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How to step lightly when you travel the world

Nathalie Laurence’s guide to ethical travel. Nathalie blogs at Barefoot Earth.

ethical travel

If your love of the planet includes getting out and seeing parts of it firsthand, chances are you’ve been confronted with how to stay green while on the road. In our fast-paced world, gone are the days where years spent roaming the planet on foot, by sailing ship or in a horse and cart is a viable option for many people – so what green travel choices can we make to reduce the impact that living out of a suitcase can bring about?

What’s your carbon cost?

If you live somewhere large and relatively isolated, like Australia, air and/or car travel is often unavoidable. There are a lot of websites that can help you calculate and offset the carbon emissions from your travel (including a now-common option to offset your carbon when you buy your plane ticket), such as the Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund’s site and ClimateFriendly.com.

The main carbon offset strategy is tree planting – always a good idea – but for effective carbon sequestration, they need to be long-lived and part of a healthy ecosystem. If keeping tabs on what your tree is up to in 40 years’ time sounds like a bit of a stretch, there are other options worth considering. Taking some time out to collect trash out of the environment and sending any recyclables off to your depot can earn you a bunch of carbon brownie points. You could pay it forward by supporting microfinance loans such as Kiva and help people in developing countries with small loans that can help them offset their own carbon emissions, or donate to organisations that are actively working to keep wilderness areas intact.

What you bring

I would watch in horror as he dumped dozens of dead batteries at the end of every day – not the best gift to leave for an impoverished and isolated community

A refillable water bottle and a few lightweight shopping bags will go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary waste during your travels. Other useful accessories include a travel cutlery set, a cup, bowls and containers as well as rechargeable batteries for electronic gadgets. I still have the vivid memory of a fellow traveller buying cheap and inefficient batteries for his energy-hungry digital camera while exploring remote and rural Vietnam. I would watch in horror as he dumped dozens of dead batteries at the end of every day – not the best gift to leave for an impoverished and isolated community.

Accumulating a pile of disposable trash when getting from A to B seems to be par for the course, but with a bit of forward planning, you can stay fed and hydrated by using water filling stations at the airport (fill up after going through security) and preparing your own snacks. Avoid the temptation to pack everything but the kitchen sink and reduce the weight on airlines to do your little bit for lowering fuel consumption. If you’ve gone on even a handful of trips, you’ll quickly figure out that you rarely use everything that you packed (speaking as a guilty offender of carting “just in case” going-out shoes around for weeks and never using them).

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What you buy

After travelling for long enough, the idea of buying big on souvenirs starts to lose its appeal – particularly when most of it is mass-produced elsewhere. Rather than filling up on I Love NY t-shirts or Eiffel Tower snow globes, spend a little more on fewer things made locally – supporting independent artists. Your collection of original keepsakes will come with a story and soul. However, it still pays to be careful when buying anything made of natural products – particularly wood, shell or coral – as they may come from unsustainable sources.

What you do

If you’re planning on going on any nature-based tours, do your homework first as some businesses have very poor ethical practices. Elephant tours, tiger sanctuaries, backwater zoos – there’s a long list of places to be avoided but luckily these days it’s pretty easy to find information online first.

Be wary of anyone asking you to pay for pictures taken with wildlife. I’ve often been approached, including having animals forcibly pushed onto me – the worst situation was when a trembling, barely conscious fennec fox was shoved into my arms. Consider reporting these practices to local authorities. A good place to start is an email to both the department of tourism and the department of the environment for that country; this information is usually easy enough to find online. Nothing may ever come of it, but negative feedback from tourists in large enough numbers can help bring about changes. If you spot any questionable or illegal wildlife trade going on during your travels, notify local conservation organisations. Trying to rescue wildlife yourself is generally not advised.

No matter how exciting, novel or majestic your exotic international critter may be, always keep a respectful distance from wild animals, even if they do appear to be relatively tame. Avoid feeding any wildlife where possible as well (although they’re not exactly above stealing your food) as it can be bad for their health, behaviour and also for tourist safety. Shout out to our monkey cousins in particular. Monkeys are awesome but will not hesitate to knife you in your sleep to steal your bananas. A monkey’s mood changes faster than the speed of viral memes and I’ve witnessed tourists going from friendly interaction to getting their hair ripped out in a split second.

Lend your support to any local initiatives that are beneficial to the community and environment. Make a beeline for low impact eco-tourism that supports local economies, such as green travel ventures, bicycle tours, supporting protected reserves and in-situ breeding programs, and buying locally grown food. You could also consider taking some time out to show some love to the country you’re visiting; take some bags down to a local beach or camping spot and do a mini clean-up, or take some time out to do some voluntary work on a community project.

Where you stay

If you’re staying in a hotel try to keep your use of resources to a minimum (water, fresh towels, electricity). It’s tempting to take advantage of that free selection of shampoos and soaps, but you’ll be doing the planet a small favour by skipping the low-quality freebies and extra plastic by just using your own. As travel and the online community evolves, alternative options are on the rise. Check out some of the increasingly popular services such as Airbnb or dip your toe into the couch-surfing scene as a way of getting out of the tourist bubble. It can also be a great way to meet new people and make contacts.

If you’re drawn by the allure of free camping, either to stretch your dollar further or get off the beaten track (or both), you’ll need to be just as mindful of your impact and your waste – including bodily waste! Having lived as a local in places favoured by van-camping wanderers, I’ve seen many common-use or out-of-the-way areas taken over and/or trashed by inconsiderate campers, and in some places this has led to a crackdown by local authorities. Living free on the road sounds romantic and adventurous, but the collective poop from a steady stream of wandering souls is not.

What you consume

Be very careful of consuming any unusual local delicacies, unless you’re absolutely certain about what you’re eating. I’ve had friends caught out by this, chowing down on highly threatened species without realising.

Where you can, shop at farmers markets, stop by orchards and farms that have a shop and support independent businesses rather than chain restaurants. This isn’t always easy, and in some countries you have to be more careful about what you eat and drink (as earth-conscious as I like to be, I wouldn’t recommend anyone put their health at risk to save buying a bottle of water). Be very careful of consuming any unusual local delicacies, unless you’re absolutely certain about what you’re eating. I’ve had friends caught out by this, chowing down on highly threatened species without realising.

What you bring back

As well as avoiding the usual suspects such as prohibited foods or natural materials that have the potential to cause havoc in your home country or contribute to environmental issues in their country of origin, there are also some things you could consider bringing back that will reduce your impact on that country – namely, your trash. This mostly applies to areas that aren’t equipped with recycling services, where it may also be difficult to avoid packaging. If it’s possible, pack it up with your dirty laundry, ethical souvenirs and travel memories and pop it into your recycling bin back home.

Hopefully these tips have been useful for encouraging eco-conscious travellers to think inside the green box. Travel is definitely a luxury for many people, but for those of us who are able to get out and see the world, the old saying of taking nothing but photos and leaving nothing but footprints still rings true.

An earlier version of this article was published on Barefoot Earth.

Photo credit: top, Michael cc; middle, fdecomite cc.

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