I caught up with a fellow traveler at the weekend, she has just come back from travelling the world for a year with her young family – total family travel goals! She was thanking me for a travel tip I gave her about visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand because she had realised once there the sheer number of places out there clinging on the surge in popularity for ethical care of elephants by claiming to be good. Spending so much time in Thailand, I took care to research thoroughly and to ensure I was only supporting causes I was certain were benefiting the environment and animals. Talking about her step-daughter’s experience in India where she signed up to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary and found it to be mistreating the creatures, we realised how easy it is to do the wrong thing when all you are trying to do is the right thing. And isn’t that the problem we are all facing in trying to be ethical these days?

What’s the struggle with being ethical?

I consider myself a pretty good human, I like to keep my carbon footprint low, to support and build up my friends, to smile at strangers and help out at a homeless shelter. Everywhere I travel I try my best to be ethically-minded and research every location, every day trip I go on and all the companies along the way, only supporting causes I know are genuinely helping local people. But somehow I still feel like I’m fucking it all up.

Much like trying to be vegan or only eating ethically-sourced food, using only beauty products that haven’t been tested on animals or wearing clothing that hasn’t encouraged slavery or mistreatment of those in third world countries. What is boils down to is we’re all just trying our best to be damned good people and to try and help everyone, to support all the causes. We get to a point when we think, hell yeah, I’m doing pretty darn good at this! We’re able to help educate others and feel like we’re actually making waves, like we’re making a change.

And it all comes out that we were doing it wrong all along.

Like the time I switched to almond milk after learning about the harmful impacts of the dairy farming industry, but then found the problems caused due to water sourcing and insecticides were just as bad. Or when I signed a petition over the closure of a factory that had been mistreating workers in a third world country for cheap clothes, but then heard so many were unable to feed their families because they were out of work. And the time I switched make-up brands to avoid animal testing then found the company uses the services of another company that does employ animal testing!

It’s a constant battle and for anyone who tries to be ethically-minded, it can be a bit of a roller coaster  – one minute you’re up and feeling great for all the good you are doing for the world around you. Then next, you hit rock bottom when you realise actually by trying to help you may be doing more harm than good.

Why is it so hard?

One of the problems – there are too many opinions out there and too many facts, but so often thanks to Twitter and various other social media outlets – the two become almost indistinguishable. It’s so easy to read one thing and to make a change in your life, then a week later to see an news article damning the opinion you just read elsewhere. I don’t know about you but I’m overwhelmed with information and I’m finding it hard to know which advice to take. To feel certain that I am actually making informed decisions that really are doing the best for everyone and the world around us. We’ve gone full circle from struggling to get the truth from companies over their ethical policies, to now being swamped with information and unsure of the facts.

Another aspect of this is the bloggers, social media stars and the celebrities who so often pick a cause to back and legions of fans follow in their wake. The fact is these influencers have a huge impact on the decisions of people across the world and the ethical nature of the decisions they make can cause huge waves. Just look at how many more people seem to care and know about global warming effects since Leonardo DiCaprio started talking about it, and Emma Watson must be one of the best-known faces for using her platform to really highlight key issues from women’s rights and climate change to sustainable fashion. But likewise, this can be used in a negative way, such as when some figures make questionable decisions such as wearing real fur, encouraging their fans to follow suit. The constant fight for change and for attention means it’s hard to know who is really trying to make a difference, and who is just jumping on the bandwagon for likes.

What does this mean for travelers?

As someone who has been travelling for over three years and has no plans to stop anytime soon, being ethical in my travel will always remain at the forefront of my mind. After all, what was that quote?

Take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time. – Aliyyah Eniath

I’ve always felt the one thing that really touches my heart and stays with me a long time after my travels, it’s not the places. It’s not sunrise at Angkor Wat or exploring waterfalls of Laos, it’s not doing yoga in Thailand or learning to work on a farm in outback Australia, or even getting lost in the ruin pubs of Budapest. It’s the people you met along the way. The amazing souls who helped you when you were struggling, the ones who showed you a world you never dared dream of, the ones who gave you enough laughs to last a lifetime. Those people are the ones I hold close in my heart, they’re the stories I tell about my travels, they are the memories.

So if that is the case, then it’s so important to make sure your travel is benefiting the people who have given you the experience of a lifetime and the environment you’ve been lucky enough to explore:

  • By travelling ethically and not supporting tourism industries that use animals without caring for their welfare. I’m talking about all those people who charge for photos with baby monkeys wearing nappies in the streets in Thailand, the ones who promote elephant riding, the ones who feed whale sharks in the Philippines and destroy ecosystems.
  • By supporting and not disturbing the local communities. Supporting local trade by buying handmade gifts from sellers on the streets and in the villages, or eating in local restaurants instead of chains. Choosing not to give to children begging on the streets because this encourages them not to go to school and because it supports a trade of street gangs forcing the youngsters to work.
  • Not giving into the trends for voluntary work and instead looking at the long-term effects of temporary fixes. Often volunteering for a week can be just for your own benefit, when it comes to teaching abroad it can be more harmful for the students to constantly change teachers when they need long-term support.

These are just examples and there are so many other ways to be ethical in your travel, to make informed decisions. And that is the most important thing, like me, you may be struggling with knowing if you are truly being ethical. But when it comes down to it, just the fact that you care enough to inform yourself is the first step to really doing something good in the world. Don’t listen to all the judgement over social media, it’s too easy to get swept away in throwaway comments instead of investing your time in making a change.

My five top tips for traveling ethically:

  1. Research everything! Read newspaper articles, read medical journals, read books, watch documentaries and talk to people. By educating yourself and seeking as much information as possible, you put yourself in the best position for making a genuinely good decision.
  2. Read the reviews – planning a trip? Always take some time to read the comments on social media and review sites because these can be the best way to find up-to-date and brutally honest information. Just like you would if you were booking flights or a trip – look at the reviews to see what others have said about their experiences.
  3. Talk to other travelers, ask for feedback on trips, tell them what you know and ask them to educate you. Since learning all about the mistreatment of elephants in Asia, I have made it my business to educate as many fellow travelers as possible and have since managed to to stop countless people from riding elephants. Small changes make big changes.
  4. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find out you slipped up. I went to Seaworld with my family when I was a kid, I was too young to decide to go there myself but ever since seeing the Blackfish documentary, I have been beating myself up over it a little bit. You can’t be so hard on yourself if you make a mistake, the whole world makes mistakes. What matters is how you learn from them and prevent them in future.
  5. Remember, it’s not just when you travel to far-flung destinations, you can make every journey ethical by being mindful and conscientious. By supporting independent and local businesses, by not littering, but using public transport to reduce carbon emissions. There are lots of ways to be ethical when you travel, open your eyes and make a change.

This has turned into a pretty mega blog post considering I had writer’s block just a few days ago, but I think this is such an important issue to be raised. Can you identify with feeling confused over traveling and living ethically? It’s okay if you do, we’re in it together. As long as we’re all doing our darnedest to make a difference, that’s all we can do.

How do you ensure your travel is ethical? Do you ever worry your ‘ethical’ decisions are less ethical than you would hope? What ethical changes have you made in your life?