By Helen Mills, Global Vice President, Head of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, Mars Petcare
The rapt attention of the world and its leaders has been squarely on sustainability and the importance of cross-sector collaboration in tackling the climate crisis at last week’s 27th session of the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27) in Egypt.
And sustainability is also front and center in the minds of consumers and business leaders much closer to home. Why? Well, besides protecting the planet and the people (and pets) who depend on it, evidence shows that companies with a stronger focus on sustainability are often more profitable. And more consumers than ever are now considering sustainability in everyday purchasing decisions – with four in ten choosing brands that have environmentally sustainable practices and values.
Balancing sustainability amongst many other competing business priorities and resourcing challenges can be a real issue – especially for small businesses and start-ups – while harnessing innovation and overhauling business practices can be a struggle for larger ones. But it is clear businesses need to keep sustainability strategy front and center to compete.
To unpack the opportunities and challenges, I was pleased to join a closed Roundtable session with my colleague Marika McCauley Sine, Global Vice President Sustainability at Mars Petcare, and more than twenty five founders from the LEAP Ventures program – the world’s first pet care-specific accelerator program – to chat about building sustainable businesses ahead of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (November 19).
Our conversation focused on numerous elements that business leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators are navigating as they seek to build sustainable, future-proofed businesses in the pet care space. The event offered a forum for participants to share their own experiences and perspectives with the aim of helping everyone come away with new insights on tackling some of the biggest sustainability challenges facing entrepreneurs today.
I was very inspired by the people in the room and left feeling very hopeful about the future. These founders represented incredibly diverse pet care businesses, many of which are already fully focused on sustainability, from products such as insect-based pet food to eco-friendly dog beds, leashes and collars, and they joined us from as far away as Japan, Argentina, Mexico, Seattle, New York and Germany. And of the latest cohort, 70% are female and/or from minority ethnic backgrounds.
The conversation was free-flowing and incredibly honest, and I wanted to share a few key insights I took away from our discussion:
Follow the science
At Mars Petcare, everything we do is focused on our Purpose: A Better World for Pets – and a better world is a more sustainable world, for pets, people and for the planet. And we’re driven by data and science. For us, this means having both technical experts who know what works when it comes to sustainability and marketers who help meet consumer needs to drive meaningful impact. For small businesses/start-ups, this is also vital – but getting access to the latest, tailored data and science can be challenging. Increasing access and visibility to science and data for us all will be key in the years ahead.
Keep it simple
Research shows that consumers don’t engage with sustainability messaging that is overcomplicated or full of jargon. They do engage with more down-to-earth messaging in areas like farming, a healthy planet, thriving people and protecting livelihoods. Making tweaks to the language we use can make the difference between whether the sustainability message becomes a competitive advantage and inspires consumer action and engagement on sustainability at scale, or has no real impact.
Sustainability needs progress over perfection
We tend to want things to be fully formed or proven before implementing them. But when it comes to sustainability, the needs are urgent and in many emerging areas, businesses both small and large are building the plane while we’re flying it. Understanding and embracing that entrepreneurial mindset can help drive more experimentation and innovation – and ultimately, progress. And, transparency is key - we can all benefit from sharing lessons learned along the journey with each other.
We must be tempered radicals
When it comes to sustainability in business, we need more tempered radicals - radical enough to drive real, meaningful change but tempered enough to be able to bring people with us and create mutual value. (Credit for this phrase goes to Dr. Susan Goldsworth at IMD, who introduced the concept of the "tempered radical" to us in the IMD program, Leading Sustainable Business Transformation). We must use our positions to drive change.
Creating space to spark innovation and drive new thinking around sustainability through discussions and forums, including COP27 and Roundtables like this, is helping us move the needle, together.
At Mars Petcare, we’re continuing to take action to transform our business to help protect the environment and care for people and pets by engaging with partners and using our influence to drive change at scale. We’re integrating sustainability into the heart of our business, improving our environmental footprint, operating and sourcing responsibly and bringing more innovative, sustainable choices to pet owners around the world.
So, while tackling sustainability can seem overwhelming and even daunting at times, hearing from so many inspiring entrepreneurs in our industry who are tackling these same challenges gives me confidence that we’re all moving in the right direction. Whether big or small, we all have a role to play.