How to buy ethical souvenirs
Shopping for trinkets and memories the right way
Words— Kaitlyn McInnis
For a lot of people, going shopping while abroad is just as high on the to-do list as museum hopping or fine dining — and truth be told, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Heading out to the medinas of Marrakech, or the farmers’ markets of Paris is one of the very best ways to get an insider’s look into the local culture and day-to-day life of a destination’s residents while shopping for trinkets and memories to bring back home.
Let’s be honest: having a house full of souvenirs from your trips and travels is pretty cool, but being conscious of what you’re bringing back is vital. Purchasing ethical and fair products when you’re abroad is just as important — or even more so — than buying local when you’re at home. Not only does it benefit the local artisanal economy and ensures artists are getting paid for their work, these items are usually of much higher quality than mass-produced trinkets you’ll find in a generic tourist shop; and you’ll be guaranteed something unique that you’ll actually want to display in your home to remember your trip.
Buy Directly from Artisans
Some tourist shops may claim to have artisanal products, but if you take a closer look, they’re likely a mass-produced replica. A great rule of thumb is to avoid anything that says it’s made in China — unless, of course, you’re actually in China. While it may be hard at first to distinguish what is mass-produced and what is artisan-made, a good way to start is by checking out all of the neighbouring shops before making a purchase. If most shops have the exact same “handmade” goods, they’re likely not from local artisans.
Ask Locals For Suggestions
Do your research and know what a region is known for, and what you’d like to bring back, before getting to your destination. If you’re looking for a colorful striped Mexican Saltillo blanket, for example, instead of picking up the first one you see on the tourist strip, ask around for local artisans who are producing them in the area. Taking a trip out to their workshop and commissioning your own blanket will be a much more memorable (and totally unique) experience than just picking up a maybe-local blanket from a souvenir vendor.
Buy Food Products
Bringing back a food product or local ingredient you particularly loved is a great way to think back on your trip through taste and transport you right back to your favourite restaurant or coffee shop. Keeping in mind what is and isn’t allowed through customs (don’t even attempt to bring back fruits and veggies or meat), bringing back a local spice from Morocco, olive oil from Italy, or coffee beans from Vietnam can be a great way to hold onto your sensory memories at home — and share a part of your trip with friends. Just make sure to read the ingredients and ensure the products you’re buying are made locally or within the country.
… But Avoid Animal Byproducts
While this should go without saying, the elephant tusk, conch shell, and endangered turtle shell industry is still fuelled greatly by tourism despite the fact that they’re both unethical and unsustainable. What’s more, purchasing such products could be supporting poachers and endangered rare species. Instead of unethical or endangered animal products, consider locally produced clothing made from alpaca wool (which is sustainable and doesn’t harm alpacas), or just avoid animal byproducts altogether.
There’s nothing wrong with being inquisitive when shopping for souvenirs to bring home. Most artisans and sellers will be happy to answer your questions and chat about their products — just don’t go overboard and start interrogating them. Asking questions like who made the products, where are they sourced, and what the significance or meaning behind it is will help you get a feel for the vendor and whether the items really are locally made, while learning about the products and their relation to the country you’re visiting. Watch for enthusiasm and pride, ask questions about how items are produced, and don’t feel bad about walking away to search for products that feel right.