2 Lessons from the Bottom of the Cereal Box

by May 18, 2017

We eat a lot of cereal at Shelton Group. (You may have seen the evidence – our business cards are made from the emptied boxes.) My colleagues and I recently noticed a new design element on some of these boxes: a hard-to-find but vastly improved set of recycling labels that provide clear, concise, step-by-step instructions.

The labels are the work of How2Recycle, which dialogues with trade groups, collaborates with packaging makers, and researches consumer needs and wants. They created the first labeling system in the U.S. designed to help consumers more fully and correctly recycle paper, cardboard, metals and plastics.

Here’s one example of How2Recycle labels.

These labels are probably in your kitchen too.

We were delighted to see the label that first time, and now it’s popping up on all sorts of products in our kitchen. That makes sense: adoption of the How2Recycle labels progressed modestly for the first few years, but interest among brand owners began to spike in 2016. Some big names in consumer packaged goods (including General Mills, Kellogg’s, P&G and Unilever) are now using the label, thanks in large part to encouragement from Walmart and Target and to relationships developed with trade organizations.

We also believe the ever-present conversation around the circular economy and concrete efforts that align with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action plan have played a big role in upping the urgency for recycling (and recycling properly).

How2Recycle has a great story about making sustainability accessible and downright easy for consumers. I encourage you to read about that on their website. I would also encourage the brands that use these labels to take this concept to heart. One way to do that: give the label more obvious real estate on packaging than three-quarters of an inch on the bottom of the box where even I have a hard time finding it. Consumers really do care whether your package is easily recyclable, and seeing the label while your box is on the store shelf could be just the thing to sway their purchase decision toward you and away from a competitor with a similar product and price.

The Big Picture

Now, all that said, I’m more intrigued by how this organization’s story fits into the larger context of sustainability.

At the same time that this labeling system has been experiencing significant growth, many municipal recycling facilities (MRFs), municipal governments and brands have been struggling to untangle the economics of recycling or figure out how to achieve zero waste (Boston is one recent example).

How2Recycle’s M.O. is a great example of what I’m calling convergence – companies, industries and different parts of the supply chain coming together to confront a challenge from all angles and create multi-faceted solutions. We’ve plucked all the low-hanging and even mid-level fruit, so convergence is becoming more and more necessary. We can’t just come at a problem through consumer messaging. We also can’t just come at it from the backend of logistics, supply chains and operations.

What can your company do to contribute to challenges from different angles?

Has your organization considered partnerships with trade organizations or nonprofits? How about collaboration across your supply chain? We recently created and launched a new microsite for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Supply Chain Solutions Center, where companies can connect with EDF’s many resources and with their growing network of sustainability-minded experts up and down supply chains. This resource hub is being used by Walmart’s suppliers to help meet the retail giant’s goal of removing a gigaton of GHG emissions by 2030 – which is certainly not a one-dimensional problem to solve.

Now let’s come full circle and think about another angle – how your company engages customers and consumers. How can you make sustainability easier for them – and simultaneously boost your reputation by communicating what you’ve done? As we know from our Pulse studies, consumers want you to use renewable energy and address your waste, especially via recycling or an end-of-life collection program for your product. This could also include updating packaging design to make it more easily recyclable, use less materials, etc. – and that’s a great time to add the How2Recycle label.

Sustainability challenges are never one-dimensional. The more angles we examine, the better solutions we’ll create.

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About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.


  1. Meghan McDonald

    Thanks so much! And thanks for sharing your article, too!

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