how can we do better?’ and, frankly, we think that’s a critical question all businesses should be asking," says Yaskulka.


From Now to the Future

Now is the time to be thinking about sustainability. It’s likely that the need for sustainability will be even more vital.

"In the future, and as the pet industry evolves, we expect environmental stewardship and positive social impact will become the norm," says Williams. "Companies will become more involved in sustainability practices, whether that’s encouraging customers to recycle their old Zogoflex toys or purchase food, toys, and treats from pet suppliers who are environmentally responsible."

Earth Animal is anticipating the launch of its first-ever vegan product, expected to arrive in spring 2021. The new plant-based product is an alternative to animal protein, and is an example of how technology is allowing companies to come up with new, innovative and sustainable improvements.

According to Volo, the PSC is zeroing in on two big initiatives or areas of growth: sustainable protein sourcing and sustainable packaging solutions. "I think you’ll be able to see major growth in those areas," says Volo. "Because we have such a big footprint, the industry can make a major impact on sustainable initiatives."

Beyond the pet industry, business in general needs to care about our people, the animals and the earth.

"I think all industries should care," says Myers. "There are more bottles in the ocean than fish.  It’s sickening to think this is possible, but it is."

At the end of the day, by investing in sustainability, we’re investing in our future. According to Yaskulka, we need to care about sustainability because "first and foremost, we owe it to our children, and to their children." PB