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The importance of labels in sustainable packaging

Kevin Frydryk from US-based Resource Label Group gives a step-by-step guide to designing and procuring more sustainable labels for your products.

Kevin Frydryk Resource Label Group

Your brand is likely facing immense pressure to step up your sustainability game:

  • Major retailers like Target, Walmart and Kroger have imminent sustainability requirements for their suppliers.
  • Investors have a heightened focus on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures of the companies in their portfolios. 
  • Customer scrutiny misses nothing. 

While "sustainability" as a strategic initiative encompasses much more than packaging (social, economic and environmental factors must all be considered), packaging is the one touchpoint all consumers, value chain partners, investors and retailers will see. And what they’re looking for isn’t a vague, greenwashed message about how great your packaging is for the environment. 

When I use the term "sustainable packaging", I’m really talking about an umbrella of packaging categories that can be tied to an unambiguous environmental benefit. Lightweighting, recyclability, compostability and other specific ways to reduce the burden of your packaging on the environment. 

Sustainable packaging is a complex topic - entire books have been written on the subject. But this is a quick how-to manual for brands looking for actionable steps they can take today to switch to more sustainable labels.

The cost of not factoring sustainability into packaging and label design

With decisions about your brand, all roads lead back to the customer. 34 per cent of baby boomers, 46 per cent of Generation Xers and 75 per cent of millennials "definitely or probably will change their purchase/consumption habits to reduce [their] impact on the environment", according to research from Nielsen

The trend here is obvious: customers care about sustainability, and the younger the customer, the more they care. As time goes on, the purchasing power and, therefore, leverage of younger generations will only grow. Many large corporations are already implementing strategies to address this - so this is a trend that will eventually affect midsized brands as well. 

As the demand for sustainability picks up steam, there’s an important decision some brands might still need to make: When a retailer, investor or consumer picks up my product, do I want them to see my packaging and labels as a seamless extension of my brand’s commitment to sustainability in all aspects of our business? Or do I want them to see disconnects in how my company talks about sustainability, and how we package and label our products? 

Not deciding is a decision in itself, as your label is the face of your brand in the marketplace. Consumers are already beginning to stop picking up less-than-eco-friendly products. And as the trend continues, nothing is guaranteed in business, not even survival.

Five obstacles to sustainable labeling initiatives - and how to overcome them

Brands have many motivations for postponing sustainable packaging and labeling initiatives:

  1. "I don’t even know where to start. With so many packaging options to choose from, how will I know what’s best for my brand and my sustainability goals?"

  2. "I have a recyclable bottle already. Do I even need to consider the recyclability impact of my label?” 

  3. "Sustainable label materials will be too expensive. To stay at our current price point, we need to stick with what we’re currently using."

  4. "I don’t want to disrupt our value chain. Our current label materials have always arrived on time, and with pressures from retail chains for on-time deliveries, I don’t want to take the risk of switching materials."

  5. "Will I be able to achieve my brand vision with more sustainable materials? I don’t want to sacrifice product differentiation on the shelf."

Let’s go through these obstacles one by one, explaining your options, linking to resources for further research and listing out small things you can do today to build momentum.

1. Want more sustainable labels? Start here. 

In terms of sustainability, the real impact of the label focuses on things like responsible sourcing, recycle-friendly, compostable, lightweighted or recycled content. Each of those subcategories tells a very different story about your label and your brand:

  • Responsibly sourced materials are made from renewable resources and are often certified by an independent third party. For example, facestocks bearing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stamp of approval would fall neatly under this category.
  • Recycle-friendly label materials are engineered to support recycling of the associated container (bottle), and enable improved recovery and recycling through established recycling processes. Label material options have been created to ensure the label does not interfere with recycling of the bottle, and play a key role in ensuring that the quality of recycled plastics is maintained.
  • Compostable labels are designed to break down, along with all other components in your package, in an industrial composting facility. Availability and use of industrial composting, and collection of compostable materials is in the early stages. In many cases composting is only available in selected areas, and specific requirements exist to ensure materials are properly composted.
  • Lightweight, or thin, label materials are designed to use much less material than conventional labels. These materials promise a much smaller carbon footprint: because thinner labels are lighter, less gas is consumed when shipping them. Your label supplier will work with you on how light you can go, as you’ll still need a label that will withstand wear and tear during shipping and product use.
  • Recycled label materials include some established minimum amount of post-consumer waste (consumer waste that is diverted from the landfill stream and recycled). Additionally, it doesn’t just have to be paper or plastic. Some specialised recycled label materials can be made from materials recovered from cottongrapesbarley and other natural materials.

You should begin your sustainable label initiatives by asking yourself, "Which of the above benefits best aligns with my brand’s sustainability story and goals? Which of the above benefits is realistic if I take into account how my product is produced and used?"

