The Future of Superpremium Cat Litter Is Planet-Friendly
One of pet owners’ least-loved products is a marketer’s darling. No cat owner I know enjoys hauling or scooping poop, but there’s little choice—a necessity that makes litter the top-selling pet product category, despite minimal usage by dogs.
During 2016, cat litter racked up U.S. retail sales of $2.7 billion and accounted for 17 percent of retail channel pet product sales. For materials suppliers and marketers, the category is also reliable. So much of the bentonite and Fuller’s earth clay mined in the U.S. is used for cat litter that the market is credited with helping Wyoming, which produces 90 percent of the bentonite used in the U.S., survive the oil and gas slump of the past several years, when fewer companies were in need of the material for use as drilling mud.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2017 Mineral Commodity Summary, the U.S. produced 3.8 million tons of bentonite in 2016, with 38 percent—a still-growing percentage—devoted to “pet waste absorbents.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that all that drilling, topped off by the disposal of used litter, is taking a toll on the environment. Not only is the mining process destructive, but more than 8 million pounds of clay per year ends up in landfills and does not decompose.
This is, of course, not new news. For many years, the negative environmental impact of clay litter has been a rallying cry for marketers of natural and alternative litters. Still, it appears the word has yet to get too far out. Packaged Facts’ February/March 2017 National Pet Owners Survey shows that while 59 percent of cat owners are concerned about the environmental impact of their pet’s waste, the greatest share of those concerned (52 percent) view the plastic bags used to pick up waste as the biggest offender, followed by 36 percent who cite the waste itself. Only 8 percent of cat owners view the litter as the greatest environmental concern, a figure that suggests a surprising level of ignorance as to litter’s impacts related to mining and disposal.
Or maybe it’s willful ignorance. According to Packaged Facts’ September 2017 National Pet Owners Survey, 20 percent of cat litter purchasers have purchased pine, wheat, corn or recycled paper litter at some point, but among these, 77 percent have decided to stop using these natural litters. Reasons cited for discontinuing use include odor, mess, difficulty in scooping and cost—the most prevalent reason was that the cat didn’t like or would not use the litter. Even more than pet owners, marketers (and miners) of clay litter have billions of dollars and reasons to not change course, so the turning point will almost certainly also involve dollars and cents.
By almost any measure, the cat litter market is mature, with most cat owners already using the product and relatively few new cat households coming into the fold each year. At the same time, the market lacks the constant flow of superpremium products that helps to drive up dollar sales in categories such as pet food. Superpremium innovations such as Lucy Pet Products’ Cats Incredible health-focused ammonia-control formula promises to give the market a needed boost. But longer term, the biggest superpremium boom of all will come from cat litter judged by better-educated consumers to be at once fully effective and planet-friendly.
David Lummis is the lead pet-market analyst for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, which recently published Pet Treats & Chews in the U.S., 2nd Edition. The survey data cited here are from pet owner surveys conducted by Packaged Facts in 2017.