Malt-O-Meal's 'Green' Anti-Box Campaign is Half in the Bag

Malt-O-Meal hasn't made any changes to its packaging. It's always come in big bags. Is that green?

The company thinks so, and has been ragging on cereal boxes with its Bag the Box website (relaunched in April), touting the environmental benefits of selling cereal in just bags.

At the top-most level, yes, putting cereal in just bags compared to bags and boxes has benefits: Not sourcing material from trees, and not using energy and fuel to produce and transport boxes.

But again: Is that green? And is Malt-O-Meal green as a result of this practice?

The answer, as near as I can tell, is a qualified "no." Or "I don't know." Because green or not, Malt-O-Meal is an example of a company that is adding to the already overwhelming cacophony of green stories, by touting the environmental benefits of their products and packaging, without having made a single change.

Semantics is just one of the issues I take with Malt-O-Meal's campaign. They company says it's "saved" 156 million pounds of paperboard and 1.1 billion BTUs of energy since 2001 by using just bags. To be more accurate, they avoided that packaging and energy: If they didn't switch away from boxes, they didn't save anything.

And those energy figures highlight another problem with Malt-O-Meal's announcement: a lack of specificity.

Nowhere does Malt-O-Meal say how much energy or fuel it uses and how many emissions it puts out from the production or shipping of its packaging, making it hard to discern the actual difference between their packaging and paperboard boxes. Then again, we don't know of any other cereal company that's put out such specific figures, but we also haven't seen other cereals make such bold claims about their packaging being better than others'.

One thing Malt-O-Meal also doesn't say is that its bags use more plastic than cereal in boxes, since the bags are thicker and also have a resealable enclosure. That means more petroleum-based plastic. Now, I don't think that extra plastic would be enough to rival the impacts of paperboard boxes, but it's worth noting.

The fact is, Malt-O-Meal has never used boxes. They are a discount brand. Boxes would increase their costs. So it seems disingenuous to twist that into a green act without more accurate facts and figures.

Interestingly, Malt-O-Meal does have a line of cereal called Mom's Best Naturals that comes in boxes. It appears, then, that they're saying their conventional, sugar- and corn syrup-fueled cereal is greener than its slightly more natural brand.

And that leads to yet another quibble I take with Malt-O-Meal's Bag the Box campaign (as well as with other companies who pat themselves a bit too hard on their backs for packaging changes when their ingredients leave something to be desired): Green is about more than what's on the box or bag: What's inside counts just as much. And making cereals from conventional, pesticide- and oil-intensive corn, wheat, sugar and partially hydrogenated oils hardly counts as green or sustainable. But more important than what Malt-O-Meal puts in its bags is what it's sharing with potential customers, and the media. Until they publish more details about their environmental impacts, and set some goals around improving them, this is just a bag half-empty.

Note: Malt-O-Meal has yet to respond to an interview request; I'll update this post with more details if and when they do. And the GreenBiz.com editorial staff is meeting with the Chief Sustainability Officer at General Mills this week, and we'll be sure to ask about their own green-cereal initiatives.

Malt-O-Meal's Marshmallow Meteys - CC license by Amy Loves Yah/Flickr; wallet of cereal - screengrab from BagTheBox.com