When in doubt, let the experts guide you through these questions. They’ve done it for other brands and can help you consider this decision from every angle, and throughout the entire product lifecycle. 

How to get started today

  • Ask yourself, "Which of the above benefits best aligns with my brand’s sustainability story and goals?'
  • Talk to the label experts. Loop in a label converter to determine which sustainable label materials would work best for your product and brand. 
  • Skim through the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guides. You don’t need to commit these rules to memory, but the examples on pages 5-12 of this document should give you a good idea of how the design of your packaging impacts what "green" marketing claims you can (and cannot) make.
  • Consider your packaging design holistically. If the rest of your package isn’t recyclable, choosing a recycle-friendly label material might not be the best choice. But a lightweight label material might be the perfect drop-in solution.

2. If recyclability is your goal, labels play a bigger role than you think

When designing a package for recyclability, labels are often an afterthought. The problem with that type of thinking is this: your bottle and cap could be recyclable, but if your label isn’t compatible with the recycling process, then your packaging won’t get recycled. 

According to label materials supplier Avery Dennison, it’s "estimated that 560 million bottles are wasted in the recycling process every year, largely due to incompatible label materials." That’s a lot of waste. And it’s entirely preventable.

To ensure your entire package is more sustainable, make sure you are upfront and clear with all packaging suppliers (labels, containers, caps, lids, etc.) about your goals. They should be able to make recommendations about how their component could be designed to enhance the recyclability of the packaging system. 

How to get started today

  • Talk to your label converter about material options. They’ll recommend the best label options for sustainability for your product container.  
  • Check out the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ (APR) guide to plastics recyclabilityIf you have a PET container, go ahead and give this label material selection guide from the APR a read as well.  
  • Talk to How2Recycle about joiningIf you’re serious about making your package recyclable, why not pay the nominal joining fee, go through their recyclability assessment and become a member? Then you can prominently feature their recycling instructions on your label, gain more trust from consumers and ensure your packages actually get recycled. 

3. Breaking down the cost of sustainable labels 

With labels, there are two ways to look at costs: (1) How much is each label costing me, and (2) how much value is this label providing my brand. 

Sustainable label materials do, on occasion, cost more than their conventional counterparts. That said, the value they provide in shelf pull, product differentiation and goodwill with consumers can, in some cases, far outweigh the incremental cost increase. 

There’s no silver bullet sustainability solution where you both save the environment and cut your costs in every single situation. That said, savings can be realised on the total cost of the package in many situations. For example, say you lightweight your product container - doing so could provide the cost savings that could in turn be used on a more sustainable label or cap. Savings in one area can help another. 

But it’s important to remember that, regardless of the situation, consumers care deeply about packaging sustainability. 60 per cent of North American consumers are concerned with packaging waste, according to a Nielsen survey

Soon, sustainable packaging will no longer be a differentiator. It’ll simply be the price of entry. 

How to get started today

  • Start today and start small. Not every sustainable packaging solution needs to be game-changing or revolutionary. And sustainability doesn’t have to break the bank. Simply switching to a responsibly sourced, FSC-certified material is a quick, plug-and-play way to enhance the sustainability of your packaging. 
  • Ask your label supplier, "What is the smallest, lowest cost thing I could start doing that would have a noticeable impact on the sustainability of my labels?"

4. Building a sound, sustainable supply chain

Many brands are concerned that switching materials will negatively impact their value chain. And understandably so - they’re under immense pressure to meet their retailer partners’ strict on-time delivery requirements. 

To minimise the risk of your material switch, ask pointed questions when selecting new materials, such as:

  • "What materials have worked well for brands my size?"
  • "Do you have any examples of clients you’ve worked with who have incorporated this material into their supply chain successfully?"
  • "Do you have a stable supply chain established for your sustainable raw materials?"

5. Achieving product differentiation with sustainable label materials  

Sustainability shouldn’t come at the expense of your brand vision. And with so many high-quality sustainable materials flooding the market each year, it doesn’t have to. 

The best way to prove this point isn’t to tell you about all the striking options out there - it’s to show you. Check out the links below to begin exploring all the product-differentiating, sustainable label materials at your fingertips.  

How to get started today

  • Sift through this library of label materials from M_use. Make sure to toggle "sustainability" in the filters. When you find something you like, bring it to your label converter, and they can help you find something that looks similar and will perform well in your product use environment. 
  • Not to sound like a broken record but talk to your label printer. They’ve helped many different brands, with many different preferences and needs, switch to sustainable materials. They can help you, too. 

If you’re looking to switch to a more sustainable label material, talk to your label printer. Make sure they start by discussing your sustainability goals and brand vision and, after only after evaluating your current label specs, help you and your team narrow in on the right solution for your brand. 

15 January 2021