People around the world are worrying about their carbon footprint, but what about their furry friends' carbon pawprints?, Guy Pearse from the University of Queensland asks.
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The Conversation
1 Oct 2012 - 2:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

By Guy Pearse, University of Queensland

People around the world are worrying about their carbon footprint. But what about their furry friends' carbon pawprints?

Consider the numbers: there are currently around 1 billion pet cats and dogs worldwide (not to mention hundreds of millions of stray ones), and pet ownership rates are vastly higher in western countries. About 40% of US households own at least one dog, compared with about 6% of Chinese homes.

However, the gap is closing fast, as the number of pets and the demand for food and other goodies in developing countries spiral. In India, dog ownership is growing annually at double digit rates, while in Vietnam and Thailand, the number of dog owners increased by around 50% between 2004 and 2007.

The ecological consequences of pets are significant when you consider the land needed to produce the energy and resources required for a large dog are equivalent to that of a four-wheel drive Land Rover; a medium dog is equivalent­ to a VW Golf. Or so say Brenda and Robert Vale, authors of the provocatively titled Time to Eat the Dog. Among many reason­able observations they note that we face real problems “when everyone starts to have a big car, big house, big family and a big dog”. They also note that many pets in the west have larger ecological­ footprints than humans in some developing countries.

The rising affluence of pets is becoming a problem. Joe Nicora

So, while the rising population of pets is significant enough, the rising affluence of pets is also important. The range of products and services hitting the market and encouraging pet owners to humanise their pets is staggering. There are dog houses with reverse-cycle air conditioning, some with flat screen TVs, and there are DVDs specifically catering to the tastes of different animals. From pet treadmills to electric blankets, a spiralling number of online stores and big box pet warehouses are selling aspirational pets an energy-intensive good life.

As pet owners decide that “what's good for me is good for my pet”, they are creating a large, powerful and emissions-laden industry. In the United States alone, pet care is currently a $50 billion industry, having almost doubled in a decade. It is a microcosm­ of the same problem occurring with humans as developing countries become more affluent.

At the heart of the decadence is the trend towards “luxury” pet food, and the biggest beneficiaries are the four corporations that dominate the booming pet care industry and control 80% of its largest component – the global pet food market.

With pet faeces reportedly making up 4% of waste to landfill in some cities, clearly a great deal of pet food is being made. The food itself requires hundreds of millions of tonnes of meat and grain, as well as vast amounts of energy, most of it drawn from fossil fuels. It then has to be tinned, bagged and transported to all points of the planet.

Who are the companies encouraging us to humanise our pets with their luxury pet food? Surprising as it sounds, think chocolate, toothpaste and cleaning­ products: the largest pet food manufacturers are Nestlé, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Colgate. Each of these companies would like us to believe that their booming pet care businesses are climate-friendly, but it's mostly spin behind the earnest-sounding pitches.

Let's look at one of these companies: Mars – which makes Pedigree and Whiskas. Their stated mission is to “make a difference for people and the planet through our performance”, which indicates a strong emphasis on saving the environment.

Huge amounts of energy and resources go into feeding our pets. N0fX/Flickr

There are well-promoted but isolated examples of the company using green power to make its pet food, such as wind turbines in Yorkshire adjacent to a Mars pet care factory. Mars says it has the “first sustainable pet food manufacturing facility in the world”. The company points to emissions cuts due to a host of energy efficiency, recycling and packaging improvements, and its website features pictures of solar panels being installed at Mars Chocolate headquarters in New Jersey.

The company says its operations generate around 15 million tonnes of greenhouse pollution, about 4% less than in 2007.

It has much grander plans for the future: a “Sustainable in a Generation (SiG) program”. The company says it is “committed to achieving zero fossil fuel energy use and zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2040”. The distant timeline may be squint-inducing, but it sounds impressive enough – until you read the fine print.

The commitment applies only to the company's direct emissions. Most of the Mars carbon footprint lies elsewhere: supply chain emissions make up 87%. The company admits that “sourcing our raw materials leads to greater impacts than our factories and offices” – something many companies­ skate over – and it plans to “develop similarly robust pro­grams for each element of our value chain”. Until it does, however, we are left with a company nonsensically determined to cut its emissions to zero so long as the emissions tied up in producing its rice, beef, meat, dairy, corn, wheat and the rest of the supply chain are excluded.

What is crystal clear is that Mars, Nestlé and the other “Big Pet Care” corporations are expanding into developing countries at a rapid rate, and enthusiastically pushing “luxury” pet food brands intended to “humanize” pets.

We shouldn't exempt pets from our efforts to tackle climate change. Millenium Luxury Coaches

None of this is to suggest that pets are an emissions-intensive extravagance that must be forsaken in the fight against climate change. They are an important and very beneficial part of our lives – on average pet owners have lower blood pressure and fewer mental health issues, spend less time in hospital and ultimately live longer. But we shouldn't exempt pets from our efforts to tackle climate change, and companies that cater to pets shouldn't greenwash the contribution to climate change of the products, services and pet lifestyle they promote.

The American Pet Products Association's publication of 2011 trends in the pet care industry captures the current situation beautifully. The number-one industry trend is “Reducing Your Pet's Carbon PAW print”:

Around the world people are making conscious efforts to help our planet Earth, and the pet industry is no exception. From natural litters to toys, accessories and organic food options, Earth-friendly pet products are sprouting up everywhere.

True enough, but what are the other pet care trends cited by the Association?

Designer shampoos and fashion; hotel accommodation; electric toothbrushes and self-flushing litterboxes; automatic doors and touch-activated toys; toy gyms, spas and massagers; self-warming pet mats; not to mention faux mink coats, hipster lumberjack vests, designer plaid jackets, matching jewelled collar and leash sets…

You can just picture advertisements for these products in the pages of the Pet Airways in-flight magazine, being enjoyed en route from Beijing, Rio or Mumbai, “making the world a better place one pet at a time”.

This is an edited extract from Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams by Guy Pearse, published by Black Inc. today.

Guy Pearse receives funding from UQ for his fellowship.

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