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Sustainability Era: New Study Reveals Pet Food Impact on Climate

Glenn Polyn//August 1, 2021//

Sustainability Era: New Study Reveals Pet Food Impact on Climate

Glenn Polyn //August 1, 2021//

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Pet brands are about to engage in a new arena of competitive advantage or disadvantage. Consumer activism in response to climate change and sustainability practices will push pet companies to assess their carbon footprints, taking a closer look at supply chains, production processes, ingredient strategies and marketplace behaviors. Progressive brands will get ahead of this issue while others may not see its arrival.

What will the new conversation around sustainability and climate readiness look like at SuperZoo and beyond? For the first time, pet food manufacturing is coming into focus as a player in climate change. The unprecedented drive over the last decade to upgrade pet diets to focus heavily on meat and fish formulations has placed pet food in the crosshairs of environmental impact. Ingredient supply chains have a role as climate threat catalyst.

At 24 percent, industrial agriculture has emerged as the second largest producer of greenhouse gas. Specifically, meat production accounts for 65 percent of the world’s nitrous oxide, a gas with a global-warming impact 296 times greater per pound than carbon dioxide. What’s more, total emissions from agriculture are forecasted to grow 80 percent by 2050 due to a significant increase in demand for meat and dairy products.

A study by UCLA professor Gregory Okin published in the PLOS ONE journal, titled “Environmental Impacts of Food Consumption by Dogs and Cats” calculated that meat centric pet diets are creating a whopping 64 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to driving 13.6 million cars a year. Said another way, feeding dogs and cats makes up somewhere between 25 percent to 30 percent of the entire environmental impact of domestic meat consumption.

Evidence of climate change conditions are everywhere with a drumbeat of news reports about weather anomalies, super storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps. In late June, Seattle experienced temperatures above 105 degrees, historic for the Pacific Northwest which normally remains cool through the summer months. These events help accelerate the rise of a consumer cohort we define as eco-sumers, people who view their purchase decisions as a vote for climate and sustainability responsibility. This is not a small, tertiary audience.

Emergent’s consumer insight research partner, London-based Brand Experience Group, conducted a quantitative consumer research study that found 34 percent of U.S. consumers are either committed or passionate about sustainability and will hold brands accountable for their policies and behaviors. Another 32 percent are concerned about the issue and paying attention as the food-impact-on-climate story continues to unfold.

The news about the relationship between food production and greenhouse gas threat is changing the definition of sustainability – soon to be code for data-driven evaluation of brand carbon footprint – a more robust, science-based assessment of climate outcomes well beyond advancing clean energy policies and natural resource conservation.

More specifically, consumers’ expectations in evaluating companies’ transparency, ingredient sourcing, food safety, animal welfare and employee treatment are now expanding to include carbon impact. It is important to consider this is well on its way to becoming a standard yardstick of brand preference and perceived product quality.

How does climate change transform the future of pet food? First and foremost, food, beverage and lifestyle brands, including pet food, are ground zero for a cultural shift that will recast the value proposition for every brand in business. With consumer attitude and preference leaning towards understanding climate and sustainability accountability, policies and behaviors of pet brands, the path to purchase will include comparisons on carbon footprint and climate-responsible policies.

Media attention on the topic of food choice connected to climate outcomes is rising and with added awareness will come greater scrutiny. The word sustainability may currently be one of the most popular in the lexicon of CPG brand marketing. However, along with greater emphasis on carbon footprint will come risks of greenwashing. Brands that invoke sustainability language but are doing it without the scientific, data-based rigor of knowing what their supply chain means to greenhouse gas creation are risking backlash.

How do brands and retailers help consumers make informed purchase decisions based on the environmental sustainability of a product? In spite of the growth in accreditation agencies, there is no credible third-party mechanism that can inform consumers how climate positive a product, brand or retailer is. Consumers are going to have a harder time determining which claims are meaningful from those that are not. Pundits and subject matter experts will offer their views on good versus bad and so the race to offer credible guidance now begins. Others may assert control over your narrative.

Consumer expectations are already on the rise. Now is the time to adopt a set of pet industry-wide standards on carbon footprint and define which elements of performance need to be included in assessing climate impact scores which are useful – and meaningful – for consumer choice.

Billions of dollars in investment capital have been pouring into the alternative protein space as new food technologies emerge that promise the entire macro-nutritional profile of meats, eggs or dairy but requiring no animal or fish to create them. Raising animals for food is an inefficient and natural resource-depleting method of creating complex proteins. These new technologies based on microbe fermentation, cultured proteins and plant-based solutions will become options for pet brands in new product development as costs continue to decline. The Protein Transformation Report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts nine out of 10 of the world’s favorite human foods will have a realistic, affordable alternative that perfectly mimics the animal-based version on taste and texture by 2035. The rapid scaling of plant-based meat and eggs alone will save more than a gigaton of carbon dioxide annually, according to BCG.

We can expect to see development of new categories in pet food innovation based on climate- positive formulations, carbon footprint scoring on package labels and brands weighing in to communicate their sustainability bona fides. Who will be the leader on this path? What new brands may emerge that embed this solution into their brand DNA like Wild Earth?

The time is now to address climate concerns and leverage this opportunity for competitive advantage.

Pet brands that take an informed, data-driven approach to sustainability goal setting and programming will better position themselves for: sustainable business growth, market share advancement, reputation enhancement, deeper consumer relevance and advocacy and greater marketplace competitive leverage.

Brand Experience Group research has validated the business case; Brands that invest in sustainability, informed by insight research and supported by brand communication to tell the climate story, perform better in business growth metrics than those that don’t. Are you ready to build greater relevance with increasingly climate-impact savvy pet parents?

If you’re wondering where your company is on the path to sustainability readiness, take this easy five-minute online questionnaire to receive a free customized confidential assessment.


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.