Can the collection of memories ever be sustainable?


Bringing memories of distant lands is a ritual as old as travel itself. Early pilgrims returned from Jerusalem clutching handfuls of dirt, while Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, hid a shard of Shakespeare’s chair in his bag when he visited the bard’s home in 1786.

The urge to collect treats from other cultures is as inherent as it is difficult to rationalize. After all, an Eiffel Tower keychain, made in China and sold by a Senegalese immigrant, is as close to capturing the essence of the City of Light as Emily in Paris.

In his book Memory (Bloomsbury), Rolph Potts suggests that collecting such trinkets is an attempt to capture something ephemeral: a moment, a feeling, an experience. But, while some memories harm the planet and its inhabitants, others can enhance life and help protect ecosystems.

Bringing home memories of our travels is a practice as old as travel itself.


Any traveler looking to be more sustainable in the age of social media knows the most cliched phrase, “take nothing but memories, leave only footprints”. And while it’s true that we all need to reduce our consumption and find ever more creative ways to reuse waste (plastic production is expected to nearly quadruple by 2050), souvenirs bring no economic benefit to the community that you are visiting.

For travel to be truly sustainable, that is, capable of being repeated with minimal harmful and potentially positive impacts, the people living in a destination must be the primary beneficiaries of every trip taken there.

Unfortunately, we are far from realizing it. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel industry employed one in 10 people worldwide before the pandemic. However, ‘economic leakage’ – when tourism spending is diverted away from a destination by international corporations – is a real problem. In destinations where all-inclusive vacations are the norm (think some Caribbean islands), economic leakage can be as high as 80%. Souvenir shopping is one way to counter this.

Lasting souvenirs are especially important for remote and rural communities, as selling them to tourists can be a source of cash

“Lasting souvenirs are especially important for remote and rural communities, as selling them to tourists can be a source of cash in areas without a reliable cash economy,” Potts says.

“In the Sepik River Basin in Papua New Guinea, local artisans have adapted sacred masks and figurines to serve the souvenir market. Catering to tourists allows them to stay in their remote homes, rather than having to migrate to urban centers and find arduous jobs. In this way, the souvenir trade makes their communities more economically sustainable while strengthening traditional artistic skills.

In some destinations, manufacturers cannot afford their own commercial space and may struggle to reach the tourist market due to language barriers. In these cases, shops run by the tourist board or ethical tour operators that support locals – for example, Journey to Valbona in Albania – are usually the best option, as more of the profit goes to the manufacturer than in a standard store. Alternatively, local guides often have itineraries that include visits to artisan workshops.

Plastic often has a larger transport carbon footprint than the tourist themselves


But what about those trinkets that can be bought by the handful at stations and outdoor monuments, like that Eiffel Tower keychain mentioned earlier?

“Unlike local crafts, mass-produced souvenirs tend to be products of the global manufacturing economy — and in recent decades the vast majority are cheaply made in China,” says Potts.

Researchers classify mass-produced souvenirs into two categories: objects such as T-shirts and coffee mugs that have been marked in a particular location are “markers”, while miniature models of local landmarks such as the Colosseum are known as “symbolic shorthand”.

If you can’t see where an item is produced and it’s very cheap, chances are the people who made it aren’t working in decent conditions.

“These types of souvenirs are less environmentally sustainable because they have often traveled farther than the tourist buying them,” Potts continues. “In addition, it takes market share away from locals, while perhaps threatening the very survival of their crafts. Take the Aboriginal artisans of central Australia. They often have to compete with cheap facsimiles of native art that have been mass-produced and imported from places like Bali and Vietnam.

Purchasing poor quality goods has environmental implications beyond the carbon emissions caused by their manufacture and transportation. If a plastic toothbrush takes up to 450 years to decompose in a landfill, one can only imagine that the same is true for an Eiffel Tower keychain. If you can’t see where an item is produced and it’s very cheap, chances are the people who made it aren’t working under decent conditions.

Travelers can do good by buying souvenirs directly from locals


Despite their social and environmental cost, the continued popularity of mass-produced memorabilia helps explain why we collect them.

According to Potts, memories are more like chapter headings in our own narrative than an attempt to assess the world. “The very word ‘souvenir’, in its original French usage, means ‘to come back to myself’ or ‘to remember’. Thus, travel memories are like a conversation one has with oneself over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps the best way to consume more consciously is to remember that other people are also part of this conversation.

Six ideas for lasting memories

  • Organic food and beverages from small producers, ideally made with ingredients grown on regenerative farms
  • Items made from recycled materials (like bags made from used fishing nets)
  • Crafts purchased directly from the manufacturer
  • Used or vintage goods
  • Natural beauty products in recyclable packaging
  • Objects made by people who are marginalized or have difficulty finding work

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