Sustainability in the Label Industry

By Jack Kenny | January 14, 2011

Narrow web converters are slowly but steadily incorporating environmental controls into their operations.

A recent discussion on LinkedIn, the online business networking site, shed a strong light on one significant topic that the label industry is wrestling with today: figuring out what a green label is. The question, posted by Michael Hadsell, a regional sales manager for Kopco Graphics, read: "Building an environmentally friendly label – what is the best way to achieve this?"

There was no shortage of answers from the printing and packaging community. But probably the most revealing response came from Lori Campbell at The Label Printers (see page 60). "One of our biggest challenges in this area is understanding the customer expectations when they say 'environmentally friendly'. We have found that some want a label that can be recycled, others want a label composed of recycled materials. Others have wanted the label's carbon footprint defined. Hopefully your customer can tell you their definition so you can begin working from that."

Jeff Salisbury of Label Impressions added this: "Adhesive is the toughest part of the equation. Most adhesives simply are either not eco-friendly or they hinder the ability to recycle, compost or biodegrade the facestock. Only a plant based adhesive will do here. We've also coated face stocks with a plant based adhesive, but those exhibit too much 'ooze' and don't perform well at all."

Brand marketers, it is apparent from this and other discussions, are not certain what makes a package green, but they want to try something. Label converters, willing to work with customers to help them achieve their goals, are faced with challenges, some not yet surmountable. The search for sustainability in the label industry is in its early stages, but all signs point to progress.

Group efforts
An organization was formed recently in the commercial printing sector to address the issue of environmental print. Called the Environmentally Friendly Printing Association (EFPA), it is designed to be a green certification body for environmentally conscious printers as well as a marketing and education association for the industry. Launched by a Wisconsin printer, it is a certification program utilizing self-audits.

The packaging sector, and the label industry within that larger group, is way ahead of EFPA. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has a strong membership in the community and has as its goal "a more robust environmental vision for packaging." One of the projects of the SPC is Labeling for Recovery, which addresses confusion in the consumer marketplace about the recyclability of packaging. The group has found that people recognize recycling symbols, but tend to have "the erroneous impression that a package can be recycled everywhere." The aim of the SPC labeling project is to "improve the transparency, reliability and completeness of recyclability claims."

One group that is focused on printers in general from an industrial perspective is the Sustainable Green Partnership (SGP), formed a couple of years ago by a group of industry associations: Printing Industries of America, the Flexographic Technical Association, the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, and the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers.

SGP's mission is to promote the reduction of environmental impact and increase social responsibility in the graphic communications industry. Printers can get certified by SGP by meeting a set of criteria to establish performance standards. The organization encourages printers to employ materials derived from renewable resources or with low environmental impact; encourage the adoption of changes within the supply chain by recommending the use of raw materials that do not threaten or harm future generations, and educate the customer and ultimate consumer regarding the benefits of good environmental packaging practices.

TLMI, the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute, had appointed a task force a few years ago to explore a green certification program. It happened that the task force's work was taking place at the same time as the SGP was emerging, and TLMI considered joining the larger group. In the end it decided to establish its own certification program based on the particular circumstances of the label converter. Thus was born the LIFE program (Label Initiative For the Environment), which now has 20 certified companies among the institutes membership, both converters and suppliers.

The LIFE program involves the completion of metrics set forth in a scorecard available from TLMI. The scorecard is organized into four categories with 34 metrics: clean production techniques, energy and greenhouse gases, product design, and management practices. The company seeking certification first conducts a self-audit, then sets plans for improvement in the various measured areas. When work is completed and results submitted to TLMI, a formal audit by an outside firm takes place. Successful completion of the audit results in certification. Companies can then use the certification to market themselves to customers as a company recognized for sound environmental practices.

