By Hallie Forcinio, writer, PostPress

Driven by the global focus on sustainability and virtually limitless decorating and finishing possibilities, the folding carton market is forecast to grow to nearly $150 billion by 2024 (a $40 billion growth over 2018). Rising volumes are expected across all market segments, with food and beverage continuing to dominate. Another strong market for folding cartons is cannabis and CBD products. “For these brands, having packaging as green as the products they contain is of the utmost importance,” said Irene Richard, senior product manager, Neenah® folding board and cover materials at Neenah, a supplier of paper, folding board and other paper-based packaging.

Growing demand for embellishments

“Paperboard folding cartons are an ideal packaging medium because of their billboard space, decorative options, protective properties and sustainability attributes,” reported Dennis Bacchetta, director of marketing at Diamond Packaging, a WBENC-certified, global specialist in sustainable packaging. He noted sustainability is a major driver as brand owners shift away from plastics toward paperboard and observed, “The use of post-consumer waste (PCW) and uncoated paperboards are increasing. Specialty or textured paperboards, such as Neenah Folding Board or Ecological Fibers’ Flexpack Lumina Pearlescent, also have become more popular.”

In addition, decorative options are in demand. Folding carton embellishments – such as colored-base media, matte finishes, foil stamping, embossing/debossing, spot coatings, specialty coatings, unique effects, multiple coatings and diecutting – differentiate a product from its competition, reinforce premium positioning, invite closer inspection and interaction by consumers and deliver a quick return on investment by increasing sales.

Bacchetta reported, “We have seen an increase in the use of specialty coatings such as soft-touch, emboss, pearlescent, glitter and textured ultraviolet (UV) coatings on cosmetic and personal-care folding cartons. These specialty coatings increase shelf appeal by imparting additional visual and tactile elements to the printed graphics.”

“The cosmetic industry always has taken advantage of embellishments to be on-trend for the ‘next big/new thing,’” agreed Suzanne Hunt, marketing manager at FoldedColor Packaging, the online division of Thoro Packaging, which fulfills short runs of custom designs.

Hunt explained, “Quality packaging enhanced with embellishments will grab a consumer’s attention. We see a lot of spot coatings used in packaging. When done right, spot coatings can add dimension and an amazing overall look to the packaging. Customers are moving away from the overall glossy looks and are going for a flatter, matte finish. Matte provides a simple and more minimalist look, which is currently on-trend.”

Bacchetta agreed, noting, “The most popular coatings are matte and gloss combinations, or soft-touch and gloss.”

For example, said Hunt, “When using a matte coating finish, adding a small area of ultraviolet (UV) gloss can provide a lot of contrast for a more eye-catching design. Additionally, some customers choose to emboss areas and combine it with a UV gloss. Not only does this provide contrast, but it also has a more tactile feeling, which is something brand owners like to use to enhance the consumer’s unboxing experience.”

Another popular technique, foil stamping and cold foil transfer, is replacing foil/paperboard laminates due to eye-catching effects, sustainability benefits and cost savings. Studies support the use of foil to attract consumers. For example, packaging decorated with foil rates over 80% higher than non-foil packaging in quality, appeal, value and brand awareness.1 Also, foil has been shown to attract consumers’ attention faster and retain attention longer than packaging without foil.2

“We continue to see a lot of growth in packaging for cold foil and hot stamping,” noted Doug Herr, director of sales, folding carton, at Bobst North America, a provider of converting equipment for packaging, commercial products and special products such as greeting cards.

Hunt agreed, noting, “Brand owners are venturing beyond the standard silver or gold foil stamping options and branching out to use a variety of bright foil colors, including holographic foils.”

She noted, “Foil stamping is more sustainable than foil/paperboard laminations. When board with foil stamping is recycled, the foil breaks down during the recycling process and the unrecyclable parts float to the top for easy removal. This process has a much smaller carbon footprint.” Conversely, with foil laminate cartons, the foil and paperboard have to be separated for recycling. “Not many facilities currently offer this service,” she said.

Both hot foil stamping and cold foil transfer have experienced growth in the last several years, although foil stamping requires a custom die to stamp the foil in the desired areas. “This effect primarily is used when aiming for a high-end and luxurious feel,” said Hunt. “Although this process does require the extra tooling needed for creating the die, it adds dimension and enhances the final look of the foiled area. Hot foil is applied after the printing process is complete and is ideal for foiling more detailed areas and fine lines.”

Bobst has seen substantial growth in hot foil stamping in recent years. Herr attributed the growing demand to three major technical advances: positioning rolls outside the machine to expedite changeover; camera registration so foil is laid down registered to the print vs. the mechanical edge of the sheet; and accessories that enable the use of large-diameter rolls for longer runs and increased uptime.

Cold foil most commonly is done inline with the printing press and does not require additional tooling. Hunt noted, “Cold foil also provides the option of adding print effects on top of the foil for a unique look.”

Bacchetta said, “We have seen growth in both inquiries and orders for cold foil over the last few years.” He attributes this expansion to a shift from foil laminate board to cold foiling due to cost, lead time and sustainability, as well as an investment in cold foiling modules. He explained, “Inline techniques, such as cold foil, are cost-effective and more sustainable, especially when factoring in the material and energy costs associated with multiple runs or offline production processes. This helps conserve raw materials and energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize discards.”

In addition, he said, “The on-press application provides many new design possibilities – overprinting a virtually limitless palette of color options; precise registration between foil and overprinted inks or coatings; flexibility to produce large, solid areas with fine detail; and upscale product differentiation.”

