Tips for ethical and sustainable shopping when travelling


I am lucky enough to have recently returned from a family holiday to China and Japan. This was my first overseas trip since making the decision to strictly abide by my ethics when it comes to shopping. Like any traveller, I love to bring home souvenirs that remind me of the places I have been. In fact, I have very few ornaments in my house that weren’t purchased on one of my travels, and I love the eclectic atmosphere that this lends to my home. So, when it came to this trip, I hoped to come home with some more to add to my collection. As I have already lived in China on two separate occasions, I wasn’t too concerned if I didn’t come home with something purchased in China. I have a wealth of beautiful objects from China already. But I had never been to Japan, so I still wanted to be able buy something beautiful whilst on my travels.

I am happy to say that I did indeed return with some beautiful purchases from overseas, and I did a reasonable job of abiding by my ethics when shopping. Here are some of the things I purchased on my travels

Shopping on my travels

So how did I go about it? Here are my tips for shopping ethically and sustainably whilst travelling.

  1. Plan and research early. I started researching my shopping options in my destination well in advance. Find out the ethical shopping options in your destination, such as vintage/second hand shops, local craft markets, and arts districts or workshops. Use this information to decide where you want to shop in advance. For example, I discovered that due to the small wardrobe size in Japan, vintage and second hand clothing stores are common. So read up on the shops I wanted to go to (Lonely Planet worked a treat on this occasion!) and I scheduled a morning of vintage shopping Tokyo as part of my itinerary. This helped me to resist temptation in China, where cheap (and unethical) clothing is abundant and difficult to resist.
  2. Get to know the traditional crafts in your destination. Mass manufacturing globally has seen many traditional crafts become obsolete in the ordinary economy. Sometimes the tourist market is the main customer base keeping skilled artisans in work. A carefully chosen hand made travel souvenir can help to preserve artistic traditions and ensure that this knowledge continues to be passed down to the next generation. Where possible, try to buy from the maker, or from small market stalls. You may not be able to be certain that the item was ethically produced, but buying from small independent sellers will make it much more likely that they item was ethically produced. As well as helping to preserve artistic traditions, traditional hand made crafts are often far more sustainable than any mass manufactured item, even if the fabric is not organic. For example, hand woven silk scarves in Laos or cotton batik in southern China are traditionally dyed with plant materials using methods that have been preserved through the ages. Traditional crafts have needed to work within the local environment in order to exist, so, unlike modern industrial techniques, they have a much lower environmental impact. I was quite enamored with the traditional ceramics in China and Japan, so I picked up a beautiful little piece that I could safely transport home in my suitcase.
  3. Avoid impulse purchases. When you shop on an impulse you are more likely to buy something that is unethical and unsustainable. Planning where you might shop means that you will be more thoughtful about what you will buy. If you are mindful of your ethics whilst browsing, and you have an idea of what you plan to buy, you are less likely to be tempted by anything else on offer.
  4. Think about your own crafting/sewing. Incorporating travel purchases into your own crafts can be a lovely way to remember your trip. In Japan I picked up a vintage kimono which I will use to sew myself a skirt or something similar. Japan has a strong tradition of printing on fabric, and I had hoped to pick up a vintage wood block to print with, but I didn’t manage to come across any. I did however find some new stamps for printing on paper. When we returned from our trip, we also bought some magnets and turned our left over coins into fridge magnets- our loose change is now a permanent reminder of our trip, displayed prominently on our fridge.
  5. Keep your eye out for unplanned opportunities for ethical shopping. We can’t predict every opportunity that will come up, so keeping our ethics in the front of our mind can help us to see opportunities when they arise. This might be something small, like purchasing the postcard from the disabled seller on the street, or deciding not to bargain for something when the seller clearly needs that extra dollar more than you do. I still remember with guilt how almost 10 years ago I bargained for a sarong in Cambodia, and paid $3 instead of the $5 she asked for. I was a student, and by Australian standards I was very poor, but the lady selling the sarong had no legs below the knee due to a landmine injury. Sometimes we forget ourselves when we are worried about being taken advantage of. If we are mindful of our ethics this is less likely to happen.  (My only caveat on point 5 would be to be cautious of exploitative scenarios- in poorer countries, children selling flowers and beggars are often run by the mafia and are designed to pray on the good intentions of tourists. It is unwise to financially support this type of activity.) When I was in Japan, I came across these lovely embroidered mats that were being sold to raise money for earthquake reconstruction, so I thought this would make a lovey ethical souvenir to add to my collection.
  6. Buy postcards. Postcards are underrated, but they can be lovely way to remember your trip. I have a beautiful collection of artistic photographs that I picked up in China and Japan, mainly in galleries and arts districts. And as printing is simple, and paper is a renewable resource, they are a reasonably safe bet as an ethical and sustainable purchase.
  7. Print your travel photos. In this age of digital, we rarely print our myriad of photos. Try to chose your 5 best images which you can display on your wall. You can even try using a service such as Portagram to print out your best Instagram images from your trip, or use or make your own professional-looking photobook with your photos using a service such as Blurb. These can take the place of all the impulse-purchased souvenirs that you didn’t come home with this trip….
Embroidered peace dove, raising money for earthquake recovery

Embroidered peace dove, raising money for earthquake recovery

I love shopping on my travels, and with a bit of planning I was still able to come home with some lovely ethical souvenirs. I hope these tips help you to plan the shopping on your next trip. Do you have any other suggestions for ethical and sustainable shopping whilst travelling? Leave a comment to let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’ll leave you with a couple more of my favourite travel souvenirs- my photographs.

Shibuya Shopping District Tokyo Japan, January 2014

Shibuya Shopping District Tokyo Japan, January 2014

Japanese Maple on Cat Street, Omotosando, Tokyo

Japanese Maple on Cat Street, Omotosando, Tokyo Japan, January 2014

If you love what you are reading, get weekly updates by email

* indicates required

Email Format