It’s hard to believe that the last quarter of 2018 is already upon us. For me, these last few months of the year mean a lot of travel – for holidays, for family visits, and often for work. Over the last decade, I’ve loved each and every one of my trips to Africa. Each country on the continent is incredibly distinct and I appreciate the defining aspects of all of them. Anytime I travel to a new country, especially during holiday time, I love bringing back presents for friends/family. I also scout out items for myself/my household to remind me of the trip. I love having a global flair to my home and wardrobe. Keeping an eye out for unique products when I’m traveling is the perfect way to do that. That said, my personal philosophy is “fewer, but better.” I want to make sure that whatever I keep in my home is something that I truly value. Things that I find valuable are items that bring back great memories and have meaning not only to me, but also to the people who make them. How do you reconcile the philosophy of “fewer, but better” with the desire to purchase even more than usual when you go abroad? Especially if you’re going to a place where the cost of living is lower than your home country, you can likely get an even bigger bang for your buck. This might encourage you to shop even more than usual! With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips that have helped me over the years. The next time you’re on a trip, these tips might help you be a conscious consumer, too.
A guide to conscious consumption while traveling:
1. Research, research, research – This might take the fun out of shopping, but it can’t hurt to do a bit of research before hitting the local markets. You’ll likely learn valuable tips from travelers who have come before you. For example, when in Zambia, I learned that the rich green malachite stone is quite popular for jewelry. A 10-minute Google search allowed me to find ethical sellers for this beautiful material. I’ve also learned other useful tips, such as the best times to visit certain markets (some vendors give their biggest discounts in the evening). Most vendors won’t tell you this information because they want the sale.
2. Bargain, within limits – I love a good bargain. While I don’t love haggling, I will make an effort to get merchants down to a price point that I feel comfortable with. I know they inflate their prices for tourists, so I want to make sure I don’t get cheated. That said, remember that many merchants will rely on the income they get from their sale to purchase their daily meal. In cases where the merchants are artisans themselves, they’ve likely spent a great deal of time making that carved wooden jewelry box that you’re eyeing. They are taking time away from their craft to spend at the local market to sell you their products. That’s time away from practicing their craft and producing even more beautiful items. With that in mind, be considerate when haggling and pay the price you think is fair to support the artisan. My friend Tatiana, for example, regularly travels to Uganda. She’s formed relationships with local artists whose baskets she admires. Because of that, they’ll save special pieces for her and she gets to purchase items that are even more valuable to her in the long run. I’m not saying that you should get cheated or view your purchase as charity – but do remember that a difference of a few cents to you might mean a proper meal to the person you’re buying a product from.
3. Paper or plastic? Most of the places I visit tend to have cash-based economies. That means that, even though some retailers accept credit cards, most people use cash. I often carry USD will me and convert the money locally when possible. Otherwise, if ATMs are safe to use, I’ll withdraw cash in local currency from an ATM. Wherever you visit, it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand in case of emergencies.
4. Reusable bags, always – I usually take reusable bags with me whenever I go shopping – including on my travels. It’s usually better than having a ton of small bags to carry. It’s also a better use of resources given that, in many countries, recycling programs are almost nonexistent and you don’t want vendor shelling out more plastic bags.
5. Gifting an experience – When getting gifts for others, I try to find items that won’t just sit on someone’s shelf. Oftentimes, I try to figure out what foods or consumable goods a place is known for. For example, the southern Africa region is known for rooibos tea (one of my favorites for its robust flavor). I find that these types of items to bring back for friends and family. That way, they can experience a place through my travels and they can use up a product without having it create clutter in their homes.
6. Love at first sight? I don’t know about you, but my tastes sometimes change when I travel. For example, in Morocco, I saw that all of the tourists were wearing wide leg trousers that were tapered at the ankle (often called “harem pants” in the US). I found myself suddenly drawn to them because they looked like fun and breezy trousers in the Moroccan heat. However, really consider if you’ll actually use an item when you bring it back home. Challenge yourself to think of how you’ll use it – i.e. think of three ways you can style those trousers with items that are already in your closet. I couldn’t answer this question for myself for most of the trousers I came across, so I used this guideline to decide not to buy them. Of all the items I purchased in Morocco, I don’t find that I miss these trousers at all. The last thing you want is to come home and realize you regret buying the items you did. After all, it’s practically impossible to return most items after you’ve brought them home.
7. Let your tastebuds be your guide – Instead of going shopping for souvenirs, it’s sometimes equally as rewarding shopping for local produce. For example, I’ve discovered all kinds of bananas in Malawi that we never get in the US due to import restrictions. Stop by your local produce market and look for any interesting foods you might not have encountered before. Chances are, anytime you encounter that particular food, you’ll think back on your experience.
8. Off the beaten path – Many large cities will have a designated shopping district. Most tourists will go there and may often find the same kinds of souvenirs at every shop. If it’s safe to do so, consider taking walks in areas less frequented by tourists. Chances are, you’ll find unique items at better prices. This was certainly the case for me in Essaouira, Morocco.
9. Ask questions – Throughout most of my travels, the hotel concierge or other locals are more than happy to share information about where to go for the best shopping. They’ll might even offer to take you to their favorite places, which has happened to me on multiple occasions. It’s almost like getting a personal tour guide for shopping. They’ll tell you where to look to find the best products and how to tell imitations from genuine items.
10. Memories, not objects – As much fun as it might be to score that perfect gift or find something truly unique, don’t let shopping eat up all of your time while traveling. After all, you don’t want most of your memories to be of the inside of a shop. The more you get out and make memories, the more those souvenirs will mean to you.
If you have any trips coming up soon, I hope this quick guide is helpful. Remember that you can apply the principles of conscious consumption anywhere you go. What are some of the countries on your bucket list? I may have visited there already and might have a few tips I can share with you. I’d love to hear from you!
This blog is written by Devi, founder of developing style on behalf of Trailblazer Travelz. @developingstyleblog, is committed to “highlight the work of empowered women business owners across the globe who operate in an ethical and sustainable manner. “ She does this beautifully by sharing the stories of women artisans, support their work, and allow conscious consumers to have direct access to their beautiful products. By reading her blog, you will be empowered, provided insightful content and inspired, which will help you contribute to changing the world one purchase at a time. “In this spirit, Developing Style is dedicated to global style for the global good.”