BOULDER, COLO. — Live from Boulder on Dec. 3 and 4, Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) hosted its third-annual Impact Unleashed conference entirely online. The virtual conference welcomed 450 registered participants from all corners of the industry over the course of two days.

The virtual platform was fully equipped with an event lobby, main stage and auxiliary stage, as well as an exhibit hall featuring 20 organizations, companies and suppliers sustainably serving the pet industry. Caitlyn Dudas, executive director of PSC, said the virtual format of this year’s event allowed a more diverse and widespread audience, attracting three-times as many participants as it did last year.

Impact Unleashed 2020 was as interactive as could be, featuring polls, Q&A chat boxes during presentations, and an exhibit hall of virtual booths with dedicated time for live meetings and discussions between exhibitors and attendees.

“[Inspiration] moves us into a place of possibility,” Dudas said in closing day two of the event, “and I hope over the last two days you have heard from speakers that made you realize all the possibilities for each of us individually, for our companies and for all of us as we begin to work together on this journey."

Presentations were made by 16 industry experts across various topics, including supply chain transparency, reducing plastic packaging waste, retail sustainability strategies, the power of collaboration, and promoting not only environmental sustainability, but also social sustainability through diversity, equity and inclusion. 



A strong start

The event kicked off the morning of Dec. 3 with an opening address from Dudas, who was streaming live from her living room after testing positive for COVID-19 in the days before the show. Dudas and Melissa Bauer, director of sustainability, tag teamed as hosts and moderators throughout the event.

Deanna Bratter, head of sustainable development for Danone North America, presented the keynote address, in which she discussed Danone’s sustainable philosophies and initiatives while paying homage to B Corporation (B Corp), a global community of brands pushing for impactful social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.

“The B Corp community… is an opportunity and a way for us to connect with other leaders in the movement to ensure best practices, to challenge each other, to learn from each other, and really grow the movement together,” Bratter said.

More than 3,600 businesses representing 150 industries across 74 countries are a part of B Corp. The organization offers several tools and programs, of which the primary tool is certification. Companies can become B Corp-certified as a testament to their dedication to creating positive social and environmental impacts.


Sustainability champions

PSC featured three inspiring pet industry champions in a series of short presentations and a panel discussion that included the association’s highest performing accredited sustainable companies in three specific areas.

Representing the pet food manufacturing sector was Anne Carlson, chief executive officer and founder of Jiminy’s, which is a sustainable pet food and treat company using crickets as a protein source to reduce the environmental impact of its food. Cricket protein uses less land, emits almost no greenhouse gases and requires less water, according to Carlson.

“Cricket farming uses a small footprint, it’s self-contained and there is no wastewater runoff,” Carlson shared. “Because of that, it has the potential to be placed within a city making it efficient and sustainable.”

Jiminy’s partnered with Iowa State and a few other partners to study the digestibility of cricket protein and found it to be a high-quality digestible protein for dogs.

The industry champion for the packaging supplier sector was Brian Steinwagner, executive vice president at Morris Packaging. Morris currently offers packaging made from 30% recycled materials and the company is working toward packaging that derives 50% of the material used from recycled material. Morris has also developed cost-competitive, 100% recyclable multi-walled bags or poly-woven bags that are made partially from recycled materials.

The third industry champion representing ingredient suppliers was Dustin Dover, chief operating officer for MFiber, Aurora, Mo. Dover shared MFiber’s passion about preserving rural communities, career opportunities and living wage jobs in agriculture.

“Without this, the country’s food security will decline,” Dover said. “Miscanthus is the most sustainable fiber option available in pet food. MFiber is dedicated to sustainably growing and harvesting Miscanthus which is a perennial plant that produces a harvest for more than 20 years. It also grows well on marginal ground, is carbon negative and requires very little fertilizer.”

Following the short presentations, the industry champions fielded questions from the audience during a panel discussion.


Circular packaging initiatives

Before recapping sustainable packaging initiatives spearheaded by PSC and members of the industry this year, Bauer shared some statistics.

