How to shop ethically and sustainably wherever you travel is a skill that’s easily learnt. And it’s one of the easiest ways for you to travel more responsibly. All you need to do is think hard about where and how you spend your money in the places in which you’re travelling.
Living in Cambodia, where the news often covers garment worker strikes and the deaths and injuries of workers — young people who slave for long hours making clothes and shoes for a pittance for some of the world’s biggest global fashion brands — has led me to further evaluate how I spend my money.
Below you’ll find my tips on how to shop ethically and sustainably when you’re away or at home. I’ve been following these for some years, however, I’m now also going to refrain from shopping at fashion brands I used to buy, such as Zara and H&M, until those companies demonstrate that the workers at their factories in Cambodia and elsewhere are being paid fair wages that are sufficient to live on.
According to a study by UK-based Labour Behind the Label and the Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Centre, workers in Cambodia require a minimum of US$150 a month to cover basic needs. Those working for Zara, H&M and other global fashion brands with factories in Cambodia, including Gap, Puma, Adidas, Nike, Debenhams, Next, Esprit, and Levi Strauss and others weren’t receiving that until recently.
I monitored the news closely in Cambodia throughout December and January 2014 when young textile workers like those above were injured, died or were detained during a brutal police crackdown while protesting for their right to fair payment for their work. Many of the global retailers I mentioned above signed letters condemning the shootings that resulted in the deaths and injuries.
However, those big, rich, global retail companies came to Cambodia because of the very fact that the labour is cheap, they can make their products more cheaply here than anywhere else, and they can therefore reap far greater profits — off the backs of workers who can barely survive on the meagre wages they are paying them. The multinational fashion brands need to take greater responsibility here.
But it was an encounter in 2014 with a former garment factory worker who now works in the travel industry that really brought home the situation for me. She described firsthand how she lived for several years while working in a factory making clothes for a major international fashion brand. She explained how she slaved for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, working overtime for a measly $5 monthly bonus, only to take home a total of just $65 a month.
She told me that she only ever had a day off when she called in sick from exhaustion and she maintained that relentless pace for three years until she finally couldn’t take it anymore and found another job. If you find that story shockingly sad, I also recommend reading these firsthand accounts here in the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s national English-language newspaper.
Catch the bus in or out of Phnom Penh early in the morning or in the evening and you can’t help but notice the young workers starting or ending their day at the garment factories on the dusty outskirts of Cambodia’s capital. As we were heading out of town on a day-trip some years ago we saw the bleary-eyed young women, above, tumble out of trucks, tuk tuks and ox carts, and on our return to the city in the early evening we witnessed them wearily pile back on again.
Cambodians are generally a cheerful lot. We often say they seem to be the happiest people in the world because they are so generous with their smiles and salutations. We’ve met the poorest of the poor in villages outside Siem Reap and Battambang and even after a hard day in the rice fields they have beamed at us as they warmly welcomed us to their homes. Yet, the women above weren’t smiling. They looked exhausted and unhappy.
Until the government announced a raise of the garment workers’ minimum wage to US$100 a month in 2014, they were earning $75 minimum a month, and last year many of the 600,000 or so workers were earning as little as $60 a month or $2 a day. I have a hard time understanding how the workers can survive on so little.
Sure, people earn even less in the villages, but they are often residing in their own homes or on family hand, so probably don’t have rent to pay, they can feed themselves from their own fresh produce and that of their neighbours by bartering, and the cost of living is far lower in the countryside than the capital.
In fact, the study I mentioned above (cited here) found that many garment workers suffer from malnutrition and fainting is common. At the time of writing this, there were no real outcomes from the letters the global fashion brands sent, and more mass protests took place in February that year.
Until these retailers can assure consumers that the workers who produce their clothes are earning more than the price of a shirt or pair of jeans each month, I’ll be spending my money elsewhere and I’d suggest you do the same.
Here are some more tips on how to shop ethically and sustainably when you travel.
How To Shop Ethically and Sustainably — Buy Local, Buy Fair Trade and Check Tags
Here are my tips to how to shop ethically and shop sustainably whether you’re at home or away:
1. Buy Ethical Brands
Do some research and read the labels and tags on the clothes you buy to ensure you’re buying products that are ethically made.
When we were in Paris, Christelle Bonnivard, who opened ethical boutique Mademoiselle Bambû after being inspired by the gorgeous garments she saw at an Ethical Fashion Show, gave me some fantastic tips on how to shop ethically and sustainably.
