8 souvenir purchases worth rethinking on your next trip

If you love a bit of holiday shopping, make your contribution to the local economy (and the environment) count by making responsible and sustainable purchases. It’s not always easy to make the right choices, but if you care about the planet, here are eight souvenirs that should always be avoided.

The only way civet coffee should be harvested – from the wild © Sarah Reid

Civet coffee

It’s touted as the ‘best coffee in the world’ but in truth civet coffee or kopi luwak, brewed from coffee beans excreted by mongoose-like creatures native to the jungles of Asia and Africa, is arguably the world’s cruelest coffee. To meet demand, many coffee producers (especially in Indonesia) have taken to keeping civets in deplorable battery-cage conditions to the premium product. Claims by suppliers that their product is ‘wild’, sourced in the jungle from free-roaming civets, are often false. Unless you can verify it with your own eyes, stick to regular coffee.

Seashells and coral

Walking along the seashore in search of shells is a favourite pastime for beachgoers around the world. Pocketing these nautical treasures, however, has various environmental repercussions, from robbing sea creatures of their homes and hiding places, to disrupting other natural functions of seashells including stabilising beaches and anchoring sea grass.

Purchasing shells or coral from an individual or from a store is no better than scouring the shoreline for them yourself. It can actually be even more harmful, as you can never sure how the items were removed from the environment – hermit crabs and molluscs are routinely killed for their shells, and coral is snapped straight off living reefs. Plus, it’s illegal to bring these products into some countries, including Australia.

Step away from the seashell necklaces © Sarah Reid

Jewellery or clothing made from animal products

They might look beautiful, but unless you can guarantee those earrings were made from feathers foraged from the forest floor, or from cattle bones rather than the remains of an endangered animal, it’s worth giving the jewellery a miss. Sadly, demand for these kinds of products fuels the practice of killing animals to make jewellery, from sharks and big cats (for necklaces and earrings) to reptiles (for belts and handbags). Before purchasing anything made from crocodile or snakeskin, check that the product has Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) permit. Avoid turtle shell products at all costs (this clever campaign explains why), and don’t forget to pay attention to woven fibres: a shahtoosh might be a popular buy in Tibet, but these high-fashion scarves are woven from the hair of a rare antelope that has to be killed in order to harvest its wool.

Rocks and other natural-world souvenirs

Pocketing a pebble, a lava chunk, or a piece of petrified wood as a memento of your visit might seem harmless, but the cultural consequences can be significant. Removing stones or other items from Aboriginal sacred sites in Australia, for example, is deeply disrespectful to the sites’ traditional owners. For several decades now, tourists have actually been returning stones stolen from Uluru (Ayres Rock) in the past, with many guilty parties claiming the souvenirs brought them bad luck. Superstitions aside, if every one of the 280,000-odd tourists who visited the famous rock each year took a natural memento, there wouldn’t be much of it left.

Taking rocks from Uluru is hugely disrespectful to its traditional owners © Sarah Reid

A selfie with a wild animal

Holiday snaps are the ultimate low-impact souvenir, granted you don’t contribute to unsustainable tourism practices to get the shots, such as feeding, handling or riding wild animals (especially when photo ops are proffered for a fee), photographing vulnerable children (especially without seeking permission from their parents), or engaging in culturally inappropriate behaviour, such as stripping off at a religious site. You’re not likely to get much mileage out of that tiger selfie anyway, with Tinder now urging its users to refrain from posting tiger selfies on the dating app.

Plastic knick-knacks

Before spending your hard-earned on cheap plastic souvenirs, ask yourself if you really, desperately, need that novelty lighter/keychain/magnet/pair of sunglasses. Not only are these typically poorly made souvenirs likely to end up in landfill (or worse, the ocean) in the very near future, they are often produced by companies that exploit labourers and expose them to toxic chemicals. Chances are, your mates would much prefer an old-fashioned postcard, anyway.

Vegas souvenir purchase regrets… (Though to be fair, I’ve had them for a decade.) © Sarah Reid

Ancient artefacts

Whether you find ’em or buy ’em, removing ancient artefacts from their place of origin is frowned upon by archaeologists. If it’s for sale, there’s a high chance it’s a fake. If it’s not, there’s an equally high chance the artefact was obtained illegally. Supporting this kind of trade helps fuel international conflicts. In Syria, for example, radical Islamist groups count antiquities sales among their revenue streams. Purchasing objects with the intent to donate them to a museum isn’t a great idea either, as most museums won’t touch antiquities lacking a clean bill of sale. In these cases, report vendors to the appropriate authorities.

Fake designer garb

Ten dollar Rolex? $20 Prada bag? They might seem like a steal – and they are. Buying fake luxury products is effectively stealing a designer’s creative license (and a portion of their revenue). If that doesn’t bother you too much, consider the fact that buying counterfeit goods supports an unethical labour market, not to mention organised crime. At the end of the day, even the best fakes can make you look cheap.