This article was published in the March 2024 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our March digital edition. 

Retailers have received a lot of press in recent years for introducing sustainability initiatives. What is less publicized is how manufacturers are setting sustainability goals for themselves to satisfy their own internal needs. Often, this is driven by a public company’s desire to make an impact, while understanding the evolving landscape of sustainability. ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting is an important path to gaining consumer trust. Consumers are paying attention and the impact on brands is becoming increasingly important. 

In researching sustainability targets for major retailers, we find that goals are encouraged rather than mandated for suppliers. Retailers have shown flexibility as their suppliers strive to reach their own sustainability goals. 

Walmart, for example, set a goal of 100% recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable for the packaging of its private label brands by 2025. Currently, it estimates that 63% of its private label packaging is recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable. Additionally, for private label brand packaging in North America, Walmart aims to have 20% include post-consumer content by 2025, in addition to many other guidelines which can be found on Walmart’s Sustainability page. 

Walmart created Project Gigatron, a sustainability program that encourages suppliers to participate in reducing greenhouse gases by 2030 by setting targets in various areas including energy, waste, packaging, transportation, nature, and product use and design. 

Other retailers are following similar guidelines for their sustainability goals. Target’s goal for 2025 is for its private branded products to reduce the amount of annual total virgin plastics by 20% from its established 2020 baseline, according to Target’s Sustainability Strategy. Kroger strives to achieve 100% recyclable, compostable and/or reusable packaging by 2030, according to Kroger’s Key Performance Data Tables. Meijer’s private-label brands will be 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 and will include at least 20% post-consumer recycled material, according to Meijer’s Sustainability page. 

In surveying pet product retailers, such as Petco and PetSmart, some do have sustainability goals, but they are less specific to packaging. Rather, they pertain to having more sustainable products in their stores. Petco has set a goal to increase its assortment of sustainable products by 50% by the end of 2025. Additionally, Petco has set goals, such as printing in-store signage with more sustainable materials and providing collection bins for plastic bags, according to Petco Sustainability and ESG. 

Cost is a challenge when it comes to implementing sustainable packaging. While recyclable packaging is available, it is often not mainstream, making it difficult to justify the cost increase to products. Additionally, the time needed to qualify the recyclable materials in manufacturing, and evaluate the product life performance, realistically pushes accomplishing these targets to 2025, if not later. 

Packaging suppliers are providing many offerings for recyclable materials, and as we get closer to 2025, companies will begin to transition to these films. However, there is a large issue with ensuring these materials become recycled. A large challenge is consumer access to proper recycling channels. Not all municipalities recycle all types of recyclable materials. Consumers should always check with their municipalities to verify what can be put into the recycling stream. Putting something into the stream that is not recyclable could be detrimental to the municipalities’ recycling process and jeopardizes other recyclable products in the loads.  

For pet food, recyclable film bags need to be cleaned and grease free in order to be recycled, and this could add an understandable hurdle for most consumers. Additionally, the differences in local recycling programs can be confusing to the consumer. How2Recycle is trying to help through its standardized labeling system that provides clear instructions for the consumer on package disposal. However, retailers currently do not require their suppliers to provide a How2Recycle label on packaging.  

Setting sustainability goals for the retailer and manufacturer are encouraging steps moving toward greater sustainability in the pet industry. This coming year is pivotal for retailers and manufacturers as many goals have been set for 2025. In order to meet these 2025 goals, all research, design and changes will need to be in progress in 2024. With these goals in mind, we should start to see the influx of reduce, reuse, recycle coming into the pet food marketplace.

Sustainability partners

040224_Industry Insights_Embedded.jpgSource: Pet Sustainability Coalition

The Pet Sustainability Coalition, started in 2018, strives to unite the pet food industry around sustainable initiatives, including packaging. The coalition’s programs support members on their individual sustainable packaging journeys by providing tools and resources to help companies achieve their goals. In addition, the coalition has developed programs designed to guide members to success.

Flex Forward — A return-to-retail pilot program, which was completed in 2022, collected more than 8,000 lbs of post-consumer packaging for recycling trials. The program shed some light on challenges presented by the current composition of most pet food packaging.

UnPacked — A bi-annual summit dedicated to packaging. The event brings together packaging experts with pet industry brands, manufacturers and retailers to learn about how to approach one of the industry’s biggest challenges.

Packaging Pledge — A voluntary, industrywide commitment to move toward more sustainable, refillable, compostable and recyclable packaging. The pledge asks pet industry companies to develop measurable goals and track progress toward the use of refillable, compostable and recyclable packaging by the end of 2025. In exchange for their commitment, PSC will provide informational tools to help them achieve their goals.

Read more about sustainability efforts across the pet food and treat industry.