Shopping is part of the hedonistic pleasure of travel for many, and a fantastic shopping trip can sweeten a holiday. And when we shop, buying local is usually the best thing sustainable travellers can do for ourselves, the environment and society.
It feels good, of course. Picking up interesting little finds in a local market or buying a piece of furniture or art that we’ve watched being made by an artisan is, to many of us, a whole lot more satisfying than buying off the peg items from an international chain store – for ourselves, and for the people who have made the goods we’ve bought.
Buying local is also part of the rich cultural experience we seek out when we travel. If we want to visit places with character that don’t look like all the other places we go to, buying something direct from those who made it or from a co-operative that represents a group helps such individuality flourish, and is a great way for us to connect to our trip through that item long after we’ve returned home.
Buying local also keeps money in the local community. Not only are small businesses more likely to donate money to local charities and events than big international businesses, studies have shown that when you buy from an independent, locally-owned business, more of your money is used by those businesses to buy from other locals, whether they’re getting fruit or vegetables from a local farm to use in their shop café or ordering wood or other materials to make furniture or art.
Independent shops are also more likely to employ locals and train them properly, so you get a better all round service, and because locally owned businesses are more likely to buy things locally, they don’t have to transport goods from far away and use fossil fuels that they don’t need to.
Shopping when we travel doesn’t just relate to buying material goods, of course, but to meals, treatments and all kinds of services. To reduce the strain on the environment that comes from importing things, eating locally sourced, seasonal food at restaurants that care and choosing spa treatments that use products that have been locally made with natural ingredients is important too. And using local guides, who you pay directly, helps keeps money inside a community and often gives you a better, more informed service too.
Be warned that while bargain-hunting and haggling when we buy local on holiday might feel ok because we’re out of our home environment, it isn’t usually the best route for the artisan or the community. If someone is selling high quality goods, they deserve to be paid well for them wherever they are.
All that said, travellers still need to be vigilant and be wary of local guides and traders who are not themselves ethical. Many of us have experienced guides who take you to particular shops only because they get commission, while traders may be selling goods that are poor quality, counterfeit versions of the real deal nearby or illegal (such as antiques or precious shell that should not be taken from the country). So buy local – but buy ethically too.
It’s often nice to buy something local from our home towns before we travel, whether it’s a locally made bag to keep your bits and pieces or a hand made notebook in which to track your thoughts. And when we do need to buy online or from a larger or chain supplier, it’s getting easier to sift through the green wash and find inventive retailers who care about people and the planet and who are making all sorts of delicious traveller tools, from Fair Trade clothing to sustainable suncream.
Whether you’re at home or on holiday, it all comes down to ethical shopping, as Tim Hunt, Director of UK-based Ethical Consumer, says. ‘Money is a vote which you can use every time you go shopping. By using your spending power wisely you can help in the struggle towards a better world’. To help decide what clothes to take on your next trip, read Tim’s guide to Ethical Fashion.