Many travelers want to help prevent irreversible environmental damage after experiencing the beauty and frailty of the planet. Going green, however, is intimidating and sometimes expensive. Before you buy supposedly green products, there is one thing all eco-friendly travelers should do.
This one simple idea is difficult to implement because our society depends on material goods for quick-bursts of happiness, like dopamine shots when someone ‘likes’ your photo on social media. Nonetheless, shopping less will drastically decrease your environmental footprint.
A product’s life does not begin on the store shelves. Non-renewable resources are extracted from the earth, shipped to a facility, processed in the facility, shipped to a distribution center, transported to a store, and stocked on the shelf. Then you purchase the product, likely in a plastic bag, transport it home and eventually throw the product away. The product is transported to a landfill where it sits for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Until our society achieves a circular economy, eco-friendly travelers should simply shop less.
How to shop less
At the start of every eco-friendly traveler’s journey, I recommend a 30-day shopping ban for two reasons. This month-long ban gives you time to inventory what you already own and emotionally separate your happiness from personal belongings.
After the shopping ban, I recommend waiting one to three months before purchasing anything. Waiting three months will allow the initial desire of the purchase to fade. If you still want the product after three months, it will likely fulfill a real need or a real want and bring true value to your life.
During that waiting period, find alternative ways to obtain the product. Do you already own something that could serve this purpose too? Can you borrow the product from a friend or family member? Are you able to repair or repurpose an item you already own? Can you rent it from somewhere?
For example, I need a large suitcase for my move to Belarus. Unfortunately, I can’t fit a year’s worth of cold-weather clothing in only my carry-on and Deuter backpack. I planned to wait three months before purchasing the bag, but after waiting one month my parents offered to loan me their large suitcase for the year. They rarely use the bag, I will only need it once, and I’m visiting them before and after Belarus. It’ll be an easy pick-up and drop-off. The exchange couldn’t have worked better.
Cost of my new suitcase: $0. Money saved for more adventures: $100-300.
How to shop consciously
Sometimes we don’t own something that can serve multiple purposes, can’t borrow from friends or family, and can’t rent. And sometimes, even after waiting a few months, we still want something. In these cases, there are a few ways to buy products while still taking care of the environment.
Eco-friendly travelers should first shop secondhand. One person’s trash is truly another person’s treasure. The internet and sharing economy has made shopping secondhand easier than ever. My favorite places to search are in thrift stores, yard sales, Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark, ThredUp, and eBay.
My small hometown has several thrift stores where I’ve found Mason jars for 50 cents, picture frames, and furniture in excellent condition. Sometimes it takes a little digging, so I like to think of it as a treasure hunt.
Plato’s Closet and Clothes Mentor are fantastic clothing-specific secondhand shops. They’re selective so you won’t waste your time sifting through half-decent stuff. Plato’s Closet centers around younger shoppers and Clothes Mentor focuses on young professional women.
Facebook Marketplace and eBay are fantastic for electronics or household goods. A few friends have even purchased cars and found an apartment on Marketplace and eBay! I purchased my Jaybird Sport wireless earbuds and Hunter rainboots from Facebook Marketplace, protecting the environment and my wallet in the process.
Poshmark used to be my go-to online secondhand clothing store, but lately, it has been overwhelmed with people reselling goods they bought en-masse or selling new goods they created. It’s lost the yard sale feel. I still sometimes shop on Poshmark when I’m searching for something specific, like a vegan leather satchel purse I obsessed over for months. Be sure to verify the product is in fact used before purchasing and request for no plastic packaging or as little packaging as possible. You can’t return what you buy from Poshmark, so you have to be absolutely sure of your purchase.
ThredUp is my newest online clothing shopping obsession. Their search and filter functions are fantastic, allowing you to be as broad or specific as you want. I like to shop from “My Home Warehouse” so my clothes aren’t transported as far, reducing the carbon output of my purchase even more. I’ll also select only natural materials, like cotton or linen, because these fabrics tend to last longer and don’t produce microplastics in the wash.
