Here’s How To Ethically Buy Souvenirs—and Have a More Meaningful Trip, Too

published Aug 6, 2019
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An Instagram is worth a thousand words, but when you’re on vacation, bringing back a physical object that you can permanently display in your home can feel even more valuable. When visiting a new place or foreign country, there’s a natural tendency to want to carry a piece of that home with you, something that reminds you of happy times away from work and life’s responsibilities. A photo of a sunset or a castle is great, but a really good souvenir is almost a piece of ourselves that we absorb through traveling that’s reflected back in our every day lives. After all, souvenir means “memory” or “to remember” in French.

But not every souvenir is made equally. According to the UN, 1.4 billion people traveled internationally in 2018. That means there were potentially (at least!) 1.4 billion souvenirs purchased, which equates to big business and a huge boost to local economies that rely on tourism. Great, right?

Well, not as great as we’d probably like. When purchased properly, a souvenir actually stimulates the local economy (versus worsening it), respects local traditions, and leaves a neutral impact on the environment (which includes not removing rare shells, coral, bones and any antiques or artifacts that are part of the country’s ecological or cultural heritage)—in addition to being a timeless keepsake of a great trip.

Shopping for souvenirs and ensuring that they are locally produced and support the local economy can be a complicated business, for even the most thoughtful of travelers. To help you shop responsibly, we spoke with four ethical travel experts who gave us their top tips on how to get souvenirs the right way when you’re on vacation.

Keep in mind that this is all good shopping advice whether or not you’re away from home. Respecting artisans and supporting local economies is always a good practice!

1. Avoid anything that appears mass-produced

One of the clearest ways to tell something’s been mass-produced is if it—and all of the other items being sold with it—were made in a country that’s not the one you’re in. Jeff Greenwald, author of “Shopping for Buddhas and executive director of puts it this way: “Never buy anything made in China—unless you actually are in China.” Distinguishing mass-produced goods from locally made items can often be difficult, but Social Designer and Cultural Tour Guide Ana Paula Fuentes has a helpful trick. “If you see the same exact souvenirs in every shop (normally booths at the market, in the main squares, outside archeological sites [and in] shops in the main street),” they are likely to be mass-produced and imported from elsewhere, she says.

2. Do your research

Greenwald recommends doing a few quick (or in-depth, if you’d like) Google searches before heading off on your travels. These will help you educate yourself a little on the culture and the kind of things made in the country you’re visiting. You can look up “best cooperatives in X city” or “best things to buy in X place” as sample searches so you can make better choices when shopping. That way, you’ll know that it’s probably not best to buy that genuine woven Alpaca wool blanket if you’re not in or near the Andes.

Greenwald also suggests checking CITES, the website for the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which has lists of what plants and other natural objects you definitely shouldn’t remove from each country.

3. Ask local people where and what they suggest you buy

As Fuentes explains, a dialogue with locals—on the streets, in the parks, inside grocery stores, or wherever you encounter people who really live in that area—is a great way to ensure that you’re purchasing locally-made goods. “Ask for the local workshops, makers, artisans and look for them, even if they’re far from your area,” she says. It might take time to get to the workshops, but stepping off the main tourist strip is even more likely to ensure that you’re supporting the economy. “If you develop a relationship with people, or a rapport or dialogue with a family, ask them, ‘What do you suggest I take home?’” says Greenwald.

4. Get inquisitive with vendors and artisans

While shopping for souvenirs, Greenwald suggests getting as many details from vendors as possible, without seeming like you’re grilling them. Try asking things like, “Did you make this? Who made it? What is the meaning behind it?” to help you assess if the item is, in fact, locally made. Audrey Scott, Chief Storyteller and Co-Founder of Uncornered Market, adds that striking up a conversation with a vendor will help you to find out more about the unique narrative behind the handicrafts. “Learn the story behind a souvenir. This provides a greater understanding and appreciation of the culture, history and people behind [the item].”

5. Where possible, buy directly from artisans

All four experts agreed that buying as close to the source as possible is best. Justin Francis, Founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, suggests that travelers “visit local communities,” explaining that this is a “great way to find unique souvenirs and support local craftspeople and traditions.” To do this, research or ask tourism experts about private tours to artisan workshops or buy locally-made items when visiting small towns. Scott agrees that “when it comes to handicrafts and handmade souvenirs, the ideal situation is to buy directly from the local craftsperson.” Meeting the craftspeople, who might be in a workshop or selling at a small shop or stall in the street (often making things while they wait for sales) helps to deepen your travel experience and create lasting memories. As Greenwald says, your souvenir “should really be a memory of something besides being in a souvenir shop.”

6. Find collectives or social enterprises

While it isn’t always possible to go directly to artisan workshops, you can look out for local cooperatives that sell locally-made souvenirs. These stores generally either work directly with artisans helping them to get their work to a bigger market, prepared to pay a fair price or they are run by a cooperative of artisans who work together. By shopping in these stores, “you know your money is staying in the country and you know it is benefiting people who can really use it,” says Greenwald.

Scott encourages travelers to be inquisitive at these collectives if information about the artisans is not publicly available. “Ask who is making the [souvenirs] and where the money is going. Reward those shops that are supporting the local economy and community of artisans, farmers or producers.” Scott also suggests checking out Grassroot Volunteering’s Social Enterprise Database to find a list of shops in the city you are visiting.

7. When it comes to bartering, know the local culture

All of the experts agreed that it’s OK to bargain–depending on what country you’re visiting. Scott mentions that in some places, “vendors will feel offended if you don’t barter,” while Fuentes states that in Mexico, “bartering is not a traditional practice.” Do your research, or ask around before you start haggling for a lower price. However, even when it is acceptable to barter, Scott points out that “travelers shouldn’t go overboard and make a game out of trying to get the lowest price they possibly can.”

In a market, you can get a feel for the prices of things by asking at a few different stalls and then barter with that knowledge. Greenwald points out that “the idea is for both the seller and the buyer to have a good feeling about the transaction,” rather than “to force the merchant to make absolutely nothing from their sale.” Fuentes also reminds visitors to be “conscious of the time people invest in making the souvenirs we are buying” when negotiating a lower price.

8. Consider buying food and spices

No matter where you go, food is often the perfect souvenir. Obviously, not all foodstuffs will be allowed through customs, but Scott says that “spices, sauces, dips, teas and coffees that are produced locally” generally make great souvenir options that you can transport across borders. She also suggests taking a cooking class and then heading to the local market to buy a few things needed to recreate the dish at home. While some people like artifacts, Greenwald says, “for other people, nothing really captures the spirit of the country like the food.” And honestly, sitting down to a home-cooked meal with aromas and tastes that transport you back to your travels sounds like the perfect way to avoid the post-vacation blues.  

9. Or add some music to the mix

Greenwald also suggests music as another great souvenir that’s meaningful and ethical. Drop by a local music store and ask for some tips on the best albums of local music or buy a CD from a musician who you saw playing in a bar while on vacation. Music is one sure way for your mind to be transported back to beautiful memories of your vacation within the first few beats.