Travel & Sustainability: How To Be A Responsible Traveler

Springtime conjures up thoughts of warming weather, new life, and those living in colder regions finally emerging from their oil-heated hibernation dens. With Earth Hour, Earth Day, and the UN World Environment Day all within the span of 3 ½ months, spring is a great time to think about responsible travel. Let's take a look at the different ways that we travel more sustainably and responsibly.

Responsible travel means knowing the big sustainability days

March 24  Earth Hour
April 22  Earth Day
June 5 • UN World Environment Day

To quote my company's Sustainability Coordinator, “Sustainability is a three-headed animal: environment, social, and economic.” So though these spring sustainability days are focused more on the environmental aspect, we would be remiss to omit the other two “heads.”

When you think about sustainability and the environment, the first thoughts that come to mind are likely: recycling, not littering, and a sad duck that became entangled in a 6-pack can holder. And as important as those mental images are in prompting us to do the right thing, enviro-sustainability efforts go so much further than that. We need to think outside the recycling bin and find new ways to promote environmental responsibility.


There are a lot of ways you can reduce your environmental “footprint” while travelling:

Choose (your accommodations carefully)
Choose properties with low-flow faucets and furniture made from recycled materials. You can also opt out of housekeeping... you don’t wash your bed sheets at home every day, do you? You can read more about getting the most out of your accommodations here!

Unplug (electronics)
Unplug any electronics when they are not in use- they will still drain energy even when they are not being used.

Reuse (everything)
Have a refillable water bottle on-hand. Stash a small shopping bag in your daypack so you’ll have something extra to carry stuff you may accumulate during the day. Utilize travel-sized toiletries; and when the current container is empty, refill it with your supplies from home.

Lead (by example)
Believe it or not, some people have no qualms about leaving their trash lying around; and some people are just oblivious and forget. Don’t be like those people. Be a positive example and take care of your trash/recycling/compost. Your responsibility will prompt those around you to act in a similar manner.


Pick up some new habits in Newplaceloveithere
When you fall in love with a new place, it’s only natural to want to take it all in. There are times when that blinding love light shines too brightly and causes us to absolutely bulldoze the local culture and customs. Like it or not, there are some places travelers shouldn’t go and boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. Yes, the temple is beautiful, but your right to explore it does not outweigh the locals’ right to worship in peace (or deny you entry for improper dress). Responsible travel means not trampling on local customs.

How can you respect the local culture, while still learning about it?

This idea seems intuitive. Of course you’ll go to Greatlocationfaraway and be kind and respectful of the locals… of course! Everyone goes in with the best of intentions, but without arming yourself with sufficient knowledge about the “dos and don’ts” of specific areas, you could wind up among the ranks of accidentally-offensive visitors.

  1. Avoid the awkwardness by doing a little research before you go. Larger cities are a little easier, as there are lots of places specifically carved out for tourists.
  2. Inquire about ways to make the locals feel respected. This could be as simple as donning long pants in public or as unfamiliar as not interacting with unfamiliar children.
  3. Ask the staff at your hostel or hotel about places travelers are asked to avoid or gestures that could get you in trouble.
  4. Be sure to learn about local shopping culture. While some Americans feel that being followed in a store is a sign of distrust by the store owners; in places like South Korea, it is considered good customer service to be at the ready for your customer.
  5. Relax and don’t take offense to everything. It’s too easy to view other places with the filter of our own locales. [Side note: A friend of mine became frustrated while shopping in a local market, and said “Ugh! Why don’t they speak more English here?!” I gave her a good 45 seconds of my patented dead-eye look and she realized that the line had been crossed. But even the kindest of folks let silly thoughts like that cross their mind from time to time!]


The easy choice is to go stick with the familiar, and oftentimes that means gravitating towards brands and chains we already know. But as travelers, we all ask ourselves the same question: what’s the fun in that?! It seems like a no-brainer that sustainable traveling would call for supporting local businesses, so instead of telling you something you already know, let’s look as what happens when you shop/eat local.

When you shop local, your purchase has a ripple effect on the local economy. Smaller businesses are much more likely to support and source materials from other small businesses. Local economy win.

When you shop local, you interact with real, local people. Asking questions about their goods and/or services is a great way to learn about the local cultures. You also walk out with a good feeling knowing that your purchase is probably going towards food or school for that little tiny face that peered out from around the counter.

When you eat local, you support not only the sustainably-minded restaurant you’re in, but also local farmers. Restaurants that purchase locally and seasonally (in regions with varying agricultural seasons) need to employ more creativity with their menu planning based on what they can get during certain times of the year. Who doesn’t love an interesting menu?!

If you stop by a local market (some cities have daily markets, some only the occasional farmers market), many of the vendors there are either selling their produce or products created from local products. Meaning that the jam purchase you made at the farmers market is itself a supportive act, but the kind gentleman behind the jams needed to purchase ingredients from somewhere—and that somewhere is probably somewhere easily accessible to his home or shop. So in turn, he’s supporting a local farm and using fewer carbon emissions to transport his goods.

Responsible travel - travelling in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly manner - is easy. You just have to make the commitment to making good eco-choices as often as you can. Simply by being considerate, picking up after yourself, and supporting the local economy you're already off to a great start!

  • Do you have any tips to up your "sustainability and responsible travel" game?
  • What was the best "local food" experience you've ever had?
  • What small changes have you made to travel more responsibly?
  • In which category do you think you need to improve? Or have you made any enviro/social/economic flubs in your travels?
More reading:  Amazing Toronto: Seeing the city on a budget
Posted in How To, Inspiration, Travel, Trip Planning and tagged , , , , .


  1. Great info! I try to unplug my electronics and reuse water bottles and carry reusable shopping bags. I love those hotels where you have to use your room key to use the electricity. It eliminates people from wasting unnecessary energy at hotels 🙂

    • I didn’t even think about the keyed electricity- but you’re right! The hostel I work in has all room/bathroom lights on a 15-minute timer, which works super well for keeping our total usage down.

  2. I find it harder to be environmental responsible when you travel and sometimes you don`t have many choices, but I do agree and stand by your points.

    • Absolutely- there are definitely places that it’s really hard to be low-impact… and sometimes accommodations with the best sustainability features are the most expensive. I suppose its all about the effort

  3. This is a very relevant post and focuses on a very important issue. As travelers we need to do whatever we can on all the three fronts to help sustain this beautiful world that we live in.

  4. Before reading, I was hoping you would mention more that environmentally sustainable travel. Yes its important but not the only way to ensure these amazing places are available for future generations. I nice, well-rounded list!

    • Thanks, Lauren! As a friend of mine says, "Sustainability is a 3-headed beast" – and its easy to think about inanimate things like trash, but its super important to consider the people behind the place!

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