How to shop sustainably while travelling

Travelling enables us to visit renowned heritage sites, witness beautiful landscapes, take a leap through history, and explore different cultures and traditions unlike our own.

Yet, as the tourism industry expands within vulnerable regions of the world, individual accountability grows more critical to reduce our ecological footprint and adopt sustainable traveling practices.

One common custom among travellers is shopping, with purchasing habits encompassing everything from souvenirs to equipment rentals to groceries. However, while souvenirs and goods can help preserve a special vacation memory, these sales are also essential for local economies.

Responsible tourism means prioritising and respecting the local environment and communities with sustainable shopping. This includes purchasing fair trade items, supporting artisans and small businesses, and cutting back on souvenirs that often go to waste.

With your plane ticket in hand and your bags packed, these 10 tips will help you shop more sustainably while travelling.

Shop Organic and Eco-Friendly

As you venture into markets and vendor fairs, try to shop for organic and eco-friendly goods.

Avoid unethically sourced animal products and natural artefacts, as regional wildlife populations and natural environments may be endangered or harmed to meet tourists’ demands for souvenirs.

Before making a purchase, you should ask yourself and the vendor the following questions:

  • Where was this product produced?
  • What materials is it made from?
  • Do I need permits or other documentation to carry this item into the United States?
  • Does the host country have regulations on the sale and export of this item?

Visiting farmers’ markets and specialty souvenir shops is a more sustainable alternative for organic food and eco-friendly keepsakes.

Negotiate Prices in Moderation

The tourism sector is the world’s third-largest export economy, with an estimated 10.8% increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) expected by 2026.

Developing island states in the Caribbean are a prime example of an economically robust tourism industry. In 2020, Aruba’s tourism accounted for 44% of its GDP, while St. Lucia was the second-highest at 28.7%.

Travel sales are critical for local economies, and many communities greatly depend on tourist spending. While it’s customary for visitors to haggle for bargains on certain items, especially in local marketplaces and vendor fairs, try not to get overly excited about getting the lowest deal.

As you adopt more sustainable purchasing habits on your trip, remember that your spending is essential to local people’s livelihoods.

Look for Fair Trade Items

Fairtrade goods guarantee the safety and equitable treatment of small-scale farmers, workers, and other types of producers.

Items are classified as fairtrade when they meet the following social, economic, and environmental criteria:

  • Social: Allows small-scale producers to partake in decision-making, transparency, and non-discriminatory practices, including gender equity, equal pay, worker protections, bargaining rights, and restrictions against child labor.
  • Economic: Provides a Fairtrade Minimum Price to offset price reductions with long-term planning and delivers a fixed Fairtrade Premium for producers to invest in the other local businesses.
  • Environmental: Decreases ecological impacts by conserving natural resources, using fewer fertilizers and pesticides, and fostering organic farming.

Shops and vendor merchants often display a sticker on their windows indicating they sell fairtrade-certified goods.

Bring Reusable Bags

Plastic pollution is a serious problem worldwide – but in the U.S., Americans dispose of 1.8 million single-use plastic bags per week, which could take between 15 and 1,000 years to disintegrate.

To protect the environment, many consumers have started bringing reusable bags during shopping trips, whether they’re visiting a grocery store or a larger retailer.

Even if you plan to do minimal shopping during your travels, it’s good to have a few reusable bags on hand – especially since they take up such little space in your suitcase when folded.

Support Local and Small Businesses

Tourist shops like to draw tourists in with colourful, fun, and often useless mass-produced souvenirs. Instead, you should seek street vendors and artisans over traditional tourist shops for more sustainable buys.

Supporting local crafters and small businesses ensures your dollars go directly to the merchants who need money the most. You also help create a demand for locally made and locally sourced products over foreign-produced items.

Remember that merchant revenue is re-invested into the local community, which builds a thriving regional economy.

However, boutiques and shops aren’t the only places you can show your support. Decades-long established eateries and cafes also benefit from tourist spending.