“Why is this such a big issue in the pet industry?” she asked. “According to recent reports, there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050, and the pet industry has a role to play in that.”

For example, 99% of packaging used by the pet food and treat industry is non-recyclable and has no sustainable end-of-life solution, Bauer added.

“Just in the US alone, that amounts to 300,000 million lbs of packaging going into landfills each year,” she said.

Bauer went on to explain the organization’s four-tier approach to achieving sustainable packaging, which includes assessment tools for manufacturers and suppliers, a new award program for sustainable packaging suppliers, various webinars throughout the year, and partnerships with industry players to develop and implement programs to increase the recyclability of pet food packages.

One of these initiatives was a take-back pet food package recycling program called Flex Forward launched earlier this year by PSC, Earth Animal and Pet Food Experts, a pet industry distributor. Stephanie Volo, chief marketing officer for Earth Animal and recently appointed chair of the PSC advisory board, explained the program in detail, which is currently being piloted in select locations across the United States.

“Currently, almost all of these [pet food and treat] bags that are being produced are made by co-extruding and laminating multiple layers of film plastics into this multi-layer sandwich structure to form the actual package,” Volo said. “These layers are made from plastics that are very dissimilar to one another, not compatible with each other when melted and nearly impossible to separate from each other at the current state of technology development.”

Pet Sustainability Coalition recently conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) of Earth Animal's bio-based packaging, comparing its environmental impacts compared to two other traditional packaging materials. The analysis revealed bio-based packaging used significantly less fossil fuels and emitted significantly less greenhouse gasses, but used slightly more water than recycle-ready mono materials and traditional petroleum-based plastic packaging.

She went on to explain that there are currently no recycling streams that accept those types of bags, and that, as of now, sustainable packaging alternatives represent a very small percentage of the market. This data sparked a need for a take-back recycling program for pet food packages, which could then be repurposed into plastic pellets and formed into new pet products, such as collars, leashes, beds and toys.

The program was officially launched in August after being postponed due to COVID-19 complications and is currently working with 125 participating retailers. As of Nov. 24, 70% of participating retailers collected 2,295 total lbs of pet food packaging, an average of 290 lbs per week over the prior five-week period.

“In order for it to succeed, there are several stakeholders that really had to come together and collaborate with one another,” Volo said, including pet owners, independent pet stores, distributors, recycling partners and manufacturers, and managing organizations to oversee the program.

Following the programs initial pilot stage, Bauer announced during the presentation that Flex Forward will soon be expanded into a new and broader program, Toward Circularity, sponsored by Nova Chemical. The program will launch this month and continue into 2021 and is focused on achieving a circular purpose for pet food and treat packaging to reduce plastic waste. Bauer said the organization will share more information on Toward Circularity soon.

“We’ll be working with companies like Mars and Nestlé and Target and Walmart and TerraCycle, along with governmental units in the US Chamber of Commerce, to work toward these four important goals, helping to look at how we can improve circularity and improve sustainability in our pet packaging,” Bauer added.

Additionally, on the topic of sustainable packaging, Aditya Siroya, co-founder and chief impact officer of rePurpose Global, discussed how his company can help pet industry businesses achieve plastic neutrality.

“A simple finding from our research was that nature needs capital,” Siroya said. “As a society today, we are simply not mobilizing enough financing in favor of the solutions that actually work against our plastic pollution crisis… We need to be investing in all solutions across the plastic value chain, ranging from upstream redesign… all the way to downstream investment in waste management infrastructure.”

He stated only 24% of industry believes their sustainability programs are effective, and more than 67% feel underequipped, in terms of tools and expertise, to address environmental impacts effectively. In contrast, sustainable products grew more than 500% faster than regular products last year, Siroya stated.

To answer these discrepancies, rePurpose Global created its PlasticNeutral Certifications “to help brands take immediate, effective action on their plastic footprint today,” Siroya said.

