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Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Roundtable: Sustainability


Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
Manufacturers, distributors and retailers do whatever they can—within financial reason—to reduce the environmental effects of their products and business practices.

Sustainability, or the capacity to endure, is gaining ground in the pet industry as customers demand more environmentally friendly products and as retailers answer the call. Natural Pet Product Merchandiser invited a manufacturer, a distributor and two pet store owners to talk about sustainability.

Panelists

Moderators

Dena Tucker, owner of Greenfeather Bird Supply Ken Niedziela, editor of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
Christine Mallar, co-owner of Green Dog Pet Supply
Donna F. Walker, co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash Sherri L. Collins, editor of Pet Products News International
Spencer Williams, president of West Paw Design
NPPM: What does sustainability means to your company?
 
Spencer Williams: At West Paw Design, we have long believed in sustainability as a three-legged stool. We think about the people as one leg. We want to have people who work for the company and succeed in their jobs. Second, we want to make sure our products minimize their impact on the environment and the supply chain. And finally, all things have to be sustainable from a financial perspective. If all of the business operations are running profitably and successfully, then the people and the environment will benefit.

Dena Tucker: Sustainability is very important to me. I make sure the wood I use in my bird toys comes from areas being replanted and managed, preferably in the U.S. so it’s not traveling as far to get to me. I’m very conscious even down to the paper that goes into my products—if it’s bleached, unbleached, recycled.

Christine Mallar: About seven years ago, we tried to figure out whether we could open a green pet supply store. We made a list of the categories our products would have to fall into: Things made from recycled materials; things made from organic ingredients; things made from sustainable sources; things that are extra durable; and things that are locally made. Not only is it a good idea to support local businesses and keep money in your community, but it reduces the emissions and the fuel consumption needed to transfer products from one place to another. And in the design of our store, everything on the sales floor that people can see or anything that a product is in or on is made from recycled materials, reclaimed things. We don’t use traditional store fixtures.

Donna Walker: Being a retailer, we have to balance salability with consciousness and idealism. We do a lot of research. The staff is very knowledgeable about where our products are from and what it takes to get them. We have a constant balancing act about how to fill our store with products that are good for animals, that we can get for an extended period and that our clients can actually afford to buy.

Dena Tucker
Dena Tucker is the owner of Greenfeather Bird Supply, a West Hartford, Conn., manufacturer and distributor of bird toys. She graduated in 1980 from College of the Atlantic with a bachelor’s degree in human ecology and later began breeding Amazons and Brotogeris parakeets.
Tucker: I do research to find products to work with. As an example, birds love to shred playing cards. But my fear was that cards coming from China most likely had a formaldehyde or toxic plastic because they were used for a specific trade. It took me a while to find a line of cards that are eco-friendly, with vegetable inks and a starch-based coating.

NPPM: Do you use plastic bags?

Tucker: I found a line of biodegradable bags made in the U.S. If an item that I’m working with comes in a plastic bag, it goes out to the store in it. The same thing with boxes; they get reused.
 
Walker: We don’t use plastic bags at all in our store. We used to give out canvas bags with purchases. Now we use paper bags or just help the client carry the products to the car. Even the poop bags we sell are biodegradable.

Mallar: We give away canvas bags for certain purchase amounts or if somebody has a new puppy. People who bring their bags are entered into a monthly drawing for a $10 gift certificate. And we encourage our customers to bring clean bags, plastic or paper, that we can reuse for our customers. We also have a plant-based plastic bag that is petroleum-free and made locally. So when people don’t bring bags or we don’t have recycled bags on hand, we have that one.

Walker: A lot of manufacturers—Natural Balance, Nature’s Variety—provide us with canvas bags and things like that with their logos and names on it.

NPPM: What makes West Paw’s products sustainable.

Williams: Our product lines are grouped mainly around toys for dogs and cats, bedding and a small line of apparel. In the toy area, we have a major line of injection-molded toys that are made from plastic and are fully recyclable. We will take back any toy that’s chewed up and replace it for free. It’s on all of our Zogoflex toys, which are manufactured by us in Montana. We also have plush toys for dogs and cats. Some of the plush fabrics are conventional and some are 100 percent recycled content.

Our flat mats and stuffed beds have recycled content in their fiber fill, and many have 100 percent recycled content on the outers. We also use conventional cottons and organic cottons in our stuffed bedding line.
 

Christine Mallar
Christine Mallar was a zookeeper for 12 years and spent two more years training dogs before she and her husband, Mike, opened Green Dog Pet Supply in 2004 in Portland, Ore. In 2010 they moved the store, which specializes in environmentally friendly products, to a larger location in the same neighborhood.
Our apparel comes in natural fibers and cotton—100 percent of the cotton in our Reknitz line is sourced from table scrap cuttings. We also have a synthetic raincoat line made from 100 percent postconsumer plastic.

NPPM: What kinds of products does Greenfeather Bird Supply offer and what makes them sustainable?

Tucker: A lot of my bird toys are natural, forest-managed, collected. I’ve been using a lot of naturally fallen pine cones collected in the U.S. I use organic sunflower heads grown in the U.S. Even the wooden spoons I use come from managed forests. Where the milling is done and where the trees are grown is within a 50-mile distance.

