BOULDER, COLO. — With a background in corporate sustainability and nonprofit work, Caitlyn Dudas co-founder and executive director of the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC), saw an opportunity to address environmental impact in the pet industry and hit the ground running.
“One of the things I’m most proud about is having built something bigger than me that will continue to be successful, regardless of whether there’s one single figurehead to push the work forward,” Dudas said.
Having entered the pet industry with the launch of Pet Sustainability Coalition, Dudas reflects on challenges faced, accomplishments along the way, and what the organization aims to achieve now and in the future.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Dudas: Actually, I don’t have a background in the pet industry. I find oftentimes people say, “Oh, I have 25+ years in the industry.” I don’t have a long journey in the industry where I’ve jumped through different companies or different roles. My background has really been in the nonprofit and corporate sustainability sectors.
I was working with a company called Natural Capitalism Solutions, which is a nonprofit consulting organization, when I met my co-founder, Chris Bentley. He had hired Natural Capitalism Solutions to build a suite of sustainable business tools specifically for the company, “I and Love and You.” We began working together because I was one of the people supporting that project, and very early on I recognized a much bigger vision around shifting the entire industry toward more sustainable practices. He also was a co-founder of Aspen Pet here in Colorado and has always been really inspired by and passionate about sustainability. With 25 years of experience in the pet industry, he wanted to think about his opportunity as a lever for change. Since he was such a strong influencer and had such a strong background, he considered leaving the industry, but then thought, “Hey, this is where my influence is and, if I want to make change, I should do it right here in this industry.”
I have a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability from Harvard, an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and have had previous experience in the sustainability space. I brought the skill set; Chris brought the vision and the extensive network. And so, together, we looked at the Outdoor Industry Association and the natural food sector and built the concept for the Pet Sustainability Coalition. This space is a CPG industry and sustainability has increased in demand across most CPG industries, so it was a ripe opportunity to bring sustainability tools, recognizing that it was going to be an increasing topic and demand more transparency and corporate action.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Dudas: First of all, I would say this industry was very far behind in terms of sustainable business practices when compared to other CPGs. When we first began talking about sustainability and our mission to help companies measure and improve their social and environmental impact, a lot of convincing was needed to get companies to invest time and money into developing sustainability programs. Being at the forefront of a new frontier for the industry meant developing a common vocabulary, terminology, and focusing a lot at first on education to build the awareness and understanding of what sustainable business practices are, and what the business benefits are. At first, we proved the business case. We presented slide after slide and study after study that showed the ROI – things like increases in productivity, efficiency and cost savings and also improvements in employee engagement, attraction and retention, as well as increased sales, deeper consumer loyalty and reductions in supply chain risk.
Not only was building a common understanding of sustainable business a challenge in the early years, but also we had to build trust within an industry that generally values years of industry experience and corporate success. As a young, progressive woman in the industry, I had to work hard to develop trust by proving membership value, exhibiting resilience, and ultimately harnessing the influence of longstanding leaders and companies to build a much louder and credible voice than my own.
This industry has been so successful without having to be super innovative. There are amazing, progressive brands that have the creative and marketing aspects that attract younger entrepreneurs, but it wasn’t the easiest space to break into. I feel very fortunate to have two things that really helped with that. One was my co-founder, who had a very established and strong network within the industry and truly believed in me. In times of doubt, he has been a personal champion of mine and has helped me fight through some of that adversity by using his industry network in ways that I couldn’t. I don’t think I could have been successful without him.
I think the other piece that was helpful for me was having a set of founders at the beginning. We started with eight founding member companies, and they all individually became co-leaders of this movement. It wasn’t just, “Have you met Caitlyn? She’s starting this nonprofit,” it was a whole group of us that were really committed to it and who were practicing it, going around at trade shows and talking to people. By partnering with others who had already established reputations in the industry, I was able to overcome some of these challenges.
PFP: How has Pet Sustainability Coalition’s mission and impact evolved over time, and what is top-of-mind for you and the organization right now?
Dudas: I would say the thing that I didn’t expect is the movement that we have created as an organization. At the beginning, our model revolved around providing tools and sustainable business consulting for companies. What we ended up building was this incredible movement of leaders who are as ambitious as we are. Instead of it being an uphill push, the movement is now building momentum and has full traction from year-over year growth. It was unexpected that this enormous following was going to grow through the organization, and that is a delightful but unexpected outcome. It also accelerates our progress because we’re not the only ones working on this day in and day out.
For most of our years, we have really focused on individual companies and how we can move them further down to advance sustainability. I think two very interesting things are beginning to happen. One is that there are issues that are too large for companies to solve on their own, so efforts bringing multiple stakeholders together around the same table to start addressing things like protein sourcing, sustainable packaging and diversity, equity and inclusion are coming to fruition. It’s no longer a closed room with us and a member working through something; it’s really a multi-stakeholder effort to look at some of these big systematic opportunities that we have the privilege to come around and start to solve. The scale of the work that we’re doing is growing, moving beyond individual companies to think about the industry at large. That’s one of our big priorities.