Christelle, who only sells ‘ethical fashion’, defines it as clothes, jewellery and accessories made by small independent designers who only use materials whose origins they know.
“The products must respect the environment, respect human beings, and be 100% biologique (organic),” Christelle said. “In France we have a strict certification and standards system — the tags should say where the product was made, what it’s made from, and whether it is organic cotton or 100% biologique.”
Look for similar information on tags, labels, in shops, on company websites, and online.
2. Support Fair Trade
Fair Trade goods are ethically made products that are produced and sold according to World Fair Trade Organization principles that require that education, training and employment opportunities be provided, that people be paid fairly, and that production be environmentally sustainable.
When we were in Bali, for instance, we could have bought souvenirs at the markets, but we had no idea where they came from, whether child labour was used, and whether workers who made them were fairly treated.
Instead we went to Ubud’s Threads of Life, which works with traditional weavers in villages too remote to benefit from tourism, helping to feed their families, educate their kids, train them, maintain their traditions, and enable their communities to prosper and grow.
By shopping at Fair Trade businesses you are helping too. To know whether a business is Fair Trade, look for stickers on shop windows and certificates on walls confirming their Fair Trade status.
3. Keep Traditions Alive
Wherever possible, try to seek out traditional crafts or at least contemporary applications of traditional techniques so that you are contributing to keeping traditions alive rather than contributing to their death.
I like to give the example of the distinctive candy-striped Catalan textiles, Les Toiles Du Soleil or The Cloth of the Sun, produced in Saint Laurent de Cerdans in the French Pyrénées for over 150 years, which enlivens everything from espadrilles to shop awnings.
Once, the entire village was devoted to the textile’s creation by traditional techniques, but as machine manufacturing expanded business declined.
Fortunately, thanks to three designers working under the umbrella ‘Made in Céret’, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the fabric.
4. Shop Local and Buy Direct
Make a habit of asking staff in shops where things come from and quiz them about the source if you have any doubts as to the origin.
By buying locally made products from local business owners, you know what you’re buying, and by buying direct from the source, from artists, designers and craftspeople, you know you’re directly supporting their work, helping to create demand for local products in a retail climate that increasingly favours cheap, mass-produced trinkets and clothes.
Local small business owners tend to re-invest profits into their community, whereas foreign business owners tend to send it home.
Shopping locally is therefore much more sustainable, as well as helping ensure places maintain their distinctive local character, the kind of character shaped by quirky one-of-a-kind shops like one of my favourites, Giovanna Canela Miranda’s Ave María In San Miguel de Allende.
Giovanna specialises in quirky, kitsch and cool Mexicana, and she also shared some wonderful advice on how to shop ethically and sustainably. “Buy local!” she said.
Everything Giovanna designs, sources and sells is made in Mexico. She either commissions Mexican artists to make her products or she travels around Mexico to source things directly from artisans and designers.
5. Be Eco-Friendly and Go Organic
When shopping for gifts and mementoes when you travel, look beyond souvenir shops.
If you’re settling into a place for a while, buy organic produce at local markets.
Wherever possible we always seek out farmers markets and buy local, seasonal, organic produce, which leaves a smaller environmental footprint than imported products that have been flown in or travelled considerable distance.
I will always try to buy recycled, handmade and eco-friendly gifts whenever possible, such as these in Venice from Pied à Terre, which sells vibrant velvet slippers with soles made from recycled tyres inspired by those that peasant farmers once made from jute seed bags, bicycle tyres and recycled rags for gondoliers.
I also love Dietro Langolo, owned by architects Federica Serena and Sylvia Saltarin who sell eco-friendly fashion, accessories and design objects made from recycled electric cable, silicon, candy wrappers, and fire hoses.
6. Choose Vintage
Wherever we go I like to ask locals to point me toward vintage stores and charity shops, which always tend to be located in more interesting inner-city areas.
Buying vintage clothes for many is about creating an individual style statement from rare old pieces. I love buying clothes as souvenirs so that whenever I wear them I’m reminded of the place I discovered them.
But what also I love about buying vintage when I travel is that if it was rare in the place I bought it, it’s highly unlikely I’m going to see anyone wearing it elsewhere.
Most importantly, I’m recycling something old, which is far better than buying disposable fashion. Now, more than ever.
More Resources on Ethical Shopping and Sustainable Shopping
Shop Ethical: Your Ethical Consumer Guide (Australia)
Published February 2014; Last updated July 2019.