By Diana Ford
As a lifelong cat owner/devotee and student of sustainable business, I have become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of pet ownership. In 2009 I was shocked to read in New Scientist that my relationship with my feline companion was contributing to the degradation of the environment at rates equal to SUV ownership.
I began to feel pangs of panicky guilt every time I popped the lid off a can of individual serving size kitty dinner. I skulked down the aisle of Whole Foods with a bag of “flushable” kitty litter, knowing full well (but at a loss for a better alternative) that flushing my feline’s feces might cause a sea otter to become sick with bacteria often found in cat excrement.
I did feel some satisfaction when I purchased fully recycled cat scratchers that could later be composted safely. However, reading that domestic cats are responsible for the extinction of many entire species of birds wiped the smug grin off my face. My cat is an avid huntress, and many a feather has fluttered through her fangs. I may even have offered proud encouragement on occasion, impressed with her ability to soar casually into the air as if catching a frisbee.
Needless to say, I was conflicted. How could I be pursuing a career dedicated to creating a sustainable future and at the same time be not only harboring, but enabling this environmental disaster?! What ensued was the beginning of an ongoing quest for the secret to sustainable pet ownership. And a quest if has been.
There isn’t one easy answer, but the truth is that there is a growing market for sustainable pet products, and if we shop carefully, we can provide biodegradable litter, environmentally friendly toys and other products for our pets. I have since started using these products, and feel at least somewhat comforted. But there was one big thing missing: food.
There are very few options for purchasing healthy, sustainable pet food. A few small companies are rising up here and there, and even some of the larger companies promote “healthy ingredients” and “environmentally friendly packaging.” However, most pet food contains meat byproducts and “filler” ingredients that come from the waste stream of large meat packing companies. Wet food is packaged in cans that actually can be recycled fairly efficiently – except that less than 20% of those cans make it to the recycling plant (according to research done by Purina). The rest end up rusting and bleeding into landfills for years.
The pet food industry is a 20 billion dollar industry in the United States and continues to grow, despite tough economic times. I suspect one reason for this is that high levels of stress and uncertainty cause people to seek comfort, and who better to provide it than the family pet? Unconditional love and affection may not solve our economic crises but it can certainly ease the pain. People are becoming increasingly aware of both the health and the environmental impact of their pets. So why aren’t there more sustainable food options?
There is no doubt that a 20 billion dollar industry that is largely made up of a few powerful companies has the capacity to drive industry change. But as the saying goes, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Currently, pet food manufacturers don’t have much motivation to change the way they do business. This has to change.
There are a good number of pet owners out there who want sustainable food options. Some end up cooking their own pet food, or switching to small expensive food producers, but not everyone can afford the time or money for these limited options.
The number one thing that would convince pet food companies to offer any new product is demand. As consumers, we are akin to gods. They want our money. We want sustainable food options. It seems like a win-win situation. So where is the missing link? The pet food companies need to see that there is demand for these products. They need to see money waving in the air and hear voices crying out for change. As a nation of consumers we often take a passive role. We choose what is offered, and sometimes talk to each other about what we would like to see, but how often to we tell the people actually making the products? This is a chance to demand what we want and drive massive industry change.
So this is a shout out to all pet owners. We love our pets. We want the best for them and many of us want the what’s best for the planet. There is a market for these products, and really, this is a golden opportunity for someone to capitalize on and profit from. We just need to get their attention. To read more about these issues and what you can do to help, join the conversation on the Sustainable Paw Prints blog at http://sustainablepawprints.wordpress.com.