The certification is assigned to an individual plant, not to a company as a whole or to individual products.
The LIFE program is tailored to the needs of label converters and flexible packaging producers, and is based on ISO 14001 standards and principles. The program has been well received in the marketplace so far, and is a topic of discussion for possible adoption by label associations elsewhere in the world.
"I'm very encouraged," says John McDermott, president of Label World and head of the LIFE subcommittee. "We have 20 locations certified now, and another 20 in process in one form or another. They represent a significant list of the premier companies in the industry: small, medium and large. The program is starting to get good traction. Relative to where other organizations are in the print world, we are doing very well."

In early December 2010, John McDermott, Calvin Frost (chairman of TLMI's Environmental Committee) and TLMI Chairman Art Yerecic paid a visit to Walmart in Arkansas to make a presentation about LIFE.
"Walmart has divided into 13 sustainable value units," says McDermott. "We spoke to the packaging group, which has about 300 organizations including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, the US Environmental Protection Agency, an the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. There were about 200 in attendance, and we were one of eight or nine speakers.

"We talked about LIFE and what we're doing about packaging, and what it can do for them. Since then we have had a number of people ask us to participate. We are fully engaged with the group, and they are taking our program seriously. We explained that LIFE is a tool to drive your sustainability program. We challenged them and said here's the tool. Ask your label suppliers if they're using this tool, and if not, why not. If so, ask to see the scorecard."

Armed with LIFE certification, a label converter can present sustainable credentials to a customer or potential customer, one who just might be leaning in that direction. It's not a topic that comes up every day, yet certified members report some successes.

"We're just starting the marketing process," says McDermott, whose company is located in Rochester, NY, USA. "We had a large bid package that I participated in last spring, a big company. Part of the bid package asked if we are LIFE certified. We said yes, of course, but we did not get the job.

"A small number of companies inquire about sustainable efforts, but it's growing. We had a large health and beauty customer prospect, and we had been trying for several years to get an audience. We got one months ago. It turns out that the customer's hot button was sustainability, and she was excited by our efforts. After our meeting she gave us an opportunity to come to an annual vendor summit for current suppliers, even though we were a prospect. We made a pitch to various buyers in several departments, and they loved our sustainable ideas along with other innovations we discussed. Everything had to be in place, but without that element I don't think we would have had that opportunity."

What label converters are learning about LIFE certification is that it provides more than the ability to market environmental awareness to the customer. Internal changes to the plant and the workforce performance can contribute positively to the bottom line. Leslie Gurland, president of LogoTech, Fairfield, NJ, USA, has learned that first-hand.

"If you look at everything involved – the financial impact, the environmental impact, the impact on sales and marketing – it becomes a large picture. When we started on our environmental program we came at LIFE and ISO as a marketing tool. It was only afterward that we realized that it could help us with our profitability.

"Today we have cut our waste. We are really managing our waste: We're returning pallets, which we never did, and we now have a compactor, which we didn't have. We are now ordering raw materials in 55 gallon drums rather than small containers, so there is less waste and improvement in production."
Initially the groundwork costs money, but LogoTech received grants from the state, "so it didn't cost us anything. If you're big enough, you have the staff to do this. There is state money out there, and it's easier to find than to get money from the bank. We invested in X amount of new equipment, and banks did not give us the money."

At Label World, McDermott sees a similar impact on costs. "It is contributing to our bottom line now in terms of cost reduction," he says. "It's about the elimination of waste, which is an extension of Lean Manufacturing. We have changed the plant lighting. We switched from water from a traditional 150 gallon tank that was heated all the time to an instant on-demand hot water heater. We have invested in several projects like that. Now we are seeing it affect the top line – that's the most powerful because it aligns us with customers who believe in us also."

Label World also offsets its energy with wind power, through the purchase of wind credits. And the plant is a zero-to-landfill facility; material waste is collected from a Buffalo, NY, operation that incinerates it.
As with the implementation of Lean Manufacturing, the process of adjusting a company's focus on environmental issues requires the involvement of all people who work there. And it sometimes involves retooling of attitude and behavior.

"Our associates appreciate what we are doing, for the community, for their children and the company," says McDermott. "It gives a boost to morale and engagement."

