We can talk all day about carbon credits, voluntourism, and eco-hotels, but it’s the little decisions you make day after day, for months or years of travel, that really make a difference. If you care enough to learn how to reduce your impact, go read Transitions Abroad or Green Global Travel on a regular basis. But here’s an opinionated cheat sheet on the good and bad outcomes from how you spend your money.
Things that help local people trying to better their lives and that will improve the situation long-term:
1) Buying direct from artisans and craftspeople who are adults. No middleman, no 5X markup, no exploitation, and the artisans don’t need to find some other more nefarious way to make money.
2) Buying from cooperatives that commission quality work for a fair price. See #1, but with a dose of teamwork. The best online spot for this is Novica.
3) Supporting (good) new guesthouses and restaurants that aren’t in any guidebooks. If they’re trying hard, help them succeed, especially if they’re trying to be low-impact.
4) Supporting such businesses that don’t pay kickbacks to taxi/tuk-tuk drivers. Conflicts of interest seldom help the customer and those commissions raise the price for everyone.
5) Buying from street vendors, food carts, and market stalls. These are generally owned by people living on very thin margins, to the point where a few dollars makes or breaks their day.
6) Donating money, clothing, or medicine to reputable local charities helping people who really need it. These people know who’s needy and who’s just a scammer.
7) Tipping people who are truly helpful. Sure, it’s hard to part with any extra cash given out of the goodness of your heart, but if someone does a great job and went above and beyond, reward them. A small amount from you can be a huge amount for them.
8) Carrying a water purifier. A SteriPen or pump filter will keep a thousand bottles out of the Earth and sea and will eventually pay for itself.
Things that don’t help and will probably make the situation worse:
1) Buying gum/candy from children or giving coins to street kids. If it works, the numbers increase.
2) Buying from factories/workshops that employ children. See #1.
3) Giving to city beggars who most likely belong to a syndicate or are paying organized crime. See #1.
4) Buying crap trinkets from shops full of crap. In the end we get more crap shops with shoddy goods bought for cheap and no producers make a living wage.
5) Staying at a hostel/guesthouse/hotel that is listed in guidebooks and travel articles but last gave someone good service in 2009. If they’re just coasting, take an extra half hour to find someplace better.
7) Buying multiple bottles of water in single-use plastic containers. In a thousand years you’ll be gone, but the plastic you bought will still be close to where you left it—if it hasn’t been washed out to sea. Stop trashing Mother Nature just because you’re lazy.
Personally, I think it’s fine to give money to street performers, but not beggars. For the former, it’s their job to entertain you with a skill built up through practice. For the latter, it’s a public nuisance that encourages bad behavior. A hundred mimes and buskers may become mildly annoying. A hundred beggars demonstrates a major breakdown in society, especially if they’re children.