For example, El Batey Tavern in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is over 55 years old with an illustrious history of famous visitors and signature drinks like the “La Guagua Voladora,” which translates to the “The Flying Bus.” By researching iconic local establishments, you’ll learn so much more about the destination than only going to international chain stores. 

Seek Out Traditional Crafts

Travel destinations tend to have a unique cultural and natural heritage that draws tourists worldwide. However, the travel industry’s greatest challenge is understanding how to develop and promote cultural tourism while preserving the heritage for future generations.

For example, the Biltmore Estate is a popular North Carolina attraction that hosts 1.7 million visitors each year. Located in the small town of Asheville, a recent study illustrated the Biltmore Estate’s financial impact on the local community:

  • Creates 760 jobs
  • Delivers $215 million in revenue to locals
  • Pays $5 million in taxes
  • For every $1 spent at the Biltmore, tourists spend another $12 somewhere else in town

Heritage sites are essential for tourist development. However, traditional crafts and other handmade goods also help promote a culture distinctive to a particular region.

Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, traditional Talavera pottery included colors and motifs depicting Mexican folklore, native flora, local wildlife, and patterns from ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Today, tourists can buy locally made traditional Talavera and support local artistry, economies, and cultural preservation.

Wherever your travels take you, ask how these items represent the region’s local heritage and traditional techniques.

Give New Life to Pre-Owned Items

What’s old can always become new again, even when traveling.

If you’re searching for a unique memento from your travels that beautifully represents the local culture and community, antique stores and vintage shops are great places to find them.

There are a couple of benefits associated with travel thrifting. For one thing, you’re more likely to find unique fashions not worn anywhere else. You might also come across a rare cultural treasure you can’t live without.

Locals will be eager to point you in the right direction of hidden-gem locations that carry the vintage items you’re after. It’s also a great way to visit trendier neighborhoods off the beaten path.

Opt for Experiences Over Things

Although tourist spending is essential to local economies, it’s not the only place you can funnel your dollars while on vacation. In fact, a less-wasteful alternative to purchasing unnecessary goods is signing up for tours and excursions.

Is there a unique habitat in the region you’re visiting? A safari or hiking tour may offer a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife and learn about endangered species. Likewise, outdoor activities like kayaking or parasailing deliver an exciting chance to lay your eyes on the local environment.

You can’t always purchase a happy travel memory. Sometimes, you can only preserve lasting memories with fun firsthand experiences.

Consider the Value of Your Purchase

It’s always amusing to purchase shirts and hats that broadcast your most recent travels in bold letters across the front. But how often do you actually wear them back home? The same could be said for little items that break in your bag or collect dust on a shelf until you throw them away.

Considering the fact that global municipal waste generation is likely to increase by 70% to 3.4 billion metric tons by 2050, the less trash you accumulate, the less ends up in landfills.

Before buying anything on vacation, consider whether a specific item holds lasting value. Will it still be sentimental a year from now? How about in two weeks?

Be selective when shopping sustainably on vacation and choose items you’ll treasure and use for years to come.

Shop With Businesses that Give Back

Small businesses that give back to the environment or community will enable you to shop more sustainably during your trip.

For example, shops and artisans may donate a portion of their proceeds to a cultural or environmental charity. Others may plant a tree for each sale they make.

Merchants who give back are often proud to share their support for local issues that matter to them. They may display a sign that demonstrates their affiliation with a particular charity or openly discuss it with tourists.

To find these charitable stores, you may need to do some research first. Look up different shops and products in the area you’re traveling to and speak with store owners about how far a purchase actually reaches.

Preserve Culture and the Environment With Sustainable Shopping

As a traveller – whether for business or leisure – you play an essential role in helping to protect the local environment and preserve cultures and traditions. Plan before you embark on your next adventure and consider these 10 tips for a greater sustainable shopping experience.

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Cora Gold

Cora Gold is the Editor-in-Chief of women’s lifestyle magazine Revivalist ( She strives to live as best as she can, and she loves to share her experiences with life, adventure, sustainability and more through her writing. Follow Cora on Twitter (@CoraGold2), Pinterest (@revivalistmag) and Facebook (@revivalistmag).

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