"It means a lot of training of all workers," says Gurland. "Management tested all workers every week for months. We would spot-check people for their knowledge and understanding, including myself. We tried to make it more interesting rather than dry. We had stickers around, and created a memory game; it's not easy to remember this stuff.

"It has kicked in for some people. You have to perform reviews. For example, we were ISO 14000 certified in April of last year, and we had a re-audit in November and found where our weaknesses were. It is a process of constant education and re-education. You can't let it go."

Supplier involvement
The pursuit of sustainability cannot proceed in our industry without the full attention of the suppliers, particularly those who provide materials, adhesives, inks, and other consumables. For the most part, these companies are stepping up to the plate with new products and assistance for converters. In some cases, they are pursuing environmental concerns with gusto.

"Some suppliers don't know as much as we do. Others do," says Gurland. "Here's an example. We made a presentation to a company whose owner is really into environmental issues. We called Wausau Coated Products, and they told us that they have the material and the adhesive that would be right for this label. Will the customer go for it? I don't know, but I have a supplier who hustled for me."

McDermott tells a similar story. "Suppliers are critical. When we were bidding in an auction on a 2 billion square inch job, we made them a sustainability proposal outside of the auction. We said we would shift from bleached liner to unbleached kraft liner. The energy required to make unbleached kraft liner is significantly lower and more environmentally benign, but the demand in this country for unbleached kraft liner is so low we had to go to our supplier and get their commitment to provide it. They took a bit on the chin and so did we. We got the job. The customer is very happy to be able to make all these environmental claims."

Materials suppliers such as UPM Raflatac, Avery Dennison and Wausau Coated Products are ahead of the curve when it comes to knowledge of sustainability and development of products to support it. They have materials with recycled content, recyclable compatible adhesives and thinner release liners. They have teams of people devoted to R&D and to working with customers.

"We started this journey in 2007, looking at more sustainable materials," says Danny Wong, director of corporate sustainability for Avery Dennison. "We looked at whether we could find materials with greater recycle content, more renewable content. What we found was that for paper we could increase recyclable content, post-consumer waste. We could lessen the environmental footprint. Responsible papers reduce the impact on the environment."

In 2009, Avery Dennison introduced Greenprint, a service that enables complex life-cycle-analysis results to be translated into a user-friendly snapshot of a product's environmental impact in different stages of its lifecycle. It covers impact categories such as global warming potential, energy use, solid waste generation, and fossil fuel and water depletion.

"We are trying to provoke the Greenprint discussion a little further, to use as a common language," says Jon Maley, global VP of marketing, raw materials, at Avery Dennison. "If you use a particular decoration you can enable recycling of a container, and know the impact of all these together on the environment. So here's the information we can present to the consumer, so that they can make informed choices. The label is one small part of that; the container is a system, and all the parts have to work together."

"The focus is on innovation and sustainability," says Laura Cummings, sustainability and environmental manager at UPM Raflatac, Mills River, NC, USA. "Sustainability is the vision of the future, coming down from our parent company."

"The question we hear the most from our customers is how to make their labels greener," Cummings says. "We have developed products that respond to that need, such as our RafEco product line, which continues to expand. These products offer recycled content, chain of custody certification, and recyclable compatible adhesives. The liner is thinner, at 0.92 mil, and it's made of recyclable PET."

Among the end users, the significant push for sustainability is coming from the larger companies, Cummings observes. "We are seeing that some of the big brand owners, such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever – and Walmart on the retail side – are trending that way. So far it's coming from the big companies."

Progress toward the recyclability of the entire package – label and all – still has a way to go, but Cummings says that paper has made the biggest strides. "If it's a paper product, people will consider it greener if it has recyclable content in it. With paper, the package can be designed so that the whole thing is recyclable."

Plastic is different, she says. "At this stage of the game the infrastructure we need to recycle all the packaging is just not there. We are working on it, waiting for the infrastructure to evolve."

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