Sustainability: Harness the Coming Culture Shift for Future Growth

By Robert Wheatley//January 1, 2023//

Sustainability: Harness the Coming Culture Shift for Future Growth

By: Robert Wheatley//January 1, 2023//

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It was 2007 when the news first broke about a spate of pet fatalities traced to a tainted melamine ingredient in a number of pet foods. As media dug into the story, a brand reputation rending discovery was revealed. One company called Menu Foods was manufacturing more than 100 brands of pet food and was the source of the tainted product. The phenomena of “scrutiny” arose as pet parents questioned who was really making the pet food they purchase, while web sites sprang up to proclaim themselves as truth-sayers of what’s actually inside the bag.

What transpired was a massive cultural shift in the pet food industry that essentially kicked off the premiumization trend and focus on higher quality protein ingredients. Followed almost immediately by the emergence of ancestral or biologically appropriate diet concepts and the genesis of a fast-rising grain free foods category.

The cultural shift can be traced to a change in the perception of what constitutes a higher quality pet food solution. This development created favorable conditions for host of smaller brands focused on their better ingredient stories. The words “human-grade ingredients” began to show up and the race was on to elevate the recipes, protein percentages and use of meat, meat and more meat. The face of the pet food industry was forever changed.

Was this an outcome of some technical achievement or production advance? No, it was driven by a consumer response to wanting assurance of better quality, safe pet nutrition. The result: a trend towards premiumization that caught fire and caused scores of pet owners to pay attention to ingredient labels and definitions, in search of perceived upgrades in the kibble or wet product ingredients. The industry responded – quickly.


Culture shift may not be a routine component of strategic planning among pet food brands, but it should be.

Those who own and lead in times of culture change stand to benefit from shifts as a first mover. Historically we know, once a trend gains traction it’s likely brands across the spectrum of middle to high end players will begin to move in that direction, creating their versions of ancient grains, or raw toppers/inclusions, fresh formulation or other nuances and recipe segmentations.

When the big changes start to take root, it’s time to recalibrate strategy and prepare for a shift. There’s one coming now and staying ahead of it will inevitably impact a winner/loser list based on those who most successfully navigate the coming cultural move and those who remain on the sidelines.


Seeds of change on the horizon

A few years ago, was anyone really paying any attention to the carbon footprint of pet food production? How pressing was the impact of climate change on public opinion and preferences? Wasn’t sustainability relegated to less incendiary issues like recycling and energy use?

Recent discoveries and reports on our natural resource burn rate are contributing to a new conversation about what the future holds. Meanwhile super storms, heat waves, droughts, wild fires and other outcomes of a warming planet reveal how vulnerable we are. Turns out the agricultural system, mostly driven by livestock production, is a key actor in greenhouse gas creation. Thus, the collective focus now begins to turn to how sustainable (really) is the pet food we purchase.


Sustainability is a coming culture change

According to populationmatters.org, we are currently burning through renewable resources at a rate globally that requires we have 1.7 planet earths. By 2050, it will be closer to three planets. More people will mean resources are used up faster. Meantime we keep adding cows and the crops to feed them to meet protein demand despite the carbon impacts.

The pet food industry is on the cusp of an evolution as new protein technologies emerge like precision fermentation that employ bioengineered microbes to precisely replicate animal proteins – only no animal is involved in their creation. Some forecasters have said the entire world’s protein needs could be supplied by a fermentation manufacturing system requiring roughly the same amount of space as the city of London.

When half the world’s habitable land is already purposed for agriculture, and there’s only so much land left unless we cut down the entire Amazon rain forest (much to the detriment of its role as the world’s largest carbon sink), the promise of this emerging technology is startling.

The foundational story underneath this precision fermentation development and emergence of plant-based pet food solutions is a carbon footprint that will be a fraction of conventionally- made products. Awareness of these issues and answers is escalating. Public opinion is shifting. Brand preference may move to catch up to the change in sentiment by providing pet foods that are friendlier to the environment.

The face of the industry will likely change. The winners will be those who stay ahead of this and work to assess alternative technologies. Human food industry players like Unilever are already down the path on collaborations with these emerging food technology businesses. More action is coming, witness Science Diet’s collaboration with Bond Pet foods in Boulder, Colorado now building its first pilot plant to produce precision fermentation proteins for pet food.


Implications to your business

It is time to elevate the strategic importance of sustainability innovation, best practices and readiness based on where pet parents are headed. Culture change is a coming, now evidenced by the rise of electrically-powered everything and the impending end of the gas-powered vehicle era.

Beware the temptations of greenwashing where the sustainability message gets ahead of the actual standards of performance. The same scrutiny that came to the industry about ingredients after the Menu Foods crisis will be applied liberally here, too. Media and influencers have become increasingly educated and savvy about such things as Scope 1, 2 and 3 science-based lifecycle analysis. Posing as climate smart is not an option.

This means sustainability will be a centerpiece of marketplace competitive leverage for the foreseeable future. Your brand narrative will need reengineering and the character of communications strategies will change along with it. Taking stock of shifts in pet parent attitudes, needs and concerns will be vital to inform messaging and help you dial in relevant marketing strategies.

The efforts you implement now will yield brand positioning and leadership benefits as we see this culture change take root.



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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