There’s a funding priority that goes along with that too. Today, most of every dollar we bring in is a membership dollar. How do we fundraise on work that takes a decade to complete? A $10,000 membership isn’t going to move the needle. So, we’re thinking about how we can maintain our roots as an organization and really make sure that we’re serving businesses, and also how we can expand on that and have the funding to address these big, long-term issues.
One of the other big pieces we’re seeing shift is retailer engagement in the sustainability movement. For a long time, our biggest area of membership was brands and manufacturers. I think that’s because their primary audience — consumers — started to reflect this demand early on. Then, we had a big increase in supplier members that were suddenly hearing from brands that they wanted this. Now, we’re really seeing a shift on the retail side. For a retailer, about 90% of their impact is in the products that they select and carry. But it can be difficult as a retailer to know how to evaluate sustainability in a way that resonates with their customers, because it means so many different things to so many different people. We’re starting to see an increase in accountability, which means standards development, and a lot of interest from the retail sector for a more simplified vetting process for identifying sustainable versus non-sustainable products and claims. Now we’re asking the question: how can PSC serve as a sounding board and a credible partner to help build those solutions for retailers?
PFP: Share a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Dudas: I have a lot of pride in how this organization has grown over the decade that I’ve been here. One of the things I reflect on is when I go to a trade show, what is the welcoming feeling that I get when I walk through a show? How many member booths do I know at this point? How many people are excited to talk to us and learn about what we’re doing? We have created this really welcoming, fun way to be more purposeful with our work, and I think everybody wants to align their work with purpose, especially through COVID. One of the things I’m most proud about is having built something bigger than me that will continue to be successful, regardless of whether there’s one single figurehead to push the work forward. At the end of the day, one person, or one team cannot push an industry forward, it is the collective action of our members and everyone we influence that will be the measure of PSC’s impact.
Another piece of pride is some of the innovative work that nobody had ever done before. For example, collecting 6,000 pounds of used pet food and treat bags and trying to manage this 300 million-pound problem that’s going to a landfill. I’m driven by impact and opportunities through my position to have measurable impact in a meaningful way, including tangible data that looks at what 8,000 pounds of plastic really means, and how we can use our organization as an engine to create that change.
When we launched the 30 Days and 1,000 Actions Challenge to encourage a more diverse, equitable and inclusive pet industry, I remember talking to myself on my drive home saying, “We’re not going to make 1,000 actions… How are we going to talk to the industry about why no one wants to participate in this?” We ended up with 6,300 actions in those 30 days. That was a moment where we realized all we had to do was create a small, risk-free step to open the door for people to start exploring this really difficult conversation and reality. That was a really meaningful moment.
Also, I now have a team of 10 people. It was just me and my co-founder for a really long time, then it was three, and then, suddenly, it was 10. Having more than doubled our team size, walking into an office where there is a full staff of people who are equally as passionate about this mission, is one of our major accomplishments.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Dudas: I suppose I’m a dog person if I have to pick one. Even within dogs, I’m a large dog person, but I do have an appreciation for cats. I love their friskiness, their attitude and how they don’t care about anything but themselves. I think it’s fascinating. And they’re great snugglers! I had cats after college before I got a dog, but once I got a dog I was hooked.
My dog’s name is Gus. He is an English pointer, an upland bird hunting dog. He spends a lot of time in the office with our team. He’s very well known in these parts as a gentle-natured, loving guy.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Dudas: Find your advocates and really focus on the people who are ready to jump on board with your idea. Oftentimes with sustainability, we get stuck because we think we need to have every brand on board to be significant. You can spend a lot of time, energy and effort on trying to push the people who aren’t ready over the finish line and, if you spend all your energy and effort with those people, it can become a drain on your energy as a person. I think at some point you have to look away and focus on the people who are ready to take action, because you know that you’ll have a missed opportunity if you focus on getting everyone on board.
Change happens over time. I’ve realized this as a mother with two young kids; they like a different food every three weeks. If I stopped trying, then I’m not going to know that suddenly they’re ready for something new and different. It’s important not to focus on the negativity but always come back around. Meet people where they are. When you’re on the frontier pioneering a new idea, it can feel daunting for people who run successful businesses to suddenly find this area in which they’re not an expert yet. Try to simplify what you’re talking about, invite people in and be welcoming, and make every interaction enjoyable. We’re all people. We have more in common than we have differences. Remember that amidst all the times that you cannot see eye-to-eye and focus on the commonality at every opportunity.
The Pet Sustainability Coalition was founded in 2013 and has since partnered with 115 pet industry companies to provide tools, resources and research for advancing sustainability in the areas of operational and product footprint, eco-friendly packaging and protein sourcing practices. Read more about the Pet Sustainability Coalition’s research, programs and events here.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.