Qinnie Wang’s travels always result in souvenirs, but she feels it’s important to learn a bit more about the souvenir industry before tainting our holidays with it…


Aussies love going overseas for holidays, especially now while the Aussie dollar is so high.

I have a big overseas holiday once a year and I usually head to developing countries. Most of us will come back from a holiday with some form of souvenir, if not many.

What increasingly worries me is that people aren’t aware of how most of the souvenirs are made and that they might be unwittingly supporting sweatshops and child labour practices.

This time last year, I was camping across Tibet and Nepal. I came across so many souvenir shops at touristy spots and city markets where plastics were being sold as yak bones and precious stones. I became alarmed and concerned at the mass amount of such products, which not only will contribute to landfill at some stage, but also points to a huge unethical industry.

I decided to investigate further.

There are two main issues that bothered me. The first is both the environmental impact and the unethical production methods that might be involved with the industry. The second is why souvenirs are often made in a foreign country, which seems to defeat the whole point. The two issues are related, as developing countries often have less labour protection and rights than the developed countries.

In fact, “91% of London 2012 souvenirs were made abroad with two third coming from China” according to the Daily Mail, and local businesses “felt betrayed.” The matter is no better in Australia. Just visit any souvenir shop and you’ll see what I mean. A 2011 survey of five top Melbourne attractions and a city tourist shop found many foreign-made souvenirs including an “Aboriginal-art” tea towel which was marked “Authentic Australian.”  I understand that manufacturing is a lot cheaper in developing countries, but I wonder if overseas visitors would prefer to pay a bit more for something that’s actually locally made. I know I would. For national institutions like a Museum or Gallery to stock anything other than Australian made seems inappropriate, especially if cheaper price is the only reason behind that.

Now let’s look at why prices are so cheap. True, these countries have much lower living standards, which justifies a lower wage. However, the issues of sweatshop labour and child labour are anything but news. All these souvenirs are mass produced in factories, where a person could earn less than $2 a day. Our very own, one of the richest women of the world, Gina Rinehart, once famously said that Australians need to work harder to compete with Africans who will labour for less than $2 a day. Remember the outcry?

Since I started my own fair trade charity, I’ve learnt a lot about fair trade. I’ve learnt that many women in developing countries work more than 20 hours a day under poor conditions because that’s the only job they can find. In recent years, media has shone the spotlight on unethical practices in the garment industry following tragedies like the 2013 Savar building collapse. But the problem of sweatshops is far beyond one particular industry. When we buy souvenirs, we also need to consider the ethics behind the products.

My advice:

  • Buy locally-made to support the local economy. Craft items make far better gifts than boring magnets and T-shirts.
  • Buy products made with sustainable materials. Stay clear of animal products.
  • Buy from speciality Fair Trade stores and stores that give back to the community.
  • Buy quality over quantity. It’s good for your wallet and your back.
  • Buy something that reminds you of a great moment, which doesn’t need to be from a tourist gift shop.
  • Buy something that you’ll actually use.

Souvenirs from my last trip include a tote handmade by local disabled women and an artwork by a local artist. None came from tourist gift shops, but they remind me of the great time I had and the wonderful people I met.

I think they serve the right purpose.


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