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Message in a bottle

Reading labels can be the coolest thing you do in the grocery store

Ten or eleven thousand years ago—long before my days at Emily Carr University for Art and Design, and even longer before I talked my way into journalism school—I signed up for a program in commercial art at Victoria Technical School in Edmonton.

As eternally pragmatic as most things were in Edmonton then, the program was focused on ensuring we all got jobs, good jobs, once we graduated. We learned things like brush- and Speedball lettering so we could pump out handcrafted signs and flyers for grocery stores (Letraset was around, but it was still pretty expensive). Plus we did a few projects designing packages.

One of mine was for black tea, complete with a custom logo: A circle in green and black with the silhouette of a tortured tree against a yellow disc of a sun. Lord knows why I chose a windswept tree to represent tea. Maybe I thought it looked Asian? The point is, it might have looked cool but it was totally meaningless to anyone buying my hypothetical tea.

My other personal packaging tale comes from yet another campus—Chulalongkorn University in beautiful downtown Bangkok. My friend Sherry and I enrolled in an "understanding Thai culture" course aimed at diplomats and business leaders.

Again, I'm not sure how we talked our way into it, but we did, and so there we sat, in a pleasant, air-conditioned classroom at Chulalongkorn, Thailand's most prestigious university, learning the subtleties of commerce and culture in the so-called "Land of Smiles."

Much to our horror, one of our classmates was a marketing guy from Texas. He was in Bangkok to "improve" packaging to better motivate Thai consumers to buy all kinds of crap they didn't need using "motivator" tricks like the scary oranges, reds, blues and yellows used on a billion and one packages—Tide, for instance. Most of us pretty much wished he would just go back to America and leave the Thai people to their own packaging devices, like the amazing banana leaves they were still using to wrap up take-away food from the night market.

The thing is, with the average U.S. home estimated to contain some 300,000 items (I'm sure our Canuck homes do, too) 99 per cent of those things are processed goods that have come into our lives in packages, including the food we put on our tables.

Since the huge majority of it goes through far more sophisticated design processes than I ever dreamt of when I designed my tea package—proposals, focus groups, hidden cameras, re-design, more focus groups and more hidden cameras registering responses—I say let's milk those packages for all they're worth, see what we can learn, and then notice how we decide what to buy.

Once you start looking, I mean really looking at and reading packaging and labels, you discover all kinds of hidden gems as cool as finding a message in a bottle.

Unpack a package of Dorset Cereals' Simply Delicious Muesli and you'll find them advising you they're only human, and how to contact them if you're unhappy with their recipe. They also thoughtfully explain why you need scissors to open their packages. (I'll leave you in suspense.) Likely of greater interest, though, if you follow The Crown or Harry and Meghan headlines, you'll discover your muesli is part of HRH Prince Charles' preservation efforts in Poundsbury, England.

Another manufacturer with a good story and the right attitude: Nature Clean's environmentally great cleaning products, produced right here in Canada. Designed by a chemist in the 1960s for his wife, who suffered severe allergies, they make me laugh every time I use them. "Made by really nice Canadians," says their labels, complete with a sweet little maple leaf.

Take apart a package of Kellogg's All-Bran Buds, and you'll be happy to discover the whole carton is made from 100 per cent recycled fibre. Your Lundberg rice cake package tells you all about the Lundberg family, who've been sustainably farming since the 1930s. That kind of info makes me want to buy those products again and again.

On the more exotic side, check out labels on products from away. Those are fascinating messages in bottles that tell us what we're missing.

I love poking through the labels on the goodies our friends Chuck and Audrey bring us back from Australia. They feature a distinctive national brandmark with a golden kangaroo on a green triangle and a golden "ruler" showing you what fraction of the product has been made in Oz. These days, it makes the scorching bushfires hit home all the harder. More importantly, it makes me wonder why we don't have such a brandmark on Canadian-made products, like those Nature Clean ones, to encourage their purchase over foreign-made items.

Another lesson from away: Jiu Zhen Nan's packaging for lovely, classic pineapple cakes our friends Virginia and Karoly brought back from Taiwan, which includes a big, black "footprint" icon indicating the carbon footprint of the product as designated by Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency (in this case, 190 grams). Again, why doesn't Canada have a similar system so we could make our purchasing decisions accordingly?

Hidden, meaningful gems like these say read your labels, every time, all the time. They're not just quirky and fun. The best thing you can do for your own health and that of our sorely beleaguered planet is to vote with your dollars. Only buy the stuff you truly believe in and you know is good for you and the rest of us.

See those carefully rendered "nutrition facts" on the side of your breakfast cereal package? That list of ingredients that shows they're using palm oil, not canola oil from a Canadian farmer? They sure didn't make that info available to consumers when I was designing packages, but we didn't have 300,000 items in our homes then either—300,000 items produced from something somewhere that left a hole in somebody's ecosystem before it landed at our doors.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who likes getting under the carton flaps.