The paper products I work with are all from recycled paper. And I try to use all U.S.-made plastic chain so it’s less of an impact on the environment as far as getting to me.

NPPM: Do eco-friendly products cost more?

Mallar: In some cases they do and in some cases they don’t. For example, a disposable flea comb is cheap, but it may break easy, making it a very transitory sort of product. So we have a metal flea comb that will last forever. And if you don’t need it anymore, you’re more likely to give it to your neighbor, so that becomes an issue of value as opposed to price. So people respond better if they understand that spending $6.95 once is better than $1 every time they need a new flea comb that is broken or lost.

It’s important for us to have products that we feel are within price ranges reasonable for our market but also durable enough or interesting enough that it doesn’t just appeal to a narrow subset of people.

On the other side, I get a lot of things made locally, so I save all sorts of shipping costs and on middlemen. I’m supporting a lot of little businesses that give me products unique in the market, too. One of the big challenges is there isn’t a sustainable alternative for every product that people are looking for.

Walker: People today are buying with a consciousness, and so they spend more but buy less. It’s always a balance between what the retailer can sell, what the retailer wants to stock and what we want to do as humans on the planet.

Donna Walker
Donna F. Walker is co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash, a self-service dog wash, pet store and training center in San Diego. She is a registered veterinary technician and earned a degree in animal health technology. She also co-developed South Bark’s Blueberry Facial and other private label items sold at retail and wholesale.
Tucker: Sometimes the parts I work with will cost a little bit more, but I know that what I’m doing is the right thing. The stores that buy my products understand what I’m doing. They have customers who are going to say, “Oh, those toys are way too expensive.” But then the customers go home and they see why there is a difference. Perhaps they have a toy marketed for a large bird that has maybe 40 playing cards made for Las Vegas. It has a thin wire that the bird snaps in three seconds. The toy is then on the bottom of the cage and the bird has pooped all over it. If they had spent a little bit more, their bird would still have the product to play with.

Williams: West Paw Design’s products might cost more on account of the materials we use, but we also address all our business affairs in a very reasonable and responsible, sustainable way. And that includes how we treat the employees, the building, the packaging, the shipping processes. So when you ask, “Is a product more expensive because it’s manufactured sustainably?” I would say generally yes, it is. And that’s because it is not founded on the premise that cheaper is better, both in terms of price or the environment or people.
 
NPPM: What are the toughest challenges you’re facing?

Mallar: A big challenge is that the demand for product is not necessarily just from a green consumer. People want things that are cute. People want things that are accessible price-wise. And sometimes it’s a frustration that there aren’t as many things available to us. There aren’t enough things in the world that fit purely and 100 percent into our mission.
 
There are many things we won’t carry. We try really hard to provide things that don’t have a ton of packaging. And if there’s a ton of plastic packaging, we try to influence the manufacturer to reduce the amount. We’ve been successful with some smaller ones.

Walker: We have to provide products that work for what they’re designed and that work for what we need them to do, but also will not harm the planet. So it is a balance. We can’t carry all green products. We can’t carry everything that is completely good for the environment. But the magic really happens when we can offer a product that makes the client feel good and does what it’s supposed to do. That’s what we all strive for as retailers.

Tucker: I have to do what is right for me mentally and work with the paper rope that is unbleached, isn’t toxic, doesn’t have toxic glues. Not every store is going to carry the products I produce, nor do I want every store to carry them either because they then become a mass market item instead of something that people go in and say, “Wow, I have to come here to get that.”

Spencer Williams
Spencer Williams is president and owner of West Paw Design, a Bozeman, Mont., manufacturer of eco-friendly pet products. He has a degree in German studies from Middlebury College in Vermont and sits on the board of directors for the Seattle-based Trade Task Group.
Williams: Our greatest challenge going forward is differentiation. And I think it affects manufacturers as well as it does retailers. As a manufacturer, we’re struggling to always be transparent and upfront in our customers’ minds and make sure that although we’re not 100 percent green or 100 percent perfect, we’re striving for improvement every day.
 
We look toward a future of having products that are often backed by a third-party certification. We use Oeko-Tex to certify many of our products so people believe not only what we say but that there is some credibility that differentiates us from our competition. We want our business to be able to grow with the foundational relationship we have with our suppliers and our customers.

Mallar: I want to reinforce that we are a very green store with very green products, but there’s nothing really perfect out there. I don’t want that to discourage other retailers from not keeping sustainability in mind, because it’s not about whether we’re making the customer feel nice about what they’re buying. It’s that the threats to our air and water and other resources are very real.

All retailers can make small changes in their buying practices—just being conscious of things like packaging or trying to find things that they can sell in bulk or not carrying things that are meant to be disposable and finding more permanent products that can replace them. Also, consider toxicity issues and the origins of rare things, and just give feedback to manufacturers about how their products could be a little more sustainable.

And be vigilant to things like green washing when products look all natural but, in reality, the only thing that is useful and sustainable is the recyclable cardboard, which is a lot. I see it a lot. So be educated and think about what products you’re willing to bring in and how they affect all of us and our resources. 

 

Editor’s Note: The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This roundtable discussion originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.

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