“We’re building the world’s largest plastic waste removal platform to make environmental action delightfully simple for CPG brands,” he added. “Through our platform, brands can take responsibility for their own plastic use by funding the removal of as much plastic from the environment as they use. This funding is mobilized to scale up our network of waste management projects across the world and, in the process, certifying the brands as plastic neutral to recognize and communicate their pioneering environmental action.”


30 Days, 1,000 Actions

Throughout the month of September, PSC held its 30 Days, 1,000 Actions Challenge in partnership with WeSpire, inviting pet professionals to engage with modules and take “small actions” toward building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive industry.

“The Pet Sustainability Coalition has a dual function,” Bauer said. “We work with individual members to help them measure, improve and celebrate their own individual sustainability performance, but we also work to bring together different companies and different sectors of the pet industry to tackle issues that are way too big for any one company to handle. We have three of those strategic initiatives: packaging, protein, and in 2020, we added diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The challenges came at the heels of widespread social unrest across the United States seen throughout the year and continuing today. PSC’s modules included topics on why diversity matters, understanding implicit biases, fostering inclusivity, how to be an ally, fighting for environmental justice, and teaching on active anti-racism.

“We need to form this foundation with others in our industry,” Dudas said. “The Pet Sustainability Coalition alone cannot massively shift diversity, equity and inclusion without participation of our other trade associations, all of the companies and all of the individuals in this industry as well, and we have a lot of work to do.”

Bauer explained in her opening statements of the presentation that there is data behind how diversity, equity and inclusion can benefit companies, in more ways than one.

“Leading consulting and research firm McKinsey recently came out with a study that showed that companies that have racial and ethnic diversity perform in the top quarter versus their national industry average,” Bauer said. “[Another study] shows that having women in leadership has a direct business value.”

Following a heartening statement from Bauer, three pet industry women joined her on a panel to discuss how they used the 30 Days, 1,000 Actions program to challenge themselves and their coworkers on this topic. The panel included Lindsey Smith, supervisor of customer experience for Open Farm; Dianna Townsand, demand forecasting manager at Nature’s Variety; and Alison Potts, chief sales officer for Stella & Chewy’s.

“Recognizing it is the first step,” Smith said. “I think all of us as brands have a huge responsibility to use our voices and our platforms to reflect the progress that we want to see. Our consumers expect it, as they really should.”

The 30-day challenge resulted in more than 6,300 actions from pet industry professionals across numerous sectors and companies, significantly surpassing PSC’s goal of 1,000 actions. Throughout September 472 pet professionals participated, representing 49 businesses across the industry.

“There’s not one ‘magic wand’ here, for certain, but I do think taking bits and pieces and snippets and actions makes us all better and a better environment to work in,” Potts said during the panel.

According to an interactive poll taken during the presentations, 58% of Impact Unleashed participants who tuned into the presentation also participated in the challenge modules.

“It starts with a discussion,” Townsand said. “At Instinct, we started with a quick discussion about what we wanted as a company and then established a diversity working group to get the ball rolling… Little things go a long way, and it’s those little changes that make a huge difference.”


Wrapping up 2020

While this year’s event was markedly different than previous Impact Unleashed experiences, an interactive experience, forums and presentations that were both inspiring and mobilizing left participants with more connections and ideas on how to improve environmental and social sustainability across the industry as we enter 2021.

“I hope, ultimately, that this has been an uplifting way to end 2020,” Dudas said in her statement closing out the event. “I know it has been a really hard year for so many people, myself included, and so I am so happy and honored to be able to bring all of this content, all of these incredible leaders from inside our own industry, but also in other industries, and bring it to the table for you and for all of our industry, to come together and rise to the challenge, not only of 2020, but for years to come.

“[Inspiration] moves us into a place of possibility,” she continued, “and I hope over the last two days you have heard from speakers that made you realize all the possibilities for each of us individually, for our companies and for all of us as we begin to work together on this journey.”

Read more about pet food and treat industry events.