Ethical travel: How to shop for souvenirs with a conscience

The author, with the scarf her mother bought her from a nonprofit for women with disabilities in Kazakhstan. (Photo by Marat Garafutdinov)

Foreign travel wouldn’t be the same without a few souvenirs. But how you choose to spend abroad can have a huge impact on the place you’re visiting.

One of my most treasured possessions is a bright, yellow scarf made from silk and felt.

I love the scarf not just for its beauty but for the special meaning it holds. A gift from my mother, it was handcrafted by a member of Shyrak, a nonprofit organization for women with disabilities in Central Asia. The NGO is based in my hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Though similar scarves are available at some large retailers in town, that’s not where mine came from. My mom bought it directly from Shyrak. That means all of the money went to the women without the store taking a portion of it.

An artisan paints an umbrella at a factory outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo by Marat Garafutdinov)
An artisan paints an umbrella at a factory outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo by Marat Garafutdinov)

Bypassing the middleman in this way can make a purchase feel more special.

But knowing that your money is benefitting the community makes it truly meaningful. This is one of the main reasons people go to the farmers market instead of a grocery store and buy jewelry at the neighborhood artwalk instead of at the mall.

This principle is at the heart of ethical shopping.

Making informed decisions about where you shop can make a difference when you are traveling in the developing world (or really just about anywhere).

One way to shop for the good of the community is to rely on your guidebook for recommended shops and artisan collectives.

Hitting the spots suggested by the guidebook can feel like you are not exploring, but don’t dismiss the recommendations. When my husband and I were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we spent an entire day visiting organizations and businesses that support various causes. We found most of them in the guidebook and our “custom tour” was both memorable and meaningful.

Master jeweler Roopkishore Sony works in his famous shop in the desert city of Jaisalmer, India. (Photo by Marat Garafutdinov)
Master jeweler Roopkishore Sony works in his famous shop in the desert city of Jaisalmer, India. (Photo by Marat Garafutdinov)

Do some research of your own to seek out fair trade shops and businesses committed to a cause.

For example, if you want to get a massage in Chiang Mai, why not go to the Northern School for the Blind instead of a regular massage parlor. The school trains blind folks in Thai massage and your money will benefit that mission.

But what if you just want to wander around and have your own authentic experience?

A few tips will help you spend your money the right way:

  • Buy souvenirs at the bazaar and stay away from the emporium. This may mean resisting your taxi, tuk-tuk or rickshaw driver, who will want to take you to the emporium to get a commission. Choose the market instead.
  • Look for opportunities to bring your business where it counts. Want some chewing gum? Buy from the disabled man on the corner and skip the minimart. Passing through a tribal village? Pick up a handmade bracelet. Leave your guide out of it, too, in case he gets a commission.
  • Eat at food stalls and small family-run cafes (but please judge your own comfort level with street food).
  • Try to go to shops owned by locals, not foreigners. Find out about what the situation is like where you are going. For example, in Luang Prabang, Laos, most shops are owned by foreigners. Your money will be spent better at the Hmong market, where the hilltribe people of Laos sell their handicrafts.

 

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