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Film labels: past, present and future

Jasper Zonnenberg, director of films for Avery Dennison’s Label and Graphics Materials Group, looks at the history of – and current trends in - film labels.

Sixty-plus years after their invention, film labels are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take them for granted. Yet their remarkable history is a story of continual innovation – one that has mirrored evolutions in consumer preferences, plastics and the packaging industry itself. It’s a story that is part materials science and part process engineering. And it’s a story made possible not only by flashes of disruptive innovation, but also by ongoing collaboration among virtually all the players in global packaging, from raw materials providers, to converters, to end users. 

Today, innovations in film labels are most often refinements driven by the same imperatives that gave rise to film in the first place – durability and conformability, conversion speed and efficiency, and brand aesthetics – punctuated by the occasional, industry-shifting breakthrough. At the same time, the urgent need for sustainability, and consumers’ desire for corporate transparency, are increasingly influential in how film labels are being made and used. At Avery Dennison, we’ve had a front-row view of film labels’ evolution. Here’s our take on where they’ve been, and where they’re going. 

A brief history 
We introduced film labels in the early 1950s as an alternative to labels made from paper. Film was more water-resistant and durable than paper. However, these PVC-based labels were complicated to produce and apply, requiring oil-based plasticizer to make them conformable, and topcoats and primer to keep the plasticizer from seeping out (and the label from falling off).

Olefin-based filmic labels would solve those problems. Like paper, they were easy to print and die-cut, while still offering the conformability, clarity and moisture-resistance of PVC – perfect for plastic shampoo bottles and other health and personal-care product packaging that gained popularity during the post-WWII boom in consumer goods. Evolution in inks and printing processes also drove the desire for labels that performed differently than paper. 

These new films would be developed during a period of rapid innovation in film labels that began in the late 1980s, as various plastics came down in price and increased in availability. New polyethylene-based films were launched in Europe, while films made from polypropylene were introduced in the US. These new thinner, lighter labels dramatically removed barriers to production and efficiency for converters, while providing a more versatile, eye-catching canvas for brands and label designers in pursuit of differentiation and shelf appeal. 

At Avery Dennison, we experienced a film label ‘renaissance’ of our own between 1990 and the early 2000s, inventing a number of landmark facestocks, liners and adhesives. Among them: machine-direction orientation (MDO) films made with ultra-thin facestock and liners to provide more labels per roll and less material usage; topcoating that enabled greater printability and faster converting speeds; the first ultra-clear adhesive that didn’t whiten when exposed to water; wash-off labels, created to increase glass-bottle recycling; and the introduction of clear-on-clear materials enabling the ‘no label look’. In 1998, we built the first plant dedicated to high-speed films lamination. We also worked with the industry to develop state-of-the-art films slitters and shared our knowledge and experience with customers to help them optimize filmic label converting.

As a result of the innovations and advances in manufacturing, more market segments embraced the advantages of film, particularly food, beer and beverage, and wine and spirits. 

Innovation 
It’s fun to think of innovation as the abrupt invention of something brilliant that storms the marketplace to instant acclaim and success. But that’s rarely how it happens. In an industry as interdependent as packaging, innovation has a ripple effect, affecting everyone in the value chain. That has been especially true with film labels.

At Avery Dennison, we know that inventing any new labeling product means not just developing the materials science behind it, but also engineering how to manufacture it at scale, and then helping converters and brands use it to maximum benefit. Sometimes what that entails is determined by region. In tropical Asia, for example, introducing filmic facestock has meant creating special adhesives that stand up to high temperatures and sticky humidity. Across Latin America, when we began rolling out film labels in the region in the early 2000s, we worked closely with converters to ensure that they could print film labels on their existing equipment. (We had to make sure our own coating lines were up to challenge as well.) We’re always mindful of our invaluable relationships with our partners across the value chain, and never is that more apparent than when we’re bringing a new idea to life. 

Where next? 
Much of the innovation in film is still focused on optimizing production speed and efficiency for users by making facestocks, liners and adhesives thinner, yet stronger and more functional. Though we continue to push the envelope in downgauging, we may be reaching its outer limits, absent dramatic evolution in converting equipment or resin construction. Still, with converters continually pressured to produce faster at less cost – while providing superior shelf appeal – film will continue to be a go-to material. 

Beyond incremental improvements in label and adhesives, trends in film labels are, as ever, driven by innovative brands and shifting consumer preferences. As creators of labeling materials, we aim to anticipate where market segments are going, so that we can be ready with the next new solution.

Among the trends we see currently: 

• Growth in reclosure. How do you make a pressure-sensitive reclosure system that’s both convenient, durable and cost-effective? We’re working to answer that question, not just for food, but also for moist items, like glass-cleaning wipes, sold in flexible packaging. 

• The influence of online shopping. As more people buy online, labels must inspire shoppers to re-order items by offering compelling design durable enough to look as good as they day it was purchased, use after use. Shelf appeal still matters; only now, the shelf is in the consumer’s home. 

An important trend shaping innovation in film labels, and packaging as a whole, is the urgent need for sustainability. When it comes to films, the labeling industry must foster development of cost-effective renewable materials that allow us to move away from petroleum-based resins. Similarly, we must eliminate the millions of tons of label waste produced every year. For our part, Avery Dennison is working to do both as part of meeting our corporate sustainability goals. 

Sustainability is also a significant driver of film label adoption. As shoppers demand transparency about the origins of food and other products, more brands are turning to film as the most functional, aesthetically appealing material for telling their story. 

Six decades on, film is still the right solution for countless applications, and its future is strong. At Avery Dennison, we’re proud to be a pioneer of film’s past as well as its future, working with our customers and partners around the world to expand film’s capabilities, and, every so often, deliver one of the transformative breakthroughs that define film’s history. 

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