The best part of ThredUp? Returns are free. I’m still selective with my purchases to avoid excess transportation for items I don’t think I’ll love, but it’s perfect for when something is not quite what I expected or doesn’t fit well. The packaging is made of cardboard and paper tissue, which are materials easily reusable, recyclable, or compostable. If you haven’t used ThredUp before, grab $10 off your first order with this link.
ThredUp is also a huge advocate of secondhand shopping and is a leader in the movement to make secondhand cool again. They even created the hashtag #chooseused. Another thing I love? You can sell back your clothes. Whatever ThredUp doesn’t buy, they’ll recycle responsibly! Seriously, start shopping with ThredUp by clicking here.
Companies are starting to make more and more products from recycled goods. This is wonderful because recycling is a business, and not a very successful one unless there is a market for recycled goods.
It’s still better to buy clothing made of natural materials instead of synthetic materials, like clothes made from plastic bottles, because these clothes release million of microplastics into the waterway every time they’re washed. I’d rather not eat a credit card in plastic each week.
Some clothes, like activewear and swimsuits, perform best from synthetic materials. In these cases, buy them made with recycled goods! Just make sure to wash clothes made from recycled materials with a microplastic catcher to catch microplastics.
This website shows companies making products out of recycled materials. Even furniture, outdoor gear, and American flags are made from recycled materials!
One of my favorite discoveries is Batoko.
Batoko sells one-piece swimsuits made of recycled plastic bottles…and they’re wedgie-free! The designs are oh-so-fun and my shark swimsuit hasn’t faded yet after a year of use. If you’re in the market for a new swimsuit, Batoko is perfect.
I’ve found most things I want or need by shopping for secondhand or recycled goods. This may not always be possible, though. In these cases, search for fair trade certified products. This stamp certifies the company is achieving high social and environmental standards.
Also, choose goods to serve multiple purposes, are reusable, and have a good end of life, aka something you can compost or recycle.
Shopping Responsibly while Traveling
Does this mean no more souvenirs?
If a product is created with the planet in mind and will truly add value to your life, then you can purchase without guilt.
Instead of purchasing another useless souvenir, get creative! Here are a few ideas:
- Search local thrift stores for traditional clothing. Ponchos in Peru, sweaters in Iceland, or even a Dirndl in Germany. Thrift stores are fantastic for exploring a less-touristy area of the city and meeting locals. Plus, you’ll snag the traditional clothing for a steal. Those Icelandic sweaters cost hundreds of dollars at most stores, but I found some for $100 at a thrift store in downtown Reykjavik!
- Find a zero waste, package free, or bulk store. My hometown doesn’t have any of these, so it’s always fun to search for them while traveling. You could purchase olive oil from Italy, fair-trade coffee from Colombia, and more. Be sure to bring your own container and check if you can bring whatever you purchase through customs.
- Purchase local alcohol in glass containers. Glass is easily recyclable and reusable. Bring beer back from Germany, tequila from Mexico, or vodka from Russia to carry-on the fun times. I’ve heard Absolut (Sweden), Patron (Mexico), and Glengoyne (Scotland) are sustainably made from eco-conscious companies.
- Keep your entry tickets and create a scrapbook or memory box. You could also include public transportation cards and photos.
- Choose experiences over possessions. Memories are the best type of possession after all. If you’re afraid of forgetting your adventures, journal about your travels.
These are a few examples of eco-conscious souvenirs, but there are hundreds more! Sometimes finding alternatives takes a little creativity, but it’s never impossible.
Hey Eco-Friendly Travelers!
Alright eco-friendly travelers, this post was kind of a major truth bomb.
The travel industry pushes people to consume, then consume more.
“Purchase this gadget” and “buy these shoes.”
Trust me, you don’t need the gadget or shoes. What you have will work just fine. In fact, using what you have is better for the environment.
You can read more about my buying policy here.
So eco-friendly travelers, how do you travel sustainably?
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