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Pet sustainability, or the truth about cats and dogs

One of the biggest environmental impacts is associated with the food for meat-eating pets, a product category that contributed at least 64 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually as of 2017.

Pet toys

The COVID-19 pandemic inspired a boom in the pet industry — in the U.S. alone, more than 11.4 million people brought a new cat or dog into their household, according to an industry association. And with all those new feline and canine companions comes new sustainability challenges for the $99 billion pet industry.

One of the biggest environmental impacts is associated with the food for meat-eating pets, a product category that was contributing at least 64 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually as of 2017 — roughly the equivalent of the impact from 13.6 million passenger vehicles, according to a study conducted by UCLA professor Gregory Okin and published by journal PLOS One. 

According to the study, our family cats and dogs eat up to a fifth of the meat and fish consumed in the U.S., showing the considerable damage certain dietary choices have on environmental sustainability. For example, the study noted that the process of producing 1 kilo of pork emits 24 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2); and raising one kilo of beef emits 1,000 kilos of CO2.  

But meat consumption is not the only issue plaguing the U.S. pet industry, there is also an issue with single-use plastics. In a report by Packaged Facts, packaging material represented over 40 percent of the global pet food packaging market, and that does not take into account other pet-related products that rely primarily on plastic, such as toys, waste bags and bowls.

Vying to be leader of the pack

So what companies are leading the way in ensuring that the pet industry considers its current and future ecological, social and economic impacts? 

One to watch is Nature's Logic, which has made immense changes in its business approach ranging from the use of renewable energy, post-consumer recycled material and carbon neutral shipping. The company was named to Inc. magazine’s list of 5,000 fastest growing privately held U.S. companies in 2020 for the second consecutive year, rising to No. 221 in the Consumer Products and Services category. It was recently acquired by Mid America Pet Food.

If you entrusted us with your money, then you should have a say in the social impact that goes along with that purchase.

One of its most visible initiatives has been its Clean Food, Clean Energy program, under which Nature’s Logic purchases 1 kilowatt-hour of renewable energy for every pound of food it sells. In addition, the company’s entire Distinction pet food line is made from 100 percent natural ingredients with no synthetic vitamins and packaged in certified plastic-neutral bags — a first in the pet industry. To make that plastics claim, Nature’s Logic is certified, verified and monitored by Repurpose Global, itself a certified B Corporation that sells what it amounts to as plastics offsets. 

"The very first thing we did at Nature's Logic was tie the success of our company to climate impact and in creating these programs — like Clean Food, Clean Energy — to show real action and becoming part of the solution towards climate change," said Nature’s Logic CEO David Yaskulka. "But as a brand, I want there to be one action for a consumer that in itself makes a difference in our product. If you entrusted us with your money, then you should have a say in the social impact that goes along with that purchase. I've always believed that consumers can and should be involved in the changes we make as a business."

What pet owners want

Consumer awareness and demand is indeed starting to move that needle in a big way. 

Just three years ago, millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest cohort of pet parents, with 32 percent of them owning a pet. And for Gen Z, who currently only make up 14 percent of pet parents, there is an overwhelming concern about the sustainability requirements for brands they buy.

When consumers are polled about their top environmental issues, the No. 1 issue continues to be single-use plastics and packaging — along with concerns over air pollution, water pollution, water shortages and use of pesticides. 

Yaskulka said leading pet industry companies have to be ahead of the curve when discussing issues that may be overlooked by the consumer. 

Take meat production and consumption, for example, and how it is linked to pet food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the process of raising animals accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food intended for cats and dogs is responsible for up to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S, as per Okin’s report.  

"Look, we are largely a meat-based industry, and we know that agriculture is the No. 2 contributor to carbon and climate disaster, so we have to lead that conversation and not just wait to find solutions. We don’t have a choice and companies large and small are understanding that they no longer have a choice," said Yaskulka, appointed as Nature’s Logic CEO in 2019. "At the same time, if you think of the tip of the spear in the fight for social justice, for avoiding climate catastrophe, there are brands and organizations who are employing innovation that perhaps may seem a little ahead of the demand but are vital to the dynamics of raising awareness and making real impact."

Pet food on shelves

Operationalizing sustainability

One organization leading the way is the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC). Founded in 2013, the group is trying to drive the conversation about how the pet industry should move forward in reversing its impact on the environment.

With over 200 member companies, PSC has created and curated a broad range of educational tools and resources to enable companies to identify ways to drive business performance through social and environmental impact. Specific programs such as the PSC accelerator and toolkit are designed to help develop more sustainable business practices for their members. 

