Lockdown brings labels into the light

11 January 2021

Consumer interest in product labelling has grown sharply in recent years, particularly when it comes to the food and beverage market. Producers are required to include more health-related information, as well as highlighting allergens and showing whether a product is suitable for certain types of diet – whether vegan, vegetarian on gluten-free. As consumers spend more time poring over labels, Jim Banks speaks to CCL about the impact on labelling companies.

Some effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been very obvious, while others have been more subtle. Every industry has had to deal with disrupted supply lines and, crucially, changes in consumer behaviour. While the major issues emerging from the pandemic, not least the effectiveness of various responses to a major public health crisis, will affect the short term, it is essential to look at some of the less obvious long-term impacts on many industries.

When it comes to the packaging industry, the pandemic is likely to build on an already growing trend among consumers which sees them taking more time to look at the information provided on food and beverage labels. The frequent updating of food labelling standards across the world is a clear reflection of this trend, which has built up momentum due to the growing focus on health and nutrition, as well as the growing number of people adopting specific diets, not lease vegetarianism and veganism.

During periods of lockdown implemented in many parts of the world in response to the first wave of Covid-19, consumers had more time to consider what they were putting in their bodies by way of nutrition, as well as having a more intense focus than ever on maintaining their health. A subtle yet noticeable consequence is that the information provided on food product labels has become more closely scrutinised and has greater weight in purchasing decisions.

In the past, it was enough to provide some basic information about salts, sugars and fats. Now, regulators and consumers alike have driven food manufacturers to provide much more in-depth information. This may include how much activity would be needed to burn off the product, how well a product in with the new vegan and plant-based diets, what potential allergens a food may contain, and much more.

Essentially, the label and the information it provides is an increasingly important means of communication between food producers and their customers. A label can influence purchasing choices. It can also be part of how a producer positions itself in the market. It is no longer an add-on or an afterthought but is instead a vital component in the overall packaging concept. That said, the label is not taking up more space, even though it has to contain more information.

“We get the designs from the big brands,” says Marika Knorr, Head of Sustainability and Communications at CCL, which is one of the world’s largest labelling companies. “The thing we can say, is that we have not noticed the labels getting bigger due to the required information. Rather the design of the label is altered to be able to fit all the information.”

A key part of the packaging cycle

Along with the increasing relevance of labels in the minds of consumers, there is another impact. As purchasers put more emphasis on the sustainability of packaging when making decisions at the shelf, so the sustainability of labels and their production methods becomes an essential consideration for companies such as CCL and the food producers with which they work.

“Sustainability is very important,” says Knorr. “We would even say it is one of the top three concerns that consumers have when shopping for their food – alongside quality and taste of the goods. We also think that the sustainability topic will become even more important in the future and will be one of the top decision-making criteria.”

Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and what is contains. So, too, they want to know how packaging and labels are made and how they are treated once they have been used.

“Although a label seems to be a small detail, it is very important for the recyclability of the overall product,” says Knorr. “Our labels and sleeve decoration solutions support ‘’Design for Recycling’. Those are guidelines that show brands how a packaging has to be designed to be recyclable at the end-of-life stage.”

In fact, sustainability has been key focus for labelling companies, just as it has been for packaging suppliers. CCL has created a number of new design ideas to fulfil its goal of producing labels that are more easily recyclable.

One example is its WashOff labels, which are used on returnable glass bottles. As a pioneer of pressure-sensitive labels, the company created the labels to be more resilient to humidity when in use, but at end-of-life to be removable in a way that reduces the overall consumption of energy, water and chemicals.

“They easily detach from the bottle during the washing process at a certain temperature,” Knorr explains. “They are constructed in a certain way so that the adhesive and the ink stays on the label and does not contaminate the washing bath for an ideal outcome of the process.”

The aim of this labelling solution is to meet the needs of a specific market segment in terms of providing food labels that can provide more and clearer information, while meeting producers’ goals in terms of sustainability, cost-efficiency and time-to-market.

