Sustainability Performance: Examining the Future of Pet Food

Glenn Polyn//July 1, 2022//

Sustainability Performance: Examining the Future of Pet Food

Glenn Polyn //July 1, 2022//

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There is an old saying, “times change and if you don’t change with them, you’re in trouble.” A major shift is now underway among consumers, which is driven largely by the tsunami of media attention falling on the relationship between the current food system and climate impact. The latest insight research indicates at least 66 percent of consumers are now either passionate or concerned about sustainability. 

This change is a result of a growing realization that food production and current agriculture practices generate anywhere from 27 to 34 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of that amount, 74 percent is attributed specifically to raising livestock for food and its related land and water use. As more people look to make sustainable choices in the foods they buy, conscious consumption is rising.  

Human food trends and behaviors quickly trickle down to product preferences for their four-legged family members, yet pet brand sustainability readiness is lagging and quickly becoming a study in playing catch up with these cultural changes that are impacting the marketplace today.  

According to “The Investor Guide for Climate Transition Plans in the U.S. Food Sector,” created by Ceres, the majority of publicly traded food and agriculture companies that produce high levels of emissions don’t currently track Scope 3 emissions. The low hanging fruit of Scope 1 (operational emissions) and Scope 2 (energy use) are tackled in the vast majority of published ESG commitments. Yet in the food industry, 80 to 90 percent or more of emissions are found in the Scope 3 arena of supply chain contributions that are currently not measured. 

In the race to solve the climate crisis, it will not be possible to reach the required carbon reductions by 2050 unless the food system in all its pieces and parts, is de-carbonized. Meanwhile, activist-driven investors are increasingly demanding that companies develop robust, science backed climate transition plans. Adding momentum, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is preparing to demand mandatory disclosure of climate risk impacts. This will shed even greater light on organizations that have credible carbon mitigation strategies versus those that don’t.  

The sustainability sand beneath everyone’s feet is moving as media scrutiny spotlights the carbon outcomes of food production. Due to heavy use of animal-based proteins, when Scope 3 emissions are measured, the carbon impact of pet food will be revealed. Investors want it. Consumers will demand it. The environment needs it. 

When the internal discussion turns to mitigating emission impacts, pet brand research and development experts will seriously evaluate the emerging sector of novel protein technologies. New solutions in the alternative protein pipeline offer comparable nutritional performance with a vastly improved emission footprint. 

What’s emerging is a new category in pet food, developed around plant based and precision fermentation-created proteins that work to replicate the nutrition and taste characteristics of beef, chicken, pork, lamb and seafood.  

Of these new technologies, many industry experts believe precision fermentation holds the greatest promise because the process is more sustainable, and is an adaptation of technology that’s been around for a very long time. Fermentation is used to make beer and wine. Feeding bioengineered microbes a sugar-based feedstock to create authentic analogs of animal-based proteins without any animal involved, is attracting increased investment capital — over $5 billion in 2021 alone.  

Eat Just, the first company to sell cultivated chicken nuggets to consumers in Singapore, has announced plans for its Good Meat division, to build 10 giant, 250,000-liter bioreactors capable of producing upwards of 30 million pounds of animal-free meat.  

Right now, new pet brands are leading the way such as Raleigh, North Carolina-based Wild Earth that is making a high protein kibble line with a plant-based formulation. Bond Pet foods in Boulder, Colorado is developing fermentation-based products that will have a fraction of the environmental impact of current animal-based recipes.  

“We know the future of pet food is going to be linked to demands by pet parents for a more sustainable option. Our carbon impact is a fraction of what it would be if we used conventionally produced meat proteins, estimates range between 75 to 90 percent less,” said Ryan Bethencourt, Wild Earth founder and CEO.  

He added, “Ruminant animals are responsible for much of the toxic methane produced in livestock agriculture, not to mention massive land and water usage compared to plant-based proteins. We’re offering a cleaner product that’s great for the pet (possibly better than meat- based kibble according to Professor Knight’s recent study) and much better for the environment, too.” 

When brands listen to consumers and answer their concerns, good things can happen, but there is a flip side. Insight research from Kanter and Water Unite reveals that consumers who are “eco-active” or “eco-considerers” are just as likely to reject environmentally unfriendly brands — 66 percent and 50 percent of those cohorts, respectively. By tying sustainability investments to business growth KPI’s, brands have an opportunity to grow share and volume. This happens for the very reason their value proposition is more relevant to what pet parents are looking for, while also elevating their brand with a distinctive voice and story as a credibly better, carbon responsible and more sustainable option.  

Adding carbon footprint scoring to product labels could help seal the deal — requiring disclaimers that reveal which brands have been authentically and proactively engaged in mitigation efforts versus those which are reactive, and perhaps reading as disingenuous in their concern to address consumer concerns for sustainability action.    

Now is the time to move on these developments. Wait-and-see may seem like a prudent path but the changes going on are coming quickly. The real climate threats we face aren’t stopping while we wait to see if the other guy moves first. 


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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