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Labels - Sustainability is the key

Bringing together brand owners, producers and suppliers of short run labels, our latest  Packaging Solutions round table event looked at the convergence of productivity and sustainability in today’s labels market.

As always, our latest round table was a huge source of information and inspiration, developing not only the  topic of productivity and sustainability in labels, but also highlighting surrounding topics and showing not only that the labels market is one of dynamism, but also the sheer breadth and creativity of the work that is being done today.

Participants for this round table spanned a number of disciplines from small to medium artisan businesses, right up to mega-brands. It also included input from those who are producing, designing, printing and converting labels, and those who are supplying to  this market.

In this exciting sector, European digital label press installations overtook conventional press sales for the first time in 2017, and  this is an area that not only adds value through personalisation  and clever techniques but brings benefits of speed of time to market, less waste, and more flexibility.

Supported by Epson, the latest of our round table discussions opened up the conversation to digital labels and the convergence of productivity and sustainability, as well as the importance of creativity within this market.

The Big Issue

No matter what you do today, the biggest issue by far, and the  one that is most talked about, is the environment – no matter  what your business. It has engaged the senses of consumers,  been focused on by the international media, talked about in government circles, and is something of which brands simply have to take notice. Importantly, the ‘environment’ influences everything we do in labels and packaging. But, we wanted to break that down a little further and find out exactly what the ‘environment’ meant  to different people and where this was affecting them in business. Was it simply a matter of reducing waste and working to higher sustainability standards, or are there other influences that help to cut our impacts? Is the environment something that helps enhance productivity or hinders it? Are there other factors to be taken into consideration? And indeed, as a manufacturing process, the production of labels has to cause some sort of environmental impact, so how can this be minimised?

From the label buying brands, we also wanted to find out just how much sustainability matters when it comes to buying decisions and was it really impacting on those decisions. Where did the green influence start and stop? Was it a matter of cost? Was it to justify the brand in the eye of the consumer? Was there an element of doing the right thing for the right reasons? Or was it simply to not fall behind the competition?

Tamara Thomas, who is a packaging and supply chain consultant who has worked with many of the biggest brands in the UK, said that with these sorts of organisations ‘it simply has to be about sustainability today. The biggest discussions used to be about cost, but sustainability is being demanded by consumers, so brands have to be sustainability led.’

Simon Smith of CS Labels explained that digital is helping his company to save on environmental impact. He said, ‘Digital is a great way of ensuring that we manufacture to requirement, rather than using a huge amount of stock to get the volume. So, you avoid a lot of the waste. And, digital is good when changes have  to be made quickly.

‘Our technology includes inks and toners with no solvents, and the toners are manufactured using recyclable energy. So there are small wins we can talk to customers about. As a company we have zero to landfill and have moved into a purpose built premises that is AA rated for energy efficiency.’

He gave some interesting insight, when he continued, ‘Unfortunately, there are still technical challenges and a lack of knowledge when it comes to sustainability, and a lot of the problem is that many of the green solutions that are available are not yet really commercially viable.

‘So, we have to fall back on what we are doing as a company using the technology we have, updating our premises, and the waste collection procedures that we have, in order to minimise our impact upon the environment. ‘Certainly, over the next two years or so we are going to have to spend an increasing amount of time re-educating our customers on sustainability as to what is achievable as there are some unrealistic expectations within the marketplace as to what small businesses can do.’ 

Simon explained that although there were new materials that could be sourced that were ‘environmentally friendly’ it was often the case that there were quality issues and the commercial price was too high – the premium is sometimes up to 50%. He said, ‘We can’t convince small business customers to absorb that cost, and sometimes the quality can be poor with these materials. But, these are just the first steps in the change and there will be progress.’

Simon explained that the environment was definitely something that customers were talking about and they were asking questions of their suppliers.

He said, ‘We talk to a number of large marketing departments who are asking these sustainability questions. They foresee that some 30% of their labels need to be on a recyclable material over the next two to three years.’

Recycling isn't just about putting it in the right bin

Simon went on to say, ‘We can offer a 100% recyclable PE, but it  is a huge education process. You have to know what is post consumer waste, what is pre-consumer waste. Recycling is a real challenge for businesses, and the way we collect waste in the UK  is significantly behind many other countries. 

‘Plastic can actually be a very good product, but we need to know how to dispose of it responsibly.

‘For us, sustainability is a big challenge as we want to help our customers with their own environmental footprints, but we need  to come up with a solution that is a) workable and b) actually saves the environment.

‘We get lots of brands asking us to print on a compostable material, but it is not that simple. You have to help them under-stand where that is going to decompose. It will have to go into the ground somewhere, and it will do what it says it will do, but it will create an enormous amount of CO2 while it does that, and there will be other elements such as adhesives and inks that might decompose at a different rate to the material.’

