How to Responsibly Buy Home Decor Abroad

published May 31, 2019
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“I really don’t like to travel,” is not something you hear too often.

Most of us can agree that traveling is the gift that keeps on giving. You can immerse yourself in a new culture, experience delicious foreign food, take stellar photos of the coolest places on Earth, and buy some beautiful home decor from all around the world.

But filling your home with pieces that exude wanderlust is easier said than done. What can you do to ensure your purchase helps support the local economy? Will that Moroccan rug fit in your carry-on? Are you violating any custom restrictions? And, most importantly, how do you know that you’re buying ethically sourced decor?

“Tourism brings a lot to an economy, including a large audience of travelers who are eager to bring home souvenirs from their trip,” explains Ashley Viola, founder of Meridian. When shopping on vacation, it is important to seek out vendors and artisans indigenous to the region who are selling handmade crafts in order to make the largest impact with your purchase.”

We’re all for supporting local artisans, so the mere thought of buying pieces that are actually mass-produced or created in unfair working conditions breaks our hearts.

To help, Viola is sharing some tips for shopping abroad responsibly.

1. Do Your Research

You always research the best tourist attractions and restaurants when traveling somewhere new, so why should home decor be any different?

“My first rule of thumb is to do a little research before you go,” Viola says. “Get a basic understanding of what crafts are native to the region you’re visiting, and a sense of colors or patterns you’re after.”

Fortunately, learning about the pieces a certain area traditionally makes can be as easy as scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest. Or, if you really want to up your interior design IQ, head to the library and read up on its origins, production process, and locally sourced materials.

2. Get the 411  

Depending on the marketplace, some vendors may be more interested in making a sale than explaining the pieces they are selling, which could be a sign that “artisanal rug” is not as artisanal as you think. A subtle way to better gauge the authenticity of an item is asking questions—and lots of ‘em.

“When looking at a handmade piece in a foreign market or in a shop, it is important to ask questions about how it was made, what it is made of and who made it,” says Viola. “Often with handmade items, the seller—even if they are different from the artisan who made the piece— will have a good sense about the answers to these questions.”

If the vendor can not give you clear answers to your questions, you may want to move on.

3. Use Your Senses

You don’t have to be a complete design enthusiast to tell the difference between natural and artificial dyes or fabrics. Sometimes, all it takes is some common sense and time.

“You can tell by looking at something if it was made using natural dyes, for example, as the vibrancy of the hues are a dead giveaway,” Viola says. “Touching and feeling something is always critical as natural fibers have a different weight to them than industrial fibers such as acrylic.”

Not sure whether something looks and feels right? Head over to a few other marketplaces or vendors and feel the other products they have.

4. Go to the Light

An alpaca blanket or set of wooden coasters might’ve passed the touch test, but can it pass the natural light inspection?

“Things can look very different—and will reveal their flaws—in natural light, versus indoor lighting that can cast different hues on your item,” she explains.

It’s worth noting that not every ethically sourced item will be perfect. You’re bound to find scuffs, chips, and mis-matched threads. Honestly, it’s part of the beauty of buying something from a local artisan. If you have any questions about what you’re seeing in the light, ask the vendor.

5. Cue the Co-Op

From poor working conditions to unfair wages, the sad but true reality is many artisans are not treated and compensated appropriately for their work. These people spend hours mastering their skills and creating beautiful pieces, so it’s only right to put your dollars toward businesses and merchants that prioritize artisans. That’s exactly why we’re so keen on finding local cooperatives.

“If you’re interested in the handmade process, I’d recommend seeking out local cooperatives in the area you’re visiting that will give you a demonstration of how they work and offer you the chance to purchase items directly from them,” she recommends. “Cooperatives that consist of local artisan women, or are certified fair trade, are where your visit will have the greatest impact.”

Viola explains these cooperatives are found all over the world, so you can easily find one by asking your hotel’s concierge, surfing the web, or referring to your travel guide.

6.  Shop Around

Chances are, you’re not going to find a quality merchant that makes top-tier, responsibly sourced decor on the first try. If you’re committed to filling your home with excellent and ethical pieces from your travels, carve out some time to shop around.

“When I travel to source product for Meridian, I spend the first few days of my trip gathering information and getting a sense of what’s available and its pricing before I pull out my wallet,” Viola says. “I make pins in my online map of places I want to come back to, and spend my time making sure I know what I want and how much I’m willing to pay for it.”

Checking out dozens of stores can be tedious and swallow up a lot of time but trust us, it’s well worth it.