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Finding the Fairest Souvenirs: How to Shop Responsibly

  • Laurel Angrist
  • 17 August 2011

Fellow travellers, I have a weakness: I like to shop. Worse, when I travel, my addiction takes over. My Achilles heel is for local souvenirs, the more creative and original, the better. Among my finer purchases is a gorgeous green silk scarf bought in Vietnam, an unusual hand-carved mask from Belize that now hangs on my wall and a pair of small but colourful paintings I picked up in Peru.

Do you shop when you travel? Are souvenirs irresistible? It's important to understand the perils of irresponsible shopping and learn how to shop the fair way - or else.

Do you shop when you travel? Are souvenirs irresistible? It's important to understand the perils of irresponsible shopping and learn how to shop the fair way - or else. Photo courtesy of Flickr/|vvaldzen|

The great part about buying handmade items like these is that they were all purchased directly from the artists who made them – an exceedingly rare interaction in an increasingly mass-produced world. Buying the items felt good to me, but best is that I know these local artists appreciated each sale as well.

Whether our purchases make a positive impact when we travel is unfortunately not always so clear. Yet in developing countries, where Western currency goes that much further, it’s a thought worth investigating. How can we be sure that our purchasing choices will ensure the well-being of locals and the environment? Are we supporting an industry that helps sustain the local economy? Do our penchants support a trade that values the labour, dignity and rights of all those it employs?

Baskets made from indigenous bamboo grown in the forests around Luang Prabang, Laos

You could hardly do better than local handicrafts made from indigenous bamboo grown in the forests around Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo courtesy of Stanislas Fradelizi/Teamworkz

When it comes to buying the “fairest” souvenirs, being well informed can make a big difference. Responsible shopping means understanding what’s at stake with each penny traded with the goal to preserve the world’s heritage and resources.

Here then are a few points to consider to help ensure that our tourist dollars are well spent. I’d really encourage you to add some of your own.

Look Around for Local Crafts

From the hand-woven traditional textiles of Laos to the fine filigree jewellery available in Portugal or the eclectic wire sculptures sold along South Africa’s Garden Route, nothing compares in value to beautifully produced local handicrafts made by some of the world’s finest artists. After all, craft items make far better gifts than boring old t-shirts, and purchasing locally produced goods constitutes a viable source of income for local creative types the world over.

When you buy goods and handcrafts directly from the local producers, your money goes straight to the community and will help to preserve those traditional arts. Keep your eyes out at the smaller markets in rural areas for some of the best deals, or buy through specialty Fair Trade stores such as Global Exchange.

Get Goods Made from Sustainable Sources

We all know that poaching is wrong. Tourists who buy endangered animal furs have as much blood on their hands as the poachers themselves. Fortunately, butterflies do not look nice to me in a box. I’d never consider buying ivory, that barbaric and illegal trade that causes incredible agony and death to the most magnificent of creatures. I boycott buying furniture made from rare and endangered woods and always aim to buy products made from the finest renewable sources.

Enough said? Are you sure? Take a stroll down almost any tourist beach and you will likely see vendors selling coral or seashells. But, except in places where some invasive coral is harvested to preserve the native ecosystem, how many people know that the market for harvested coral is destroying the world’s ocean reefs and causing irreparable damage to underwater ecosystems? The colourful shells now sold as earrings and necklaces once contained living animals – creatures that are now dead because someone wanted pretty adornments. Please don’t encourage this trade.

Look out for items made from sustainable resources, like the natural dyes used by traditional weavers in Peru's Sacred Valley

Keep an eye out for homemade items made from sustainable resources, like the natural dyes used by traditional weavers in Peru's Sacred Valley. Photo by Laurel Angrist

Buy with a Conscience – Patronise Stores that Give Back

Another important way to ensure we spend our money responsibly is to purchase items that help to support the communities we visit. In the peaceful Xieng Khoang province of northeast Laos, for example, lies the cultural village of Ban Napia. Despite the countless atrocities they suffered as residents of the most heavily bombed region in the Indochina War, the villagers here are resilient and resourceful: aluminium scrap metal from leftover bombs is converted into delicate spoons and bracelets that are sold to tourists visiting the village-owned souvenir shop.

Around the world, of course, there are many other small stores that provide self-sustainable income to locals, whether through skills training or other means, and countless shops that contribute to worthy causes. Get online and ask around to find the best local charity shops and patronise businesses donating a percentage of profits to local community projects, environmental conservation or humanitarian assistance programs.

Housing Works Bookstore, New York, NY

The successful thrift shops and bookstore run by Housing Works support programs providing housing, healthcare and job training to more than 20,000 low-income New York City residents living with HIV and AIDS. Photo courtesy of housingworks.org

Consider an Item’s Trade Roots – and Think Outside the Factory-Made Box

Many infamous examples exist of products made by exploited workers, produced under dismal conditions for shockingly minuscule wages. The most high-profile cases that come to my mind are the Christmas ornaments that were made by child workers and sold at Walmart, the Nike shoe company’s questionable labour practices and the horrific abuse and involvement of the Koidu diamond mines in fuelling Sierra Leone’s bloody, decade-long civil war.

Unfortunately, such stories only come to light once a corporation’s underhanded practices become too egregious to ignore. Let’s face it: mass production has had a long history of labour violations, many of which we choose to ignore because we want our cheap dinner plates, children’s toys, cell phones and you name it.

Outmoded vehicles and machines in South Africa dumped by the Consolidated Diamond Mine, owned by De Beers

In South Africa, the Consolidated Diamond Mine, owned by De Beers, is said to have the largest private earthmoving fleet in the world. Outmoded vehicles and machines are dumped in this eerie graveyard without a second thought about the environment. Photo courtesy of Flickr/sosij

Factory-made souvenir items such as magnets, key chains or t-shirts are often manufactured outside of the destinations they represent, and typically have little to no real connection to the places they are supposed to portray. I don’t know the industrial origins of the most common and obvious mass-market souvenir items, but knowing what we know already, how much do we really want them? How great could they really be?

Instead, why not hunt for more meaningful mementos? Vacations are the perfect time to get just a little bit more creative: think of items that are not merely souvenirs but are actually used in local households for decoration or day-to-day living. Need some ideas? Go ask a local. They’re bound to come up with some imaginative suggestions you may never have thought of on your own.

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Laurel Angrist

A native New Yorker, Laurel Angrist is a well-practiced escape artist whose passion for travel and the outdoors has led her to some truly offbeat and interesting places. Outside her work as media consultant for the WHL Group and wordster-in-chief of The Travel Word, Laurel is a writer specialising in stories about tourism, culture and the environment, and is also pursuing a masters in Library Studies at the City University of New York. Visit her website: www.laurelangrist.com.
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Costa Rica, fine arts, handicrafts & shopping, how to, local knowledge, markets, opinion, personal experience, Peru, responsible travel, USA, Vietnam,

2 Responses to “Finding the Fairest Souvenirs: How to Shop Responsibly”

  1. Lee Sheridan says:

    The night market in Luang Prabang is a great place to pick up some locally made souvenirs. I am currently looking at ways to make the night market more pro-poor in terms of the products sold, so that the benefits from purchasing locally made handicrafts and goods are spread to more people in the countryside around Laos.

  2. Henry Williams says:

    good post i enjoyed reading this

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