‘You can’t just throw it in the back of your garden, these materials have to go to an industrial facility and there are very few of those around.

‘To simply say ‘we will supply a compostable material’ is not good enough, you have to think about the whole cycle. This really is a question of educating the customer and the consumer and  how we can support them to make the right decisions.’

Ian Russell of Codeway agreed, saying: ‘Recycling currently is  a real problem. It is not just the labels and packaging that is a problem either, it is the printing equipment itself. We are just not set up to handle recycling properly.’

The UK is simply not equipped to cope with the waste streams that we create. According to the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the voice for the UK’s resource and waste management industry, the capacity gap for the disposal of this waste is such that some six million tonnes of UK waste will be without a home by 2030.

Boosting recycling rates above the waste industry’s expected range of 50 to 55% is likely to cost at least £1.5 billion and will require significant government intervention to support markets for recycled materials.

According to Defra statistics, it estimated that the UK generated 37.9 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste (last figures: 2017) of which more than 15 million tonnes goes to landfill – this does not include household waste.

The issue of waste is clearly a huge problem, and something of which we must all be aware.

Simon went on to explain that many brands are still buying labels in bulk and may order three to six months worth to be printed at one time, the bulk of which remained on the shelf and then became obsolete, meaning that they become waste and need to be disposed of. Simon said, ‘The waste can be enormous.’ By using in-house digital print technology, this waste can be cut dramatically, because brands are printing what they need.

Tamara Thomas said that the problem was that recycling information on labels could be very confusing and complex. She commented, ‘Labelling in general is not easy for consumers to under-stand, especially when it comes to recycling. There are so many mixed messages, so many different logos, that people just become too confused.’

A changing market

Ian Russell of Codeway raised the issue that labels have to be applied to something. The label was the not whole problem, but the product on which it comes. Any sustainability decisions had to encompass the whole of the packaging supply chain, which led on to a wider discussion.

In Epson’s case, the packaging and materials on which its products are made are designed with sustainability in mind, so every component, including the label, can be recycled.  

Amongst the brand guests at the round table, it was interesting to hear how they were currently sourcing labels and packaging and how things were changing.

Jorge Figueira of Pasante Healthcare explained that his company outsourced the production of labels, but tended to buy in from other countries, rather than source in the UK. This was influenced by where the actual products were produced, so labels tended to be sourced from the same country as the product and packaging.

Whilst Ellen Tomlinson of JubyLee Bakes explained that as a small artisan business, her company tended to outsource production of the main labels on the products, but ingredient’s labels, which can change frequently, are produced in-house.

Although the labels and most of the packaging currently used by JubyLee Bakes is recyclable, Ellen said that as the company grows, she would like to learn more about how to make the packaging even more sustainable – and to make it ‘obvious’ to customers that it was environmentally friendly.

Because of the short run and changing nature of the labels market, Ellen was asked if she would prefer to fully produce the labels in-house, but she cited cost of equipment and quality as barriers, saying: ‘I think I would struggle, with the sorts of budgets that we have, to get equipment that would produce the quality that I get from outsourced labels.’

Although this was Ellen’s initial impression, she later said that investing in hardware to produce her labels was something she was very keen to do. 

There are tax benefits in small businesses investing in IT hardware to be more autonomous. Purchasing tooling for outsourced label production had no financial benefit. It is a bottom line cost to the business.

Steve Gibbons of ERS explained that there are options available, and the guests were able to see examples of digitally printed labels produced with Epson technology which were of extremely high quality. He said, ‘A large number of the customers that we deal with, especially with Epson equipment, are smaller companies who have historically had to buy 10,000 labels, pay for those and keep them on the shelf. 

‘With new legislation and regulations coming through, which mean label changes and updates are needed with allergens and ingredients having to be listed, we are finding these sorts of customers are buying a printer to produce labels themselves.

‘Many of those customers will ask about the recyclability of the materials, but as soon as you start talking ‘price’ they lose interest in sustainability.’

Steve explained that this seemed a typical trend – especially with SME brands.

He was then asked about ease of use and design of labels, as many of these small brand customers who are new label producers, have no design or print background. He said, ‘A typical customer may already have some artwork designed, and a logo, which just needs importing, but the packages we supply give a full solution  to produce a high quality label. It is not just about selling a printer, but about the whole package – printer, materials, inks, and software to make life easy – and we will jump in with support to help customers.’

More clever labels

The conversation then moved on to the need for more colour on a label.

