How labels, innovation, and the right balance of emotional connections of consumer experiences to brands will turn the tide on plastics

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.  

By Hassan Rmaile

Labels and consumer behavior

I believe product labels can play a powerful role in the global effort to reduce plastics pollution. Why do I believe this? Because of the emotional connection we all have to brands. 

Let me share a couple of my own connections, both rooted in my childhood experiences. 

Cerelac is an instant wheat-and-fruit cereal familiar to many people who grew up in emerging regions outside the U.S. I loved it as a kid, and anytime I see it on a retailer’s shelf, I find myself unconsciously lingering in that aisle. (Pro tip: The serving size listed on the package is for babies, not adults)

Another sentimental favorite of mine is Nestlé condensed milk. It was often the only milk one could get growing up in a war zone in Lebanon in the 1980s, when supply chains were disrupted and there was no electric power or refrigeration. Fast forward, 35 years later, whenever I see that milk on a store shelf, it instantly takes me back to those days, memories and experiences.

A big part of what still draws me to these products is their labels representing the brand, which trigger old, strong emotional connections. The red-and-white Cerelac logo and the blue line drawing of a mother bird feeding her young that adorns the Nestlé can are textbook examples of strong visual branding. We all know that such branding sparks emotional connections, which in turn can shape lifelong buying habits. And labels are where those connections begin. They conduct and amplify the emotional charge that a great visual brand carries. They are the canvas on which brand stories are painted.

Today, plastics recycling can be–must be–part of those stories. The same power that makes me connect with condensed milk branding can also be used to change our collective behavior in relation to plastics. An effectively designed label can nudge consumers to drop their empty plastic packages in a recycling bin. It can provide sorting instructions for workers at recycling centers. It can illustrate the urgency of the plastics problem and help people understand, at a gut level, the negative consequences of too much plastic in the waste stream.

In fact, we are at a moment when pressure-sensitive labels can tell more powerful stories than ever. Thanks to added technology like RFID and NFC, the amount of information labels can now convey is almost infinite, and the depth of emotion they can touch is greater than ever. With the click of a QR code, consumers can instantly have a compelling experience that not only instructs them in how and where to recycle, but also helps them understand–and feel–why it’s critical to do so. Look for more of these kinds of experiences to be available in the near future, as more brands adopt intelligent labels, and as creative agencies find clever ways to maximize their potential for moving people to action.

Of course, injecting emotion into the conversation about plastics can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to conveying the urgency of the problem and encouraging recycling and reuse, emotion is an essential catalyst. But as society grapples with how to best deal with plastics, emotion can be less helpful, especially when it outweighs science,facts and data. 

A knee-jerk condemnation of all plastic as inherently evil isn’t a winning strategy, because the fact is that we have built our society on a foundation of plastic. From medicine to our smartphones to transportation to the global food system and beyond, plastic is everywhere. Even if eliminating it was desirable–and as someone who enjoys fresh food, is invested in electrification, and appreciates the masks protecting our loved ones during the pandemic, I don’t think it is–doing so is not feasible at the moment. Plastic is simply too integral to how we live, and we don’t yet have viable alternatives for entirely replacing it. In packaging, businesses and consumers have to a great extent shifted to plastic containers from those made with paper, metal and glass for practical reasons. And each of those materials comes with steep environmental costs of their own looking at all three scopes of GHG emissions. 

Right now, then, the critical thing is to use plastic responsibly. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose network Avery Dennison is a member of, spells out a reasonable approach in its vision for a new plastics economy: Eliminate the plastics we don’t need; innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment. 

What does that mean for a company that makes label materials applied to millions of plastic packages every day? It means using what we know to create change. We’re taking a clear-eyed look at the plastics issue, identifying how we can make a difference, and taking action, right now. We want our products to help tell powerful recycling stories. We also want them to be part of those stories. 

We start with the science, which tells us in no uncertain terms that the advantages of plastics are currently being outweighed by the increasingly urgent environmental costs. From there, we take a 360-degree, holistic view of sustainability and consider the design, application and afterlife of our label materials and the plastic packages they’re applied to. As we design, we follow eco-design principles, which call for designing with a product’s entire lifecycle in mind, and for making each iteration of a product more sustainable than the last. 

For example, we are substantially increasing the number of products we offer that contain recycled material, or are themselves recyclable or compostable. Our rRange product line, for example, is the industry’s broadest selection of label constructions made with recycled materials, including recycled plastic. We’re also using our position at the nexus of multiple supply chains to help educate the converters, packagers, and brands who use our products, as well as our peer companies, encouraging them to promote circularity in their work. We inform brands about eco-design principles like avoiding colored PET containers, which can’t be recycled. 

When it comes to label application, we’re innovating to increase circularity. Our CleanFlakeTM technology, long a solution for PET Plastic bottles, now works with many kinds of PET packaging, increasing yields of recycled plastic by ensuring that labels and their adhesive detach cleanly during the recycling process. We also offer label materials designed to easily peel off or wash off, to give consumers one less reason not to recycle. And we support monomaterial packaging, which is more likely to be collected and accepted by recyclers, by helping brands match their label materials to the kind of plastic their packages are made of.

To help ensure an afterlife for our plastic materials that keeps them out of the waste stream, we recently launched AD Circular, our digital program that lets companies easily and cost-effectively schedule pickup and recycling of used label liners. With our peer companies, we co-founded CELAB, an industry consortium dedicated to eliminating label waste. And we recently launched our Future of Plastics content hub, where we share our point of view on plastics along with information about our solutions.

We’re not forgetting about the afterlife of the many tons of plastic that have unfortunately already made their way into streams, rivers and oceans. Much of the negative impact that plastic will have on our planet has already been made. So we’re helping to reverse the damage by working with organizations like Ocean Cleanup and Plastic Whale. At the same time, our research and development teams are investigating ways to remove plastic already in the environment and turn it back into useful material or clean energy. Our ultimate aim isn’t to simply reduce plastics pollution going forward–we also want to help regenerate the environment and the resources we’ve lost. 

Design. Application. Afterlife. This is the science-based, big picture approach we’re taking on plastics, and we’re encouraging everyone we work with to do the same. The label materials we invent, and the way we make them, can help accelerate the shift to a more responsible, circular plastics economy. So can our influence in the industry. We’re offering solutions today that keep plastics out of the waste stream and in circulation and leverage the power of labeling to connect with consumers—and we’re innovating fast to do even more.