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Can Progressive Brands Achieve a Sustainable Pet Food Industry?


The relentless media coverage of climate threat impacts here and afar serves as a constant reminder that our food production system, pet and human, is a consequential contributor in an evolving existential threat to the planet’s (and our) long-term security and well-being.  

This tsunami of media attention on sustainability and the climate impact of the food system is motivating consumers to draw a link between their brand preferences and climate consequences. 

The fast-growing role of sustainable choice is a lynchpin in marketplace competitive advantage as consumers begin to express their climate concern beliefs and values at the shelf and cash register. Beware the pet brands that choose to sit this one on the sidelines hoping the “climate thing” will cool off. Temperatures continue to rise around the globe fostering extreme changes in dangerous weather patterns, extended droughts and general eco-system disruptions that portend future shortages in essential food ingredient supply. 

Yet, a disconnect exists in the march towards sustainable performances and policies as some pet brands misread the tea leaves believing this arena is an optional choice of altruism versus leveraging key components of sustainability readiness to set the table for long-term business growth and market share advance. 

Consider these sobering “situation analysis” facts: 

  • Food production is responsible for roughly 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while also being uniquely dependent on stable climate conditions. 
  • Continued legacy growth in animal-based proteins will account for roughly 49 percent of the emissions budget on the path towards meeting or missing the 2030 goal of the 1.5 C temperature ceiling authored in the Paris Climate Accords. 
  • Animal agriculture is the single largest source of methane, a gas 82 times more toxic to the environment than carbon dioxide — and responsible for 32 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions. 

Meanwhile insight research confirms approximately 64 percent of consumers are either passionate or concerned about sustainability performance in the products they choose. However, it is difficult for people to make sustainable choices while shopping and to determine in any given food (pet) category what is the more sustainable brand option. 

The shifting sands of marketplace leverage are real and the face of the pet industry is likely to change in favor of progressive brands beginning to assert themselves as climate-smart actors. These climate-responsible brands will likely lean into a higher purpose and mission that includes increased innovation and change investments to upgrade their carbon footprint and sustainable readiness story. 

What do sustainability best practices look like? In a recent sustainability readiness assessment of 20 brands across an array of categories from CPG to food retail and pet food, the results pointed to near universal consensus on key areas of vulnerability that will need shoring up.  

The Brand Sustainability Solution (BSS) readiness questionnaire project included organizations such as LVMH, Grupo Bimbo, L’Oreal, Ahold Delhaize, Nature’s Logic pet foods and uncovered consistent challenges in sustainability performance in these three areas:  

Science-based analysis of Scope 3 emissions: Scope 3 analysis delves into supply chain. A recent report on human food industry players from manufacturers to retailers and food service companies, found over 80 percent of emissions contributions on average were in the supply chain. Yet for the most part, science-backed assessments were either non-existent or limited to Scope 1 and 2 carbon evaluation. 

What gets measured matters: The right measurement infrastructure must be installed to track and measure sales impacts from sustainability performance. The framework for this kind of balance sheet contribution is frequently missing because organizations approach sustainability as a “good citizen” strategy rather than a business-building initiative. 

Sustainability communication left unaddressed: A recent study of grocery retail companies in the United Kingdom by London-based Brand Experience Group, indicated the top three food retail companies were leaving a collective $9 billion in unrealized sales on the table. Why? Because they had not invested in adequate communications outreach designed to inform their shoppers of their sustainability policies and the important work they were doing to make improvements. You can’t get credit and gain credibility with climate-smart consumers if you aren’t telling them your story effectively. 

The four components of sustainability best practices are: 

Science-backed Life Cycle Analysis of the business – including Scope 3 evaluation to establish a clear picture of the organization’s true emissions impact.  

Consumer insight research – consumers invariably will surprise you about what areas of sustainability performance matter most to them. You’ll get more credit for addressing their concerns rather than areas that don’t matter to them. 

Business metrics – ultimately organizations will make better climate investment decisions when they see it as a component of the brand value proposition and a direct link to business benefits. 

Effective communications – closing the loop with consumers and stakeholders is vital to gaining their allegiance and advocacy for your sustainability performance.   

Is your pet brand working to embrace sustainability investments? Progressive brands are on the move to fortify their sustainability bona fides and lay in the standards and policies required to address carbon footprint and emissions. Greg Kean, global vice president of advanced innovation, research and development and sustainability at Wellness, reports his company expects to address Scope 3 emissions evaluation within the next year.  

“We have increasingly built sustainability practices into our supply chain that range in activities such as conducting Life Cycle Analysis, installing solar panels and ensuring fair labor practices. From an innovation standpoint we are addressing the development of recyclable packaging and continuing research on alternate proteins and improvement of animal welfare practices,” he explained. 

Critical to a more sustainable future in pet food is recognition that the wide use of animal-based proteins carries with it inherent emissions challenges produced by livestock agriculture. Wellness brand is working diligently to gain understanding of where they are on this journey.  

Kean stated, “We are committed to carbon accounting across our supply chain. We have already initiated conducting a Life Cycle Analysis of energy and water usage and are in the final stages of choosing carbon accounting software that aligns with the Green House Gas Protocol to begin the process of measuring and setting goals to decrease volume adjusted emissions across Scope 1-3.” 

Champion Petfoods, long renowned for its commitment to fresh ingredient partnerships with farms, ranches and fisheries, sees the process as a journey that requires ongoing commitment to progress over time. “The area of sustainability is vast, and it can be challenging at times to know where to begin. Pushing for progress often comes with tackling significant complexity or additional costs. Our industry is embracing this sentiment and it’s encouraging to see the growth in momentum and collaboration to collectively solve these challenges,” said Nicole Suteau, corporate sustainability manager at Champion. 

Suteau indicated Champion remains committed to doing its part to create positive change within the industry and the world at large. To that end, she said Champion has set specific goals for responsible sourcing, sustainable packaging and waste to landfill mitigation.  

For its part, Champion sees the path to sustainability readiness as a broad-based effort that crosses functional areas of the company. “We’re setting a clear strategy that is fully embraced by executive management; involving broad groups to collaborate on developing action plans; enrolling others outside the organization to help, like our suppliers and the Pet Sustainability Coalition; and realizing it’s an interactive process where we can celebrate successes and get the entire company to embrace the challenge,” she reported. 

Suteau said the company is amid an initiative to sustainably source its fish supply with a goal that 100 percent of the fish used in their kitchens, including fresh, raw, meals and oils, will transition to a credibly verified sustainable supply. “Currently, we’re over 70 percent of the way there,” she said. 

Meanwhile Wellness has moved to secure a packaging solution that achieves their quality and sustainability objectives. “Our internal goal is to transition to recyclable packaging by 2025,” said Kean, who noted that the company’s key initiatives include “decreasing waste via packaging recyclability, lowering emissions and reducing the contribution of animal derived protein by 20 percent by 2030.” 

As more pet brands prioritize sustainability performances, standards and policies, the industry will draw closer to fulfilling pet parent wishes for credible and more sustainable choices in the pet foods they buy. While at the same time, the industry can help resolve the food system conditions that contribute to climate threats now plaguing the entire planet. 

   

Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent can help pet brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity and deeper meaning in their pet parent relationships and brand communication. 

 

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