"In 2013, we were definitely a little early to market. Really people had no idea what the term sustainability meant. Sure, they knew it was eco-friendly, but for us we had to go out and preach the business case over and over and over again, so they could see, ‘Here's how sustainability is good for your business. Here's the long-term return for you,'" said Caitlyn Dudas, executive director and co-founder of the organization. "Since then, some big things have already changed in the industry that I think are really exciting. In the beginning, there was almost no appetite for collaboration at all. People saw each other as strict competitors. They saw sustainability as a competitive ground of this differentiation, and now I feel like the industry is moving together."

One of the organization's efforts in addressing environmental issues was UnPacked21, its first pet industry packaging event. The virtual conference in February brought together sustainable packaging experts and suppliers, as well as pet industry brands, manufacturers and retailers, to unpack the ever-changing, quickly developing details around packaging.

By partnering with PSC, these companies have pledged to address the impact of their business. By showing it's possible to save money through sustainability initiatives while at the same time generating new growth by meeting the growing consumer demand for healthy, safe and sustainable products, PSC has demonstrated the value of those partnerships. The actions businesses make are verified through a third-party assessment, and if an organization meets some specific requirements, it becomes an accredited partner. (Nature’s Logic is a Top 20 accredited PSC brand.) So far, 50 of the companies partnered with PSC have earned that designation by making pledges to have more sustainable practices, and achieving those goals. 

Petco, a partner and PSC founding member, became the first major pet retailer to commit to a more sustainable business model. In a recently self-published sustainability report, the 56-year-old company pledged to have 50 percent sustainable products on its shelves by 2025, reduce its use of plastics by 92 percent and cardboard by 23 percent, showing how the industry shift is coming from all areas. 

Beyond its involvement with the PSC, Nature’s Logic was the first pet food company to join the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), an organization that advocates for legislation that supports sustainability, equity and justice.

In the beginning, there was almost no appetite for collaboration at all. People saw each other as strict competitors. They saw sustainability as a competitive ground of this differentiation, and now I feel like the industry is moving together.

ASBC has been involved in a long list of policies and market transformation work that have directly supported a pathway for sustainable business across different industries. For ASBC, shifting the narrative by raising consumer and industry awareness is just as important as policy change.

"The belief is, until you change the rules of the game, until you change the public policies, you're not going to get to the type of systemic change that's needed in order to achieve a more just and sustainable economy," said David Levine, co-founder and president of ASBC. "But we have to remember, voters elect politicians, and politicians listen to business leaders. That part of the dynamic from the sustainability side of the equation was missing before the formation of the American Sustainable Business Council."

Training to be best in show 

With consumers demonstrating growing concern over environmental and social issues, Nature’s Logic’s participation with ASBC along with PSC’s dedication to educating the industry, could help change the dialogue among pet owners.  

"Having Nature’s Logic and the Pet Sustainability Coalition on board and in conversation alongside other sectors has so much value in how we pay attention to consumers wanting more sustainable products, in addition to having more policies passed," said Levine, who has worked as a social entrepreneur for over 30 years focusing on the development of whole systems solutions for a more sustainable society. "These companies will begin to be responsible for what they produce, responsible for their waste, the cost of doing business if they’re not transitioning their energy sources, and adopting more and more of the practices and principles that align with sustainability."

The pet industry is just now scratching the surface on addressing the impact of its operations on climate change, but the enthusiasm behind the work already being done shows how consumer and industry awareness is infusing alternative business practices.

For example, Chews Happiness is a zero-carbon business that uses plant-based packaging. Earth Animal is transitioning all its plastic packaging to a recyclable alternative by 2025, adding clear and specific recycling instructions on each pack. Both companies are PSC members and carry the accreditation. 

Another company, Shameless Pets, offers Calming Chews made from sustainably upcycled ingredients. Although not a member of the Pet Sustainability Coalition, the company says that 80 percent of its products are made through production processes powered by solar energy and 25 percent of the plastics it uses come from post-consumer recyclable sources. 

"I'm painfully aware of how far we have to go on this pathway to sustainability, but I'm extremely proud of how far we've come," observed Nature’s Logic’s Yaskulka. 

He pointed to his company’s own work over the past two years, and said achieving circularity for plastics packaging and addressing meat production should be top priorities for the industry.

"If you ask where we need to go, well, there's an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together,’ and I believe as an industry we can make change," he said.

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