Us westerners backpack through India and South East Asia wearing all the same uniform; alibaba pants, a loose tanktop and a mulitude of various bracelets decorating our wrists. We buy these attributes along Khao San Road in Bangkok, Kuta beach, Bali or just about anywhere in Goa, India. These are clothes and bracelets that locals would never wear but that are solely there for tourists to buy. Clothes, jewelry and souvenirs in this part of the world are many times ridiculously cheap by American, German or Swedish standards and we buy them in large quantities, tempted by the price and out of desire rather than need. After we return back home from our travels, we unpack our backpacks and soon realize that those alibaba pants were cool on the Phi Phi Islands but that they will never see daylight again when taken back to our regular setting of Paris or Stockholm. The colorful alibaba pants are tucked away to the darker areas of our closets and added to the ever growing pile of things that we don’t actually need.
From a sustainainable point of view, this behaviour of ours is problematic. As most familiar with theoretical writings on sustainable development, the concept is usually referred to as resting on four pillars comprising; environmental-, economic-, social- and cultural sustainable development. When all pillars are taken into consideration, development is the ability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs. When buying pants, shirts and accessories that often are of low quality and that will be fashionable only for a very limited amount of time, it is troublesome from an environmental perspective. The dying of cotton pollutes rivers and plastic is essentially extracted from fossil fuels, just to give a few examples of how every material thing that we own has an impact on mother earth.
When looked at from the angle of cultural sustainablility, additional problems are to be found. Much of what we purchase are items that are specifically designed for tourists, often with the asemblance of local culture to convince us we are consuming local and culturally indigenous products. Our choice of purchases thereby do not support and contribute to the continuing existence of local culture but rather encourage further production of products oriented merely for foreigners. At the risk of exaggerating I would like to at least issue a warning that our consumption pattern in these countries are to some degree threatening the development and diffusion of local culture expressed through for example arts, clothing and jewelry.
Indeed, travellers like myself and others are, in many aspects, contributing to much needed economical development in third world countries through our consumption. Through expanded tourism, previously poor and deprived areas have been able to create a better life for themselves and their families. The flow of money has increased and economically contributed to development which is, no doubt about it, much welcomed. Economical development is by all means a beautiful thing when it contributes to the eradication of poverty and brings about brighter futures for people. But, it has a tendency to be over shadowed by other equally important aspects of sustainable development such as cultural and environmental degradation.