We’ve written a series of articles with tips for traveling green on the return trip home. At the end of my study abroad trip to Russia, I found myself scrambling to find souvenirs for family and friends.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon a market and found awesome locally-made sustainable souvenirs a few hours before I boarded my plane in Moscow. I even bought a few for myself.
Examples of not so sustainable souvenirs
I cringe when I remember going “souvenir shopping” growing up. I especially remember our beach trips, to Biloxi, MS, to Florida and to Hilton Head, SC. Many times we bought shell necklaces, painted coral, dried starfish, and sand dollars. I would never do that now.
Even as an adult in my late twenties, I regrettably recall politely declining a street painter outside a museum in Paris, France, and instead buying a mass-produced print from a stand. Knowing better now, I would never make those choices. It’s so important to find sustainable souvenirs for so many reasons.
Here’s what to look for in an eco-conscious souvenir.
Tips to find sustainable souvenirs
Support the people who live in the country you’re visiting. Buy local crafts, like earrings from a native jeweler and baskets crafted by the person selling them. Plus, the further your souvenir travels to get to you, the greater impact it has on the environment. If you are unsure about an item, look if it has a “made in” tag.
From a locally-owned business.
Another way to ensure you are buying a sustainable souvenir is to support the local economy. You can easily do this by purchasing your sustainable souvenirs from locally-owned shops or street stands.
Made from sustainable materials.
Avoid rare wood that may have been harvested unsustainably or illegally. Always avoid animal parts (animal skins, tusks, etc.) since they may have come from an endangered animal or might have been poached.
Something the region is known for.
Get your friends something they can’t find at home. The Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and jelly I bought in Belize were big hits. We we were in Iowa with kids, we bought them a matchstick making hobby kit from Matchstick Marvels. What a perfect, sustainable memory.
We had friends who visited Thailand and brought back mini notebooks for all the first grade classes in the school their son attended. They were made from animal dung (and were a huge hit).
Lightweight and small.
The heavier something is, the more resources it burns reaching its final destination. The lightest souvenir I’ve purchased was a locally-produced papyrus painting in Egypt.
Instead of buying yourself something from the place you are traveling to, you might consider buying something in advance, for your trip instead. An easy choice would be a stainless steel water bottle that you can take with you and use for years to come while not on vacation. You would be doing well by the earth every time you took it with you to refill.
It is a great idea to support the economy wherever you are visiting. And because so many of us have so much “stuff” already, a welcome souvenir might be food, preserves, spices, tea, etc. from wherever you are visiting. Think in advance about this if you are traveling out of the country for what needs to be declared at customs.
Also consider if you are just carrying on luggage, what you are permitted to bring. If all of this checks out, local wine, a jar of locally-produced honey, fruit preserves and jams, tea, etc. can all be useful and appreciated sustainable souvenirs.
Our favorite sustainable souvenir tip…
Take it yourself.
Make sure you bring your camera. One of the easiest and most meaningful sustainable souvenirs can be one you capture yourself. Before you leave your destination, make sure you have one excellent, frame-worthy photograph.
It could be of scenery of the place you are visiting; of you standing in front of something from the city, like a monument or a waterfall; or it could be of the local scene. Just be sure to take culturally sensitive photos wherever you are.
When you get home, develop your best picture into a print. If it is high enough resolution, it would be wonderful to enlarge and hang in your home. As time goes on, you may want to create a vacation wall of memories.
Where can you find sustainable souvenirs?
Depending where you are in the world, the best place to find locally-made souvenirs are from outside stands, markets, and stalls. They are usually in high-traffic places, on the streets near museums, near famous sites for the town.
There may be certain days for them, or they may be there every day. There were tables/booths set out near lookout points in Sedona, AZ. They are permanent stalls built around the Four Corners National Monument (where Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico intersect) where Native Americans sell their wares.
It is easy to fall into the trap of buying souvenirs that are cute and filled with plastic, like magnets and key chains. And there is nothing really wrong with those items, especially if you are buying them from a local vendor.
It’s just that we think you can oftentimes do better. Just like we can all do better by renting a bike when on vacation instead of using taxicabs.
It is natural to want a token memory and that might be something native to the region you visit. If it comes from a renewable source and was produced locally and safely, you can feel good about buying it. Getting a feel for the culture and visiting the native sellers can help you to support the economy where you are visiting.
Always try to buy sustainable souvenirs to do the most good you can.
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