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How to shop ethically for souvenirs

By all means, shop when you visit foreign countries, but do it thoughtfully.

“One of the best ways to do good on a trip is to buy stuff and pay people.” This advice comes from Bert Archer, in an article written for G Adventures. He explains how not all souvenir shopping is bad, and that money can be an effective instrument of change when travelling in a foreign country. Not only does it leave you with a memento, but it also gives something back to the people of the country that have hosted you.

But not all souvenirs are created equal. How does one navigate the confusing world of souvenir shops, the question of authenticity, the debate over price, the pushy street vendors? Archer offers some advice, and I've also dug around some other ethical travel sites for suggestions. What follows is a list of ideas for how to make souvenir shopping a more beneficial experience for everyone involved.

1. Authenticity matters less than you think.

Archer wants travellers to fret less about whether an item is made the way it's always been made and more about whether the person who made it will get to keep the money you give them. You can judge this based on a few indicators, such as: Do you see them making it? Are they putting cash in their own pockets, as opposed to a cash register? Are they selling off a blanket or table, rather than a store? Is it unusual, one-of-a-kind?

2. Avoid mass-produced items.

If you see the same souvenir everywhere, that does not make it special; it means it's probably mass-produced and imported from elsewhere, and does not likely benefit the local artisan market. As Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Travel, explained, “Never buy anything made in China — unless you actually are in China.” So, always double-check the origin of items before purchasing and quiz storeowners if you're unsure.

3. Go to the specialty areas.

Ask around to find out where the potters, painters, tailors, leather workers, jewellers, and food markets are located. Go to the districts known for these handicrafts and foods, and do your shopping there. If you see locals in the shops, you'll know you're in the right spot. Looking for these places can also get you off the beaten track and show you a side of a foreign city that you might not have seen otherwise.

I recently inherited a ring that my grandmother had made when we visited Mumbai many years ago; she found her birthstone on a vendor's tray and took it to a neighboring jeweller to have set in a band. She wore it for years, and now I have the memory of that trip on my own hand. It wouldn't be the same if she'd just bought it at a store.

4. Don't buy at the most obvious spot.

The Louvre's gift shop pulls in about €150 million a year, Archer says. Rather than contribute to that, step a street or two over and buy the same postcard, the same tote, whatever it is you want, from another retailer. Spread the wealth by supporting the underdogs. Archer writes,

“In Montreal and wanting to try a smoked meat sandwich? Maybe try The Main, the equally old, equally good spot across the street from Schwartz’s. If you want a tour, don’t book a hop-on hop-off; instead, try a local guide service like Tours by Locals or Vayable or, if you’re on a G tour, one of their local guides.”

5. Understand a country's bartering/haggling culture.

Just because you're abroad doesn't mean you should automatically negotiate prices. Do some research to understand what the culture is before questioning a vendor. Personally, I am uncomfortable with bargaining as a tourist, as I'm aware of the privileged position I'm in simply by being there. If you can't afford to pay a generous price that leaves a good impression on the vendor, perhaps you shouldn't be shopping in the first place. (This applies to tipping in restaurants, too.) That being said, if you're planning to make a big purchase, i.e. a handwoven rug, high-end jewelry, or furniture, it's smart to do some research ahead of time to have a ballpark price.

6. Seek out artisan collectives.

I liked this suggestion from Apartment Therapy, which takes some of the guesswork out of shopping. Collectives bring artisans' work to a broader market, charge a fair price, and return a decent share to the makers. Ask at your hotel or tourist information desk, or reach out to an ethical travel agency that operates in the city you're visiting. Intrepid Travel is one such company that directed me to a wonderful handicrafts store run by Syrian refugee women in Istanbul, and I made some satisfying purchases there.

The point is, don't be afraid of buying souvenirs. Think of it as a gesture of thanks to the country that has hosted you. Strike up conversations, introduce yourself, and ask questions. Make it a friendly, pleasant exchange for both of you, and you'll come away feeling good.

By all means, shop when you visit foreign countries, but do it thoughtfully.