Image by Megan Arzbaecher of Traverse.

As a DIY travel enthusiast, I am constantly inspired by fellow bloggers who empower themselves and their community. This month I’m thrilled to feature the writing of Megan Arzbaecher, a fashion and travel blogger for Traverse. Based in Chicago (and Madison, WI), Megan is a lifelong lover of all things fashion and travel and embraces an ethical DIY mentality through her travel-inspired jewelry line. 

Shopping while traveling is one of my favorite ways to explore a different city or culture. I think it fascinating to see the mix of products, styles, and colors and how they differ from your hometown’s selection.

However, in the age of global consumption and production, you can never truly be sure of the origin (or conditions) that produced an item.

I had an eye-opening moment on a trip to India that changed the way I consume fashion products.

I was visiting fair trade artisans in Mumbai and Delhi when I met a woman named Sunita, a 38-year-old single mom.

Prior to getting involved in fair trade production, she had been working at a factory, producing clothing for fast fashion, multi-national corporations.

While she didn’t use the term “sweat shop,” from her descriptions – 16-hour works days, poor ventilation, marginal pay for women, crowded conditions, abusive managers (and the list goes on) – it was obvious that is exactly what it was.

Sunita didn’t speak much about her experience; you could tell the scars were still fresh.

However, she beamed with satisfaction when she spoke about her new job. Hearing how much her life had improved since getting involved in ethical production made me reevaluate everything I thought about fashion.

(Her proudest moment was being able to single-handedly pay for her daughter’s tuition at an aviation college.)

Sunita was a real person with a real story.

Her humble work space was only one room with two windows and five other women, but she showed me around with such pride; I could feel the empowerment pulsing out of her.

Of course, I had watched documentaries and understood how terrible sweatshops were prior to the trip, but I had never actually met someone who had worked in one.

Rethinking Ethical and Sustainable Shopping

Since having this experience in India, I have completely rethought the way that I shop.

With a fashion blog, it was certainly a difficult process for me. I had to actively break down my consumption habits to make them more ethical while simultaneously understanding what was causing my compulsion to consume.

I tried to picture the real people that make everything I buy, wear, eat, and consume.

Read next: Sustainable tourism practices

While I still love to shop during my travels and find joy in beautiful clothing, I have a best practices list that I do my best to adhere to when shopping while traveling:

1)  Avoid chain stores.

I know it’s easy to think the Zara in Spain is going to be different than the one in Chicago, but it’s not.

They’re all the same because they are designed to be that way!

You don’t need to waste your precious travel time by visiting a store that you have in your hometown

2)  Do your research.

Most major cities in the U.S. and abroad have a local shopping district. They are typically off the beaten path and usually near the arts district.

Spend an hour online researching local fashion bloggers to see what their favorite shops are.

For example, in Madison, Wisconsin most people think of State Street for cool shopping.

It does offer some local options, but mostly chains like Urban Outfitters and the Gap, so instead I, as a local, would recommend Monroe Street or E Johnson Street for fashion shopping.

Megan takes a coffee break on Monroe St. during her explorations in Madison, WI. Image courtesy of Megan Arzbaecher.

3)  Try to make it yourself (and appreciate how hard it is).

Have you ever told yourself, “I could make that?” Did you ever try to make it afterwards?

Hand-making something is a lot harder than you might think. I should know; I have my own Etsy shop!

I started it as a naïve recent grad thinking I could make a living selling my globally inspired jewelry.

But it is difficult and takes a lot of time, even to make a simple pair of earrings.

I have a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into my clothing.

Read next: Breaking barriers with a women’s group in India

4)  Visit local markets and stores.

Handcraft markets are one of my favorite things to explore when I am abroad.

You can see indigenous arts that have been passed down for generations, like basket weaving, metal smithing, and textile production.

Buying authentically made items directly from the producer is incredibly rewarding because you get to hear the stories behind the item.

You get to interact with the artists. Plus, they will make your house look global and eclectic!

Megan gets inspired by Sunita’s jewelry-making skills during her trip to India through her previous work with SERRV. Image by Megan Arzbaecher.

5)  Ask yourself, “Does this item actually make me happy?”

At the heart of ethical shopping is understanding why you want to buy something.

Is it because it really sparks happiness inside of you? If the answer is “maybe,” “kind of,” or “no,” DON’T buy it.

There are few times when I legitimately regretted not buying something, and that’s because I buy with my heart.

I buy the things that make me happy, and that’s it.

You don’t need (or really want) the rest of it.

By following these steps, I’m now a different consumer.

I rarely buy from chain fashion stores, especially when I know I can find similar items at high-quality thrift shops.

I try to meet the artist or maker when I can. I research every place I visit to find the most recommended local shops.

All of these steps are simple ways to ensure that you are a more ethical consumer and a better global citizen to your fellow humans.

What are your tips for shopping ethically while on the road? Share your comments below!