My open and honest journey of sourcing eco-friendly pet products and a lesson learnt
Part 1: The Illusion, the difficulties with Chinese manufacturers and the successes
As a lifelong dog lover, I was horrified to learn the ugly truth about the pet product industry. Unfortunately, the vast majority of products on the market are made with materials harmful to pets and the environment. This blog post will share my journey toward sourcing eco-friendly pet products for my brand.
First, I would like to emphasise this is a personal experience report. I can not speak to how other companies and brands source their products. All contacts and names of companies have been kept anonymous as some might not be happy about this assessment.
The big why
I'd like to think that I'm a critical-due-diligence-kind of person. I have worked in logistics and supply chains my whole professional life. I also chose sustainability as part of my studies.
As we found out during the pandemic, a supply chain has a lot of complexity. Raw material sourcing and production are primarily black boxes for the consumer. Also, hello shortages! I don't know if you recently tried to get an Xbox or PlayStation 5, but good luck getting your hands on one of these bad boys without a live Twitter alert. Supply chains can be fragile and complex networks.
I love dogs, and I want them to live free of synthetics and microplastics. Children's toys need markings and certificates and need to pass REACH (EU) when imported into the EU or UK, or anywhere worldwide. Why not dog and cat toys/accessories? (Read more about my story about why I founded Hooman's Friend, and you will understand why I took this direction)
When I founded Hooman's Friend a few months ago, I was transparent in my mission statement. If I can avoid plastics and synthetics in pet products, I will. However, I will not jeopardise integrity for profit. My mission statement is like a compass. Before deciding, I align with that compass.
Finding the source
I started with the apparent first address for all sourcing. A big famous Chinese marketplace. It's like eBay for companies. You can get anything on there from, well, mainly China. You can just message manufacturers and factories, and they open the gate to all their treasures.
I get it. You're judging me for my China sourcing idea, and you have every right to be sceptical: However, to be a successful business, you need to be able to scale. China means scalability. Handmade from the warmth of your living room is a niche and brilliant. But to really have a system change in the world, we need scalability in eco-friendly pet products to bring prices down and commercialise them. They need to be the norm and not the exception. Of course, this requires demand from pet parents.
Furthermore, this marketplace will give you a good overview of hot products and inspiring trends, pricing points and minimum order quantities.
My mission compass told me to start with three objectives, so here they are:
1. No synthetic polyester, nylon, or polycotton products whatsoever (How hard could that be?)
2. I wanted natural fibres: Hemp, Jute, Linen, Kapok, ORGANIC Cotton (please underline the organic. "Normal" cotton is natural and biodegradable but full of fertilisers and wasted water which I want to avoid if possible) (Again, how hard could that be?)
3. Certificates (Organic, GOTS, GTS, and so forth). I knew this would be a challenge.
Objectives 1 and 2: Can I have natural products, please?
I didn't want to start with plush toys, as I know they're full of polyester. I have another shocking story of when I tried to source a "UK made plush toy", but that is a story for another blog post.
A dog rope toy was the choice number one. Which dog doesn't love a good round of tug of war? Plus, it can strengthen the bond between you and your dog.
Hemp is a super sustainable material that's strong, eco-friendly and biodegradable. The great thing about hemp? When your pup has had enough of playing with this awesome rope toy, you can simply throw it away without worrying because all traces will be gone! We've got more information on our other blog posts, so check 'em out if you are interested in learning about some additional benefits.
Here are some screenshots of the hemp as mentioned above:
Both are advertised as hemp, but they look different, don’t they? Time for more research.
Photo 1 was “hemp”, and photo 2 was a cotton and polyester mix. A person not doing the due diligence would have missed that and sold product 2 as hemp. Funny enough, I did see on some websites exactly these products advertised as hemp in the UK. I ordered some samples to check the difference. The outside was polyester, whilst the inside was cotton.
A reader with an attention to detail might have also noticed that I added quotation marks above in “hemp”. More about that later.
Once you start contacting factories, you get a lot of messages from other factories. Below is an example where one person wanted to sell dog ropes as a 100% hemp toy.
Again, I had to double check and only got the answer afterwards. Is that a language barrier or deliberate? I didn’t order anything from here.
The following is another prime example of the famous Christmas toy that you can find on the standard e-commerce websites all over the internet.
I have probably another 10 examples of these conversations. Finding out what dyes were used to dye the cotton is even more impossible. It clearly shows who needs to do the due diligence. That is the buyer or the brand.
I questioned more and more about the offered products. And I must admit, I doubted myself. Was what I wanted even possible? How will I ever be able to verify this?
After many other messages, I found the reason for the missing hemp in Chinese products as below:
I couldn’t afford any of these MOQs for my little start up. Eco-friendly just isn’t mainstream. It’s tough to scale. More prominent companies could drive the change. But they won’t unless there is some change in consumer demand. Also, it cuts into their profits. But I wasn’t ready to give up.
A success: Local sourcing
I started looking closer to home. And as successful as you can see on my shop page. The hemp is sourced and grown in the EU. I had no problems getting a GOTS certificate for the colouring on the hemp lead (Hello Objective 3!). All are hand-crafted in the EU. But it just took many hours of research and due diligence. And obviously, sourcing in the EU is not cheap. But the more we scale eco-friendly pet products, the cheaper they will get in future. Someone just needs to make a start.
Chinese hemp vs local hemp
I ordered the 100% “hemp” rope dog toy from China as a sample. See both hemp products from Europe and from China. Excuse the state of the rug. Should have hoovered.
There is a clear difference. I wanted to analyse the Chinese product by a UK company like Intertek to get a better idea of how this was processed and what its actual composition is. (I didn't receive a reply from the manufacturer on how this is processed).
Natural, unprocessed hemp should look like the left photo. There is also a difference in smell. The hemp toy on the left smells earthy and natural. The toy on the right smells a bit like a factory and chemicals. Analysis of product compositions is quite expensive, so I will do it once I can afford it.
In the meantime, the suitable toy will not make the cut for my shop even though it claims to be 100% hemp.
Ultimately, none of the products on this marketplace made the cut for my eco-friendly pet products so far.
Where is the journey going?
Synthetic rubbers, polyester, nylon and polycotton, are an absolute no-no. Even "normal" cotton didn't make the cut so far.
From the 50 plus enquiries I made, I couldn't get any certificates for objective 3. So I was only after organic cotton certificates. By the way, only 0.7% of all cotton used worldwide is organically certified. Tiny.
In the meantime, I haven't given up on my plush toy or plushy companion toy yet. Not all dogs will play with ropes all the time. Sometimes, they just want a companion for cuddles.
Chinese manufacturers now call the filling in plush toys "PP Cotton". Which is basically a polyester filling and has nothing to do with cotton. It just looks and feels like cotton. Don't get me wrong. Polyester and plastics have many advantages, and we wouldn't be where we are today without them. I mean, look around you.
But why all this greenwashing and why so many hoops to jump through? Buyers with little due diligence and profit maximising goals are living the dream. Meanwhile, dogs and cats chew on fossil fuel-based products, ingesting micro plastics and god knows what.
I will write another post on my search for a plush toy from a UK producer that is even more shocking than above. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. What a cliffhanger.
I wish that all pet parents would do their due diligence. However, you can't rely on brands and companies to do it for you. As a pet parent, you are responsible for giving your dogs healthy things to eat, chew on and wear. Your dog can't make the decision for you. Knowing that dogs love you more than they love themselves, and if the roles were reversed: What do you think they would let you wear and eat? Plants or plastic?