Although cold foil continues to expand, it has not supplanted hot foil. “The two technologies complement each other extremely well,” said Herr, noting it can be advantageous to offer both options and therefore provide a one-stop shop to address the needs of the job’s run length, complexity, number of passes or printing process.

The choice between hot foil and cold foil mainly is determined by the graphic image. Bacchetta noted, “Cold foil works very well for a tight fit or registration to the graphics and the ability to drop foil where it is not needed. Hot foil works well for smaller images, such as logos and brand names.”

Sustainability demands drive growth

Consumer and brand owner preference for biodegradable packaging over plastic packaging ranked as the primary growth driver for the folding carton market, according to a December 2019 study by Grandview Research, “Folding Carton Packaging Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report by End Use (Food & Beverage, Personal Care & Cosmetics, Electrical & Electronics), by Region, and Segment Forecasts, 2019 – 2025.

Folding cartons offer a strong sustainability profile. Paperboard is a renewable resource increasingly sourced from responsibly managed forests, widely recycled and commonly contains recycled content.

Herr predicted, “Sustainability is definitely a trend that isn’t going away.”  Richard at Neenah, agreed, “Most of our customers are looking for sustainable solutions. They are looking for responsible fiber sourcing, products made utilizing renewable energy and other conservation efforts with a high PCW content. Blue bin recyclability is important. Paper is an inherent part of a circular economy, and as education about the recyclability of paper (the fact that it can be reused up to seven times) increases, so does the demand for using paper as an environmentally friendly option.”

This emphasis on sustainability is encouraging greater use of products certified by groups such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which ensure fiber is responsibly sourced and protect old-growth and endangered forests. Neenah, for example, only purchases fiber from sources that demonstrate sustainable practices and have third-party forest management certification programs. As a result, its complete portfolio of papers is FSC® Certified. Thoro Packaging and Diamond Packaging both offer certified paperboards for sustainably conscious customers.

Suppliers agree education is key to addressing the need for greater sustainability. At Thoro Packaging, a well-informed sales team helps customers and brand owners make smarter decisions. Plus, Hunt noted, “We promote packaging sustainability on our website, blogs, tradeshows and other marketing materials.”

“We also believe in transparency and support,” said Richard. “We put our environmental resources front and center for our customers, be it downloadable logos, information regarding environmental certifications or environmental victories.” On the product side, Neenah has developed Hemp Fiber and 100% PC White folding boards, which combine sustainability with a premium presence and ultimately help create packaging that is part of a closed-loop, circular economy.

At Thoro Packaging, sustainability efforts also involve right-sizing orders to minimize waste, replacement of plastic inserts with paperboard, use of vegetable-based inks and a shift to clean (wind) energy. The company also offers carbon-neutral printing. Hunt explained, “For an added cost, customers can offset the carbon footprint of their cartons by donating to specific projects. Money can be used to plant trees, support wind power and a multitude of other carbon-reducing projects.”

Diamond Packaging also has implemented eco-friendly manufacturing practices, achieved zero waste to landfill and relies solely on wind energy. In 2007, it introduced its greenbox initiative to research, design and deliver innovative and sustainable products. The core of the initiative – designs, materials and methods – represents a comprehensive approach to packaging that minimizes environmental impact throughout the supply chain.

Bacchetta said, “Through creative design, careful material selection and best practices at the plant level, Diamond minimizes waste, reduces shipping costs and increases efficiencies.” Before and during packaging development, Diamond design engineers consider opportunities to eliminate or replace components, reduce package weight and material, and utilize embellishments and innovative shapes (e.g., trapezoid, pillow pack, curvilinear) to increase shelf impact.

Green Chic™ packaging, an offshoot of the greenbox initiative, incorporates multiple inline embellishment technologies, such as TruCOLOR™ expanded color gamut printing, specialty coatings (e.g., emboss, glitter, pearl, soft-touch, texture), Liquid Metal™ or MiraFoil® metallic UV coatings, Cast and Cure holographic effects and cold foiling.

Other trends impact folding carton usage

Other folding carton trends include shorter runs, just-in-time production and an effort to shorten supply chains. “During the last 10 to 15 years, there was a migration of production to China and Southeast Asia,” recalled Herr. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, brand owners now are seeking sources closer to home.

To maximize child resistance and sustainability, Diamond Lockbox™ designs feature laminated, tear-resistant paperboard outer cartons and customizable
paperboard inserts.

Structurally, Hunt reported, “We’ve noticed that roll side trays with lids are popular for kits where multiple products can be displayed attractively within an insert. They provide a better presentation and unboxing experience. Auto bottoms are popular because they are easier for fulfillment. We also still see a lot of basic tuck-end boxes because of their simplicity.” To stand out, some brand owners have become more creative with diecuts that give a preview of the product inside. “We have seen design requests for us to create detailed diecuts that outline a skyline, logo, etc.,” said Hunt.

For medical or recreational marijuana products, Diamond Packaging has introduced the upscale, child-resistant Diamond Lockbox™ folding carton. “Single- and dual-lock options feature finished edges and ample billboard space and can be decorated with a wide range of printing and finishing effects, including specialty coatings, foil, embossing and debossing,” said Bacchetta. The Lockbox folding cartons are Certified Child-Resistant in compliance with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission 16 CFR 1700.20 testing protocol.


  1. Perception Research Services, “Foil Stamping Strengthens Brand Identity,” 2004.
  2. Foil & Specialty Effects Association, “An Initial Study into the Impact of High-Visibility Enhancements on Shelf Presence,” 2014.