Olushola Elugbaiye of Luxuria Botanicals explained that although there were many brands moving to colour, she had made the decision to keep her labels black and white, which lends a clean, minimalist and stylish approach to the brand, reflecting the natural ingredients of her products.

Yet, whilst many labels have tended to carry black and white, there is a growing trend towards using more colourful labels as shelf stand out in a crowded market becomes increasingly important.

Ian Russell also made a good point when he said, ‘Companies like Epson are helping brands move labels with variable data from black and white to colour, but it can be difficult for users to go from one to the other – making sure that they get the colours right.’

‘If people want to produce labels in-house they need it to be easy,’ he said.

It isn’t just colour that is becoming more popular either. Sophisticated personalisation, smart labels, applications through augmented reality, and more, are driving ever more intelligent labels.

Steve Gibbons went on to outline a clever case study that he knew of regarding the digital printing of personalised champagne bottle labels actually in-store, but he said that although a lot of work was undertaken to ensure that the project ran correctly, ‘the sustainability issue couldn’t have been further from the mind of the brand’.

It was interesting to note that our brand guests knew very little about clever applications such as augmented reality (AR), and they were interested to hear more about intelligent labels.

Ellen Tomlinson explained, ‘This is not something we have really come across before’, initiating a discussion about the many opportunities for label providers to help customers understand just what is achievable in today’s market and how they can add value for brands through interactive labels.

Dayle Guy said, ‘These are very powerful tools and some of the big brands have been experimenting with this for a number of years. They are a real differentiator. Dynamic and personalised labels are where the value comes in.’

If you are running much shorter runs of labels, it is important that they can also do more. Clever labels are not just about gimmicks. Rich content, interaction, personalisation, are great, but intelligent labels allow you to gather information on the consumer and what and why they buy. More than this, they also engender loyalty and help consumers to have a perceived ‘one to one’ link with the brand, which also helps e-commerce companies to have a closer link with their customers, as there can often be a disconnect with these types of business.

Saving Time

Craig Hamilton of Natures Creations CBD Ltd explained that  his company has just invested in a digital printer to bring label printing in-house. He said, ‘This helps to speed things up in our label production.

‘We don’t need to print thousands of labels – especially for those products that are still being tested. Initially, we would just get our commercial printer who does other work for us, to also print a few labels. This, however, was costing more per label and we were having to apply the labels ourselves from a flat sheet.

‘Now, we have the colour label printer it really speeds things up and we can print exactly what we need. There is no minimum or maximum order and we don’t waste as many labels. And, the machine is easy enough to be run by our existing staff.’

Digital really helps brands to get products to market more quickly, and to speed up the development of new applications by making prototyping much easier.

Simon Smith explained that over the years he has seen some big changes in the way brands are bringing products to market. He referenced one customer who used to have a seasonal design which would only update a few times a year – and then it was a reprint of a similar design. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘the designs have a  shelf life of less than six weeks and they often change completely. The season used to be six months, that is now cut to less than six weeks, and so the label has to be designed and manufactured within two weeks. Digital print enables us to meet the customer’s expectations.

‘It also helps at the proofing stage, as brands go to their customers and they don’t just want one design, but maybe six or seven options – bespoke to their customer’s range – that they can offer as a choice.’

He added that his company also works a lot in the beverage market and he said, ‘Sometimes there is as much thought and energy put into creating the label as goes into producing the product, as it is the label that makes the product stand out.

‘It is about using digital technology and things like foiling to really add value. Digital enables us to react quickly, bring down lead times and turnaround designs for new products speedily.’

Buying an experience

The quality of colour labels that can be produced by Epson printers is now so good that it means label manufacturers have to specialise and focus on adding more packaging value – brands want greater variable content which can’t be delivered by bulk printing presses.

Consumers too are demanding greater variation and personalisation in the products they order and how they look and  are labelled. 

On-demand colour label printers are supporting the consumer demand for the next delivered bespoke product. 

Both Simon Smith and Craig Hamilton then referenced case studies of how intelligent and beautiful labelling can actually add this value and cited times where a standard product has been enhanced simply by clever packaging and labelling, and where brands have been able to charge double, treble and more just because the label is enhanced.

Simon said, ‘Millennials are looking to buy an experience. They can be anti-brand. They are looking for something different. ‘For brands, it is about how they engage and interact with their customers, it is about how they get over their brand message. It is about finding a unique way to develop a brand – and the label tells that story.’

‘People are prepared to buy a brand and pay a premium for it if they think it is unique and bespoke,’ he added.

Tamara Thomas also pointed out that as well as looking good, labels had a huge role to play in informing the consumer. She said, ‘The most important thing is that the key information is clear and understandable.’

