Is haggling on your travels actually ethical?
Some travellers think haggling is just part of the culture in certain countries, but how ethical is it really?
I went to Bali for the first time just before the world went into lockdown in 2020. I was travelling with my sister, who hates haggling so much it’s almost like an allergic reaction, so she researched an indoor marketplace with a set price that wouldn’t allow you to haggle. While there, I was on the lookout for the obligatory Bintang singlet souvenir and purchased one for the equivalent of $4.
Upon returning to Australia, one of the first questions I was asked was how much I’d paid for the Bintang singlet. When I said $4, I was immediately met with a tut and told I’d been ripped off and I should have haggled – apparently I could have bought the same singlet for $1.50.
That comment immediately rubbed me the wrong way. This friend of mine, along with millions of other travellers from the Western World, simply loves the thrill of haggling in a foreign country. It’s understandable, you want to try new things, do as the locals do and, let’s be honest, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of bargain hunting without giving it a second thought. My question is: is it actually ethical?
Paying a fair price
When you’re visiting a country where your home currency is worth an exponential amount more than the local one, why on earth are you trying to haggle a singlet any lower than $4? Even on an entry-level wage in Australia, $4 is nothing. It’s an easy impulse purchase that doesn’t require any planning. The buying power of that $4 is an entirely different story in countries like Indonesia.
In a world where the average person is becoming aware of human rights violations of fast fashion, and knows the importance of mindful and ethical travel – why are we still ok with haggling on cheap items when we travel overseas?
Looking at fast fashion, for example, it’s estimated that only two per cent of the people who make clothes for a living are being paid a wage they can live on (according to research presented in 2015’s The True Cost).
At the same time as my Bintang singlet, I also purchased a beautiful, small woven shoulder bag for about $15. While I know I could have found something similar for less money by haggling at a street market, I also knew that anything like it that I bought in Australia would be a minimum of $50 – so the asking price was already a bargain.
Why does it feel unethical to haggle?
Because most hagglers don’t factor in the costs associated with creating any good. First of all, there is the cost of any fabrics and materials and transportation costs.
Then there are worker wages. The person who made the product you’re haggling for deserves to earn a living wage for their work, no exceptions. Unfortunately, many countries don’t have any regulations to ensure that happens, not to mention that child labour is still rife around the world (in 2020 nearly one in 10 children were subject to child labour).
In the same vein, the person selling those goods to the public – whether from a market stall they own themselves, or as an employee in a store – also deserves to earn a living wage. By haggling on a price that is already far cheaper than you could find in your home country, you might be quite literally costing someone their daily wage.
On the flip side, travellers often complain about stores that won’t haggle, but they tend to do so because they want everyone in their supply chain to be compensated fairly for their work.
How to haggle ethically
Having said that, it doesn’t mean that haggling can never be ethical. You just need to consider what a fair price would be before you engage, and a fair price means a price where both parties win, not just you.
This means researching the average price of the item you want to haggle for – sometimes a certain fabric, a certain style of creating or a certain supply chain is worth a lot more than you realise.
Once you have your fair price in mind, the number one thing is to remain polite and friendly and respect that anything with a price tag is not supposed to be bargained for.
It’s also important to buy locally wherever possible. You can find this out by asking a few questions of the seller before you begin to haggle; things like who made it, how it was made and how long it takes to make can be helpful. These questions will also help you understand the effort that went into it, and help you value it more.
Once you have all this information, only start the haggling process if you are committed to buying the item once an agreement is made. Haggling is like writing up a contract, so don’t waste anyone’s time.
And, above all else, next time you’re on holiday please just pay the full $4 for a singlet.