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What Does It Take to Be Sustainable, For Real? The Founder of this Pet Food Brand Sweat Every C02 Molecule to Find Out.

Building a truly eco-friendly company is hard, and expensive, but to Shine Pet Food's founder Sandra Bosben, it was worth it.

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This story appears in the July 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Many brands say they want to be sustainable, but sustainability isn't just a button to push. It's a complicated series of decisions and sacrifices — and nobody knows that better than Sandra Bosben, founder and CEO of Shine Pet Food.

Gabriella Marks
Sandra Bosben (right) always weighs Shine’s impact on the earth. Here, with partner and VP Juli Somers and dogs Jack and Izzy.

Bosben never intended to enter the pet business, but she also wasn't planning on getting a puppy the day she pulled into a Starbucks and saw Marty jump out of a truck full of dogs for adoption. "I couldn't not take him," she says. Marty had medical issues, so Bosben consulted experts to make his food by hand. That led her to start Marty's Meals, a pet food business in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which 12 years later has evolved into Shine. It makes fresh, organic, human-grade meals, and aspires to change the pet food industry, because feeding cats and dogs creates the equivalent of 64 million tons of carbon dioxide
in greenhouse gases (like methane) a year, according to UCLA research — about the same impact as driving 13.6 million cars. But cutting her carbon footprint required a lot of work…and cash.

Problem 1: Where are the best farms?

Most of the pet food industry's pollutants come from raising meat. Bosben wanted to minimize that impact — and the solution would affect her entire business model.

First, she wondered: Could she just not serve meat? A handful of pet brands already promote fully vegetarian diets, but Bosben thinks that's risky. "Cats are obligate carnivores," she says, "and per our nutritionists, dogs do best with some meat." Shine will actually bring out a few vegetarian recipes and a sustainable insect protein this year, but Bosben has also pursued a solution for meat.

She studied the ecological impact of raising animals and concluded that industrial farms are one of the greatest producers of methane. Then, she drew up a list of demands for the farms she will work with: They have to graze their animals on open pastures, use regenerative practices that help the environment, and certify their vegetables, grains, beef, chicken, turkey, and duck as organic. That kind of supply chain takes work, and it isn't cheap. "You have to spend a lot of time and resources ensuring that your sources are exactly who and what they say they are," says Bosben.

She ultimately found certified organic farms and ranches that are inspected yearly by agents to ensure their sustainability standards. Using their animals, Shine was able to offer 15 meat-based options. But it came at a cost: Supplies can be 10 times what they'd be from larger farms. That meant Bosben needed to save on margins. "In order to make our food affordable," she says, "we sell direct to our clients to avoid the 40% to 70% retail price markup."

Related: What Is Sustainable Entrepreneurship, and Why Does it Matter?

Image Credit: Gabriella Marks

Problem 2: What's the least-bad packaging?

At first, Bosben sold her pet food in Tupperware containers that could be returned — but people didn't bring them back. So she switched to clear deli containers, but worried it was too much plastic. Next up: ice-cream style cartons, but they leaked — and the food, which is sold frozen, made a mess when thawing. "Vegetarian clients would call and say, 'There is meat blood in my refrigerator,'" she recalls. "They would lose their minds."

Her next option was butcher paper: It was good ecologically, but she struggled to find staff who could wrap it quickly and neatly. So in May 2020, when Marty's Meals rebranded to Shine, Bosben went back to the ice cream cartons, now much improved. They cost more but require fewer employees to pack.

Now she had a new problem, though: She needed labels, and most have adhesive or lamination that makes them unrecyclable. So Bosben found a few eco-friendly options, obsessively researched them all, and chose one made of ground stone… even though it was (again) more expensive. "You start with the most sustainable product you can find and work your way back to what actually works," she says. "Like, we tried compostable bags for our bones. Well, the customer would take them out of the freezer and the bag would shatter. It's an ongoing challenge."

Related: Build Sustainability Around Your People, Not Just Your Office

Image Credit: Gabriella Marks

Problem 3: What's the best shipping method?

When Shine moved to e-commerce, the big question was: Should it ship the food frozen or freeze-dried? Freeze-dried would be lighter, using less energy to transport, but freeze-drying also requires more electricity than freezing does.

Bosben called in professionals to do a life cycle analysis; it's an expensive and labor-intensive process. But it yielded a clear environmental winner: freeze-dried. That meant buying a dryer, which cost $400,000. "It's the biggest investment we've made so far," Bosben says.

Related: How Kate Hudson Cut Through the Noise to Promote Sustainability: 'I'm Frustrated Too, But We're Doing This For a Reason'

Image Credit: Gabriella Marks

Problem 4: Who's worth taking money from?

Shine needs capital to scale, but that can come at a cost: Investors may not approve of the many expensive decisions she's made. "I had to decide: Am I willing to compromise my values for profit? And at the end of the day, I'm just not," Bosben says.

Looking for help elsewhere, she won a manufacturing grant from the City of Santa Fe and fostered local relationships. Now, the city and state are working with a developer to build a LEED-certified facility, up to 30,000 square feet, for her to lease. "Sandy is our poster child for what business expansion could be," says Rich Brown, director of community and economic development for the City of Santa Fe.

Bosben also found a new revenue stream in line with her ethics: She's using her equipment to freeze-dry and co-pack for organic human food companies. "With every decision, you go through this checklist: How can I provide the highest quality, best value, most sustainable product — and still make a profit? But from that flows all kinds of options and opportunities," says Bosben, who loved Marty until he was 16 and now has a new puppy named Shine. "And you get to live your passion. I mean, how much better can it be?"

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