This is something that has been highlighted in the media recently with a number of problems associated with products and their ingredients that are not labelled correctly.

Digital print allows smaller brands to change ingredients or the make up of their products, yet be flexible enough to change their labels as is needed. In today’s market, especially with foods and consumables, a product that is wrongly labelled simply cannot go on the shelf.

Jorge Figueira said that changes in the market lead to real problems when you work, as his company does, on an international level. He said, ‘It is key for us to make sure that our labels comply with regulations. And, very often these regulations are different in every country.

‘We may have to include medical information, ingredients, instructions, logos and more and it has to be of a certain size.

‘We have to be very flexible in our labels, as we have to update them as legislation changes. This is especially important in the  our market.’

The brands owners were all in agreement that this could be a complex problem.

Craig Hamilton added, ‘It is very difficult especially if the product itself is very small. You have to have all the information there, and it has to be legible, but the front still needs to look appealing.’

Ellen Tomlinson agreed that fitting everything on to a label could be challenging.

Simon Smith said that this was a trend he was seeing with good growth in the market. ‘We are not just printing a single label anymore, we are printing multi-labels for the same product, so  that all the information can be included. This is an enormous opportunity, as each layer is different, so if a product is sold in different countries, the languages have to be different.’

Ian Russell added, ‘One of the hidden issues for many large brands is the time to coordinate the many different elements and key information that needs to go on a label. For a small start up it is a great opportunity to digitise that from the beginning.’

Who makes the buying decision?

As technology and the market changes, so too does the requirement for print buying. 

Traditionally, brands would have a ‘buyer’ who was the main contact when it came to sourcing packaging and labels. It would be he, or she, who would specify the amount, sign off the design and decide who would print what – either outsourced to a print partner, or in-house.

Today, it is more of a ‘committee’ process with a number of different elements within a company coming together to work towards the final choice of design, print and label.

Dayle Guy said that it very much depending on the size of the buying organisation. 

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, in the UK, some 99.9% of businesses fall into the SME sector (small to medium enterprises. According to government statistics this means any business with fewer than 250 employees. There were 5.9 million SMEs in the UK in 2019. The sector also includes micro-businesses which have up to nine employees. There were 5.6 million micro- businesses in the UK in 2019).

Many of these businesses can be considered ‘artisan’ brands who have much time, care and energy vested in their products, and they tend to take the same amount of care with their packaging and labelling – for them ‘brand’ is so important, so making the decision about how and what to develop is often a discussion held between many departments or people within that organisation.

Charlotte Nickless of Easyfairs said that at the Packaging Innovations shows, which her company organises, there is a diverse range of people trying to find answers about labels. She said, ‘We get everyone from CEOs of small companies to managing directors of larger brands, sustainability managers, to packaging technologists, to procurement specialists. It really is a broad range of people.’

The Essentials of a good label

If you could produce ‘the’ perfect label, what would be the main elements that were essential?

‘Definitely legibility,’ said Tamara Thomas. ‘You need to be easily able to see the information and understand the label.’

Olushola Elugbaiye said that for her business, labels needed to attract the eye.

‘They need to be stylish and classy. They can be simple, but they need to reflect the characteristics of the product.’

She continued, ‘My products are natural and organic. They are plant based and appeal to the senses. That is the message I want to put across, so the labels need to reflect that. The labels need to tell the story of the product.’

It was agreed that this sensory side was so important. It wasn’t just the look of the label but also its tactile properties.

Simon Smith said, ‘They also have to engage the customer and differentiate the product. It is about creating a demand in the marketplace and enhancing brand value.’

A label may be a just small part of a product, but it is actually very complex to get it right, and what is expected of the label differs in almost every case. What is demanded of them can be complicated.

Yet if you do get it right, you can develop real return on investment, differentiate in a crowded market, add margin to print and entice shoppers to choose the right product – all through getting clever with your labels. 

Participants in the labels round table

Jorge Figueira, Pasante Healthcare

Simon Smith, CS Labels

Ellen Tomlinson, JubyLee Bakes

Olushola Elugbaiye, Luxuria Botanicals

Craig Hamilton, Natures Creations CBD Ltd

Tamara Thomas, packaging and supply chain consultant

Steve Gibbons, ERS

Ian Russell, Codeway

Charlotte Nickless, Packaging Innovations / Easyfairs

Alex Dibb, Orange Door Agency

Dayle Guy, Epson

Charlie de la Haye, Epson

David Gamage, Packaging Solutions

Susan Wright, Packaging Solutions

Environmental Services Association (ESA) -

Pasante Healthcare -

Natures Creations CBD Ltd -

Federation of Small Businesses -

Orange Door Agency -

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