How to Shop Ethically and Responsibly
Endless alleys of antiquity fill the streets of all major cities and small towns. The essence of community and culture flank the markets. With mindfulness, your eyes can shift perspectives to see more than just the things but instead a visual representation of a historic timeline. Whether you are buying wholesale, for friends, family, or just yourself there are four basic principles that will make your shopping experience more ethical and culturally conscious. I share this knowledge because I am passionate about responsible travel and love textiles. We as travelers are representing our country when we travel abroad. When we go shopping we have the ability to not only expand our minds but share with others. From sharing our culture to other artisans to bringing home crafts and telling the stories when you return home, this symbiotic relationship between craft and knowledge is sacred.
The Four Principles:
1. Haggling isn't okay Everywhere
Depending on what country you are in haggling can be either totally unprofessional or very much a part of the fun. In India, I seemed to almost make the artisans sad if I didn't at least play the game a little. The best way to discuss price is to wait for them to haggle. If you walk away and they start lowering the price, game on and enjoy the fun. For example, in Central and South America haggling is not a part of the general culture where in Asia it is more acceptable. In the future, I plan on writing a detailed checklist of how to haggle in each country I have been.
2. Ask about the Materials
If you are trying to be sustainable, try to buy natural products. If you are getting textiles ask about natural dye, antiques (up-cycled), material type, and who made it. If they are crafts like jewelry or home goods try to stick to natural materials, they are more eco-conscious and support the environment and culture. My deep curiosity in natural dye methods has taught me so many different things about the ecosystem of each continent and materials used for creating colors. I have also learned how certain materials are used almost on every continent I travel, like indigo. This is partly why we call ourselves Indigo Warriors.
Many times in artisan markets there are chemically treated and wholesale items in the mix of the authentic cultural crafts. Some of these products support slave labor, harm the environment, and have nothing to do with the culture.
For example, "...dreamcatchers are not even generically or pluralistically “Native American" via Van Winkle's.
If you are trying to buy to support culture and the environment it is important to be responsible and ask questions. Which leads me too...
3. Ask about the Culture/Story of the Craft
Part of the reason it is so awesome to purchase from local artisans is you expanding your knowledge of the historic culture. You get to explore family techniques passed down generationally and reasons they continue their craft. This is impressively more interactive than learning via a tour or a museum. I am not saying don't do previous research but, this is a present day connection to history! There are people that have been continuing practices done for thousands of years, still speaking original languages, and they are at your fingertips. These artists can explain their techniques and materials used for what they do (just be prepared to use a translator sometimes;). Personally, I have apprenticed with artisans and learned their techniques. This may be a way you can find private classes and artisans willing to teach you their practices. I promise these moments are magical and will rock your socks off!
4. Organic and Fair Trade ...huh? (Shifting mindset from westernized ideas to Direct Purchasing)
Many places you will buy crafts have no idea what fair trade or organic means. These terms are very westernized ways of looking at environmentalism and eco trade. Places that you find the most amazing cultural arts usually are not communities where getting certified is not a priority if at all. Many artists are living day to day and will not understand when you ask these questions. When I first started traveling I remember I wanted to start a fair trade line with artisans and most of the time they had no clue what I was talking about. I would regularly get a nice long blank stare and the infamous head tilt. My goals then shifted into direct purchasing only after realizing my cultural ineptitude.
Part of our mission as global travelers is to embrace cultures, and directly buying from these artists is even better than fair trade. If you follow these rules you are being fair, which is the premise of fair trade. As for organic, the farming industry varies from country to country and many old traditions are still technically organic but have no idea what that word means. So the best you can do is ask as many questions as possible and with the right answers, you can decide how ecologically conscious the crafts are that you are buying.
Organic has become tainted over the years. Today, Walmart is one of the largest retailers of organic products (link is a great article explaining the reason behind this). I don't think conscious or eco when I think about Walmart.
Remember certifications take money, and most organizations/artisans that are doing good don't have the money for fancy certifications. Most artists are not business oriented, so using business structures to determine their authenticity won't work. Nowadays, certifications may make people feel more comfortable when purchasing but the truth is you don't know anything about a product unless you research it. When you buy from artisans you are able to do your research on the spot making it much easier to be ethical and conscious. Buying abroad is the easiest and most fun way to be ethical and eco.
So, there you have it. Follow these principles, ask lots of questions, and buy lots of stuff! It is the awesomeness of traveling to come back with arts and crafts to share with others. These are the ways your friends and family can vicariously learn from you. By gifting others you are spreading knowledge, culture, art, and awesomeness.
The Snarky Spiritualist