Ethical Practices

for Souvenir Shopping:

A Guide for Travelers

For most of us, souvenir shopping is a fun thing we look forward to while traveling. In addition to our memories and photos, taking home a few unique keepsakes is part of the joy of travel.  When done well, souvenir shopping can support local artisans and provide us with a memento we will cherish for years to come. But when not done well, souvenir shopping can be exploitative and harmful. This post will explore ways to shop ethically and with confidence.

Today my house is a curio shop of pottery, textiles, and art that I have picked up in various corners of the world. They are sweet reminders of unique places we have visited, the communities they came from, and the people we met along the way. Yes, we've made some souvenir shopping mistakes over the years too, but we've learned much in our journey to be ethical shoppers both at home and abroad. 


Below are six tips we've learned

and strive to practice each time we travel:

Ask Why
The first thing to ask yourself is WHY. Why are you purchasing these items? Will they sit on a mantle and lose their appeal within a few months? Do they have a purpose that will stand the test of time? I think we all agree that it's easy to accumulate more stuff than we need.  Cramming your suitcase with more things is not a good practice for an ethical traveler. Remember, the best parts of your trip are not tangible.

But if you're like me, you will most definitely want to bring home a few things from your next trip, so let's talk about how to do that well.

Support Local & Be a Mindful Shopper
Support local artisans whenever possible. Try to get as close to the source of production as you can. Without a doubt, you will find shops and street vendors with items for sale that were made somewhere else. Souvenir shopping is big business, and everyone wants a piece of the action. The absolute best purchase will be buying directly from the artisan who made it. Not only will you have that lovely piece of pottery, straw basket, or wall art to take home, but you'll have the opportunity to engage with the artist. The conversation and moments spent together will forever be associated with that item in your home. When you look at it, you'll remember the person who made it. Best of all, when you're that close to the source, you know they are personally benefitting from your purchase. 

Meeting an artisan in Simon's Town, South Africa


Sometimes people get annoyed with the higher prices of locally hand-made items. In our American culture, we have become too accustomed to paying Wal-mart prices. But those low-cost items were made at the expense of another human being. Mindful purchases do cost more. If you can afford to travel and plan to purchase souvenirs, budget in the cost of what locally and ethically products will cost you.

More often, getting that close to the source is not possible. So how do you navigate the next best scenario? Talk to vendors and shop owners and ask about where the item they are selling was made. Ask where the materials come from. Check for stickers that say Made in China. Also keep in mind, just because something was made locally does not mean it was made ethically. If the shop owner is selling goods from a local artisan, ask what percentage the artisan receives from the sale. There is no perfect way to get it right every time, but awareness is the first step. Be a mindful shopper.

What to Avoid
Always avoid souvenirs that harm endangered animals or threaten the eco-system. Buying rare shells, coral, bones are examples of this.  Other items to avoid are any antiques or artifacts that should not be removed from their site. Examples of this include a piece of the Berlin Wall or a pottery shard from an ancient ruin. This is common sense.

Know Before You Go
Any conscious traveler does a little research before they leave home. This may include learning to say a few words in a foreign language, understanding a little about the history and culture, and knowing the currency and exchange rate. Learning about the local souvenir market should also be part of that research. Find out what the country or region is known for. Also, study about acceptable practices with shopping. In many cultures, bartering is not only acceptable but encouraged. Be prepared to engage with the locals in a way that shows respect and understanding.

Ask a Local
A good way to find out the best places to shop is to ask a local. Let them know what you are looking for and that you want to shop ethically, supporting the local community. They will be able to point you in the right direction.

Consider Buying Edible Items
One of my favorite souvenirs to purchase and take home are edible items. Whether it be chocolate, coffee, spices or wine, these items help us savor the trip for days and weeks after we get home. These consumable items don't collect dust on a shelf! Plus they are a great way to support locals. The best place to buy these items is right at the source. Look for coffee farms, wineries, and roadside stands that are selling their goods.

Twice as Nice
This idea often gets overlooked, but purchasing second-hand items is a great souvenir. In developing countries, second-hand items are usually found in outdoor street markets. Markets that sell fruit, vegetables, and meat will often have a few vendors with non-edible items. My son once bought an iron spearhead from an outdoor market in Uganda!  Here are a few examples of my favorite second-hand purchases. On the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, we visited a flea market in town where I found a 6-inch bread plate. It was amid tables and tables of China, and the intricately painted flowers caught my attention. It has hung in my kitchen for years, and I love it. I also bought some antique glassware from an outdoor market in Serbia and purchased poetry books from second-hand bookstores in London.

If you love shopping as I do, and bringing home something special from your trip is a must. Then think through these best practices for ethical shopping before you head out on your next trip.

Share your best souvenir shopping find! We'd love to hear your story!