Sleeve labels: an all-round picture – Part 1

By Corey M. Reardon, President & CEO, AWA Alexander Watson Associates

Sleeve labels, printed on film substrates, perform their central role of wrapping round the complete perimeter of a product’s plastic or metal packaging in one of two ways – by stretching, or by shrinking to conform precisely to the container’s geometry. Shrink sleeves are applied as a loose tube to the container, and shrink to conform to the package’s sometimes complex geometry when they are exposed to heat as they pass through a special heat tunnel. Stretch sleeves, typically printed on LDPE, are sufficiently elastic that they can be pulled over the product container’s geometry, and will then naturally shrink to a tight fit.



Pressure-sensitive labels (=self-adhesive labels) are leading with 40% as labeling technology, followed by glue applied labels (35%) and sleeve (19%) (Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

Both stretch and shrink sleeve labels are emerging as a desirable form of product labeling due to the 360-degree message branding that helps the product attain high impact presentation on the store shelf. Sleeve labeling continues to be one of the world’s most dynamic label technologies and methods of product decoration, but overall growth is slowing from its earlier heights as the technology moves towards maturity.

As a whole, globally, sleeve labeling today represents the third-largest labeling technology, after pressure-sensitive and traditional glue-applied labels. It claims 19% of global label volumes, and AWA research shows that it will continue to grow at around 5.2% p.a to 2021. The end-use market sectors for sleeve labels are primarily beverage (66%), food (19%), household chemicals (7%), and health and personal care products (5%).


Take a look at the End-Use Segment, sleeve labels are globally used for: the beverage segment is clearly leading with 66%
(Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

Sleeve labelling involves different formats — heat shrink TD, stretch, ROSO™ MD (‘roll-on shrink-on’), and RFS MD sleeving – which in turn serve different end-use markets and involve format-specific application characteristics. In terms of base materials, sleeve labelling is a film-based format, with 51% usage of PVC film, 27% PET-G, and 9% OPS.


Which material do companies choose if producing printed sleeve labels? More than 50% choose PVC, followed by PET-G
(Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

For heat shrink TD sleeves, today’s most popular format, pre-printed film is applied as a loose tube over a container, heat-shrunk to fit the container contours, and held in place only by intimate contact with the container’s surface. For stretch sleeves, a pre-printed film is applied in tube form by stretching over a container, and held in place simply by tension. ROSO™ MD and RFS MD sleeves – hybrids of heat-shrink sleeves and wraparound labels – are applied most commonly in flat webs which are seamed at the time of application, and then shrunk after fixing to the container.

Heat-shrink TD sleeves: most popular choice

In terms of volume, growth, and popularity with brand owners, heat shrink TD sleeving is the most successful format, with an 89% share of the global sleeve market. It uniquely provides the 75% shrinkage or distortion capability that complex container shapes demand, and is today widely in use in consumer container packaging – particularly on the specially-contoured plastic containers for on-the-go drinks and snacks.

For brand owners, heat shrink sleeves deliver a much-expanded opportunity for on-pack decoration/mandatory information print compared to other labeling methods – including other sleeving formats. They offer head-to-toe decoration for high-visibility retail shelf stand-out and, as well as a 360⁰ head-to-toe printable area, all-round protection of container contents and the option for over-the-cap secure container sealing. It is also worth noting that many heat shrink sleeve labels today are perforated, so consumers may separate them from the container after use, to simplify effective recycling of both container and sleeve.



The heat shrink TD sleeve format – growth of 5.8% over prior year – covers 89% of total sleeve usage
(Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

In 2018, of the estimated total volume of 11,823 million square meters of sleeve labels, an estimated 10,488 million square meters were in the heat shrink TD sleeve format – growth of 5.8% over prior year, and 89% of total sleeve usage. This was the highest growth rate of all the sleeve formats, although slower than in previous years.

Alternative sleeving choices


Which sleeving technology is growing the fastest? (Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

In 2018, sleeving technology sales also accounted for 878 million square meters of stretch sleeve labels (2.5% growth): 407 million square meters of ROSO™ MD sleeve labels (3.5% growth); and 50 million square meters of RFS MD sleeve labels (3.7% growth). 66% of all sleeve labeling volumes found use in beverage labeling, with a further 19% in food labeling.

Regional markets

In the mature and developed label markets of North America and Europe, sleeve label market growth rates – while stabilizing at lower rates of growth than previously – are still outperforming the other product decoration/label formats in terms of growth. Across all the geographical regions, heat shrink sleeves claim the highest market share of all the sleeve formats.


By region, North America grew the fastest, at 5.8%, with Asia growing at 5.5%. These two are followed by Europe (4.5%), South America (3.6%), Africa and Middle East (3%)
(Source: AWA Alexander Watson Associates)

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