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Your brand is likely facing immense pressure to step up your sustainability game. Not only do major retailers have imminent sustainability requirements for their suppliers, but investors have a heightened focus on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures of the companies in their portfolios and 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. This isn’t a book. It’s a quick “how-to” manual for brands looking for actionable steps they can take today to switch to more sustainable labels. I’ll first detail why sustainability is important, and then I’ll address how to overcome five common obstacles to sustainable labelling initiatives.
With decisions about your brand, all roads lead back to the customer. 34% of baby boomers, 46% of Gen Xers and 75% 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 …
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.
Brands have many motivations for postponing sustainable packaging and labelling initiatives:
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.
In terms of sustainability, the real impact of the label focuses on things like responsible sourcing, recycle-friendly, compostable, lightweighted or recycled-content.
And each of those subcategories tells a very different story about your label and your brand:
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.
For example, let’s say you’re dead set on compostable labels. And yes, it might seem like the perfect solution for your brand … until you realise most of your customers don’t have access to kerbside compost pickup.
If that’s the case, the compostable packages you worked so hard to design might end up in a landfill anyway. While compostable packaging development could have a benefit down the road, a simple ‘first step’ to enhance package sustainability could be to shift to a lightweight label material, or consider a recycle-friendly solution.
How to get started today:
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.
Narrowing in on labels, there’s a wealth of options when it comes to recycle-friendly label materials. One such option would be film or paper labels with CleanFlake adhesive technology. Designed for use on PET containers, this strong adhesive stays firmly in place throughout the product lifecycle, and then fully separates from the PET surface (without leaving behind residue) during the recycling process.
How to get started today:
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% of North American consumers are concerned with packaging waste, according to a Nielsen survey.
And consumers are increasingly taking that concern to the checkout counter:
Soon, sustainable packaging will no longer be a differentiator. It’ll simply be the price of entry.
How to get started today:
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.
Here are some questions to ask your label supplier:
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:
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, only after evaluating your current label specs, help you and your team narrow in on the right solution for your brand.