“Our WashOff label for returnable glass bottles, say in the beer industry, especially in Germany have an excellent performance regarding sustainability,” Knorr notes. “They easily detach from the bottle at a certain temperature in the washing basin while the ink and adhesive remain on the label. There is no contamination of the washing water and no chemical ingredient necessary to wash off the label.”

“The bottles are then washed and start a new life,” she adds. “Compared to wet glue labels, there is no water necessary to glue the labels onto the bottle, so there also is water saving

here. As you skip the extra step of applying the glue onto the bottle, there is greater efficiency and, in the end, a quicker time-to-market for the breweries.”

Similarly, the company’s EcoFloat is a sustainable sleeve material that is designed to help its clients meet their recycling targets. It comprises a clear polyolefin film material specifically developed for PET bottle-to-bottle recycling.

“With EcoFloat we have engineered a shrink sleeve decoration that is a low-density polyolefin material,” Knorr remarks. “When the sleeve gets ground up together with the PET bottle, the two different materials separate in the sink/float process. The heavier PET flakes sink to the ground of the basin while the polyolefin flakes of the sleeve float on the top and can be sorted into a different recycling stream. This makes sure that the quality of the PET flakes is very high, which enables PET bottle-to-bottle recycling, therefore closing the loop.”

Such work is a sign of the commitment of the labelling industry to sustainability. CCL’s commitment is shown by its recent moves to sign the The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to support a more circular economy, and to join ELIPSO to collaborate on the recyclability of packaging in France.

Keeping customers, suppliers and regulators happy

One feature of all supply chains that has been exposed to many consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic is the reliance on short lead times in virtually every industry. While this has been cause for them to be concerned about the potential vulnerability of supply chains in many sectors, in the food sector it has been less of a surprise. After all, consumable products expected to move rapidly through the chain from production to consumption.

Nevertheless, the food and beverage sector is keen to improve the speed of the supply chain, with packaging and labelling seen as key stages where gains can be made. The need for shorter lead times puts great pressure on packaging companies. Similarly, food producers are under pressure from regulators around the world, with more information about ingredients needed.

Since 2016, for instance, The European Union has required the vast majority of pre-packed foods to bear a nutrition declaration, providing the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt that they contain. Furthermore, there are stipulations that this information be presented in a legible tabular format, space permitting, or in linear format.

Balancing cost, speed, sustainability and regulatory compliance is never an easy task, but the changing attitudes of customer do provide more impetus for labelling companies to innovate and for food producers to view labels as a more important feature in the packaging design.

Food labels should no longer be seen as an afterthought – part of the necessary regime of compliance - but as a means for customers engagement.

“Due to the ever-growing megatrends urbanisation and globalisation, people increasingly shop in similar environments,” says Knorr. “So, to stand out on the supermarket shelf, the packaging design is becoming more and more important. Differentiation is key and one way to achieve this is with standout labels and sleeves. While it might be very difficult to change the form or look of your package, it is very easy to alter the label design to make it look more attractive and unique.”

A sign that the message customer engagement is getting through to producers and packaging companies is the growing tendency to use labelling as a means of accessing more information online, sometimes through scanning a QR or barcode with a mobile device.

“This is a trend that we feel is widely known and is becoming bigger and bigger,” remarks Knorr. “Especially barcodes are used to learn more about specifics of the product, such as healthy vs. unhealthy ingredients and sustainable packaging for example. We feel that this is the first step to connected or interactive packaging.”

“It’s a new age of packaging where consumers can interact and immerse themselves in the storytelling of brands through Connected Packaging,” she adds. “We have already done some projects with customers from the dairy industry featuring games for kids and a water brand. To promote the new fruity Sparkles range the product’s packaging was equipped with a special feature - by pointing your smartphone at the bottle it transforms into a slot machine before your eyes.”

Customers want more information on food labels, regulators will undoubtedly compel producers to provide more detail, too. Labelling companies also face pressure to provide more sustainable solutions, while enabling shorter time-to-market and lower costs. There is pressure from all sides.

Fortunately, the will to innovate and the willingness to collaborate with partners in the supply chain is strong among the leading players in the labelling space. Ultimately, that will produce solutions that regulators, consumers and food producers will find satisfying.

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