Thursday 7 February 2013

globe-trotting eco-shopping

If you're like me, you enjoy shopping while on holiday - especially in foreign countries. Since flying around the globe is hardly eco-friendly, it’s so important to make holiday purchases as sustainable as possible.  Let me share with you how I endeavoured to make sustainable shopping choices on my recent travel adventure.


The sights, sounds and scents of the markets in this colourful country are enough to entice any shopper to open her wallet and purchase one of everything. But in this land of many contrasts I felt myself pulled in different directions over my purchases. On the one hand, I wanted to support the local economy and have fun buying, on the other, I didn’t want to encourage over-consumption of unsustainable materials or unfair wages. If I can buy a beautiful scarf for $5, how much money did the person who created it earn? What were her/his working conditions like? Is it even possible to know from where the fabric originated?

In Fort Cochin, in the state of Kerala, I stumbled upon a Fair Trade shop – joy! I purchased a beautiful scarf, a few bangles and a beaded bracelet. My total cost was astronomical compared to the ‘bargains’ around town, about $50 for the lot, but compared to Sydney prices it was a steal, and I felt better about the purchases knowing they were Fair Trade.

I know there are amazing textile producers in India (ethical-retailer Indigo Bazaar works with at least one), but as a tourist it was hard to know what I was buying. Most of the time I felt the best I could do was make 'better' choices on fabrics and materials and not just purchase for the sake of purchasing. Polyester and other synthetic fabrics were abound, I assume as a low cost alternative to silk, but I did eventually find a pair of cotton pants for myself and a couple pashminas for gifts that are poly-free. I’m assuming none were organic or sustainably sourced, and I have no idea if the person who made them was paid fairly, but I felt that at least by selecting natural fibers it was a ‘better’ purchase if not super-sustainable.

Wearing my new Fair Trade scarf and bracelets, and my
(non-Fair Trade) cotton pants in an old dungeon outside Mysore.


Well, the only thing I can say about sustainable shopping in Dubai is that there is enormous opportunity for growth.  The celebration of over-consumption was apparent in the high-end shopping malls and mega-hotels of this city built from the spoils of the oil industry. Sadly even the souks (old markets) were filled primarily with garments imported from China and India and I struggled to find the local culture represented.

I have since discovered online the first vintage and reconstructed fashion shop in Dubai called Bambah - if you're in the area please check it out and report back to me. It looks very promising!



I was in Tanzania for about 7 weeks, so I have more to say about this country than any other.

I’ve already written about the amazing work of Shanga in Arusha, Tanzania. If you’re after unique jewellery or glassware, don’t look past this impressive group which provides employment to disabled Tanzanians whilst recycling the glass bottles from the city.

Beaded bangles from Shanga. Photo by Lizzie Halloran.

The Maasai people and their culture are a defining element of Eastern Africa, and you can’t help but want to take home some of their handiwork as a celebration of your time in their land. I found purchasing goods from the Maasai was a delicate balance of respecting the culture, not purchasing things I wouldn’t appreciate once I was home (and would end up in the landfill), and hoping the person and/or village received a fair price.  I ended up purchasing Maasai goods from a few different places of varying sustainability credentials (lots of friends and family members received presents from Tanzania!):
  • I made some purchases direct from a village that I visited, where I met and danced with the women who had made the pieces I purchased – those remain the most precious purchases of my travels because of the unique memories that come along with them. 
  • I purchased a pair of pants from a local man at a school my volunteer program partnered with - he was so excited that a mzungu (tourist) wanted a pair of his pants!
  • The bulk of my purchases came from the AfriHope market, which is an artists' cooperative, the majority of whom are widowed women and single mothers. AfriHope give 2% of their income to orphans. A number of pieces are made from recycled materials, including the toy safari truck I bought my nephew that was made of reused soda cans and an adorably-kitsch oven mitt for a friend made of colourful Kitanga fabric offcuts.
  • I made a couple purchases from the large Maasai Market that was near my accommodation, though I'd avoided it for weeks because of the brash salespeople. It was really hard to know where the goods came from, but at the end of the day I figured buying something and providing even a little bit of income to my neighbours was better than buying nothing just because I didn’t know the whole story.
Having a dance and a laugh with some wonderful Maasai jewellery-makers.
A Maasai bracelet and pair of earrings.

Some of my beautiful African treasures: a Maasai blanket, traditional
Kitanga fabric, an antique mask, a beaded disc and my local-artisan pants.

On my second-to-last night in town I met a vivacious American woman named Jennifer VanderGalien running a "Women to Work" sandal company called Shining a Light. These fabulous beaded Maasai sandals are all the rage in Arusha! It’s wonderful to see this group providing income and life skills training to local women so they may provide for their families and break the cycle of poverty.
One of the many styles available from Shining A Light - order a pair today!

As I wrote about in Sustainability with Style, Americans and Australians notoriously donate more clothes than charities know what to do with - there is simply not as much need in our countries to deal with all our unwanted goods. Some of these extras get sent to developing nations in the form of aid. I learned on my travels that it's not uncommon for these goods to be stolen in transit then sold instead of donated. I visited Arusha's secondhand market and was overwhelmed at the amount of Western clothing available for purchase. Here you can see a Converse stall and a denim stall. Smaller stands were popping up everywhere around town, and it was a daily reminder of how much excess is produced in Western countries.

Secondhand market stalls.


If you missed it you can read my entire post on eco-shopping in Spain and the lovely time I had in shops such as Olokuti where I picked up pieces by People Tree and I Owe You - both brands available to purchase online!


I didn’t actually make any purchases in London - shock! I was madly sightseeing and catching up with old friends on my short stint in the UK.  I did wander around the shops of course, and was thrilled to see Marks & Spencer's eco-packaging in person after presenting it in Sustainable Packaging 101. I also know there are a number of great sustainable shopping options and ethical UK-based brands, so had I more time to shop it would have been a breeze.
To name just a few.

* * * *

As many travellers can attest, visiting other cultures has a profound impact on your daily perspective. I’m so fortunate to have been able to travel at this stage of my life – young enough to do everything I wanted, yet mature enough to absorb the lessons that presented themselves to me along the way. I hope I hold onto this perspective in the years to come.

One of the big lessons I learned was just how different ‘sustainability’ looks in different cultures. Most dramatically, when travelling in developing countries such as India and Tanzania, eco-shopping can really feel like a first world indulgence. It wasn’t possible to make every purchase sustainable from an environmental perspective, yet I felt it was my duty to spend some money for the sake of providing income to some of the world’s poorest individuals.  I endeavoured to make the most responsible choices I could, especially in terms of paying a fair price because it simply doesn’t make sense for me to get the bargain of a lifetime at the expense of a person who is most likely living below the poverty line.

If you’re taking off anytime soon on your own travels, remember the usual sustainable shopping tips and you'll be fine – less is more, know where your product was made and by whom, and seek sustainable (or at least natural) fabrics – and have fun creating your own collection of international pieces and memories.  Most importantly, celebrate the culture you are visiting, get to know the local people, live in the moment and learn the lessons presented to you.

Oh, and have a fabulous time, and make sure to share your experience with the rest of us when you return!

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