Melissa Tan Tackles the Challenges of Fast Fashion & Advocates for Sustainability

Problems do not stop at donation.
By: Iffah Salleh
June 1, 2024

Princess of sustainability, Melissa Tan, is no stranger to our nation’s activists. She is the kind of woman we admire as a role model, embodying the phrase “beauty with brains”. As an influencer, she uses her platform to be vocal about saving the planet.

With a passion for fashion and experience as a former model, Melissa understands the industry’s behind-the-scenes issues that lead to massive waste, particularly with fabrics.

She has taken matters into her own hands by advocating for zero waste and slowing down the detrimental effects on our planet. Melissa is doing her part to make the Earth a better place and encourages us to do the same.

We sat down with Melissa to discuss sustainability, fashion, and to help us understand the importance of sustainability. Keep reading and let’s educate ourselves.

Melissa Tan

Becoming an Advocate

How did you initially become involved as an advocate for climate change and sustainability in living and fashion?

I have always been an environmentalist since I was a kid. I noticed that our awareness was limited. There was always so much awareness of bad news, such as deforestation, but the most common notion was to start recycling. 

I felt like that was all we were contributing, and to me, that was just the tip of the iceberg. From there, I started going down this rabbit hole, realising it was about redesigning and reformatting the way we interact with and use the world.

Most of our issues stem from pure mass production and over-consumption of things we don’t need or value in our lives. Year by year, we consume faster and waste faster than before.

The Big Waste by Dhan Illiani

We estimate hundreds of millions of pieces of clothing are produced every single year. And if we consider the average lifespan of these trendy outfits, they don’t last more than a year.

All this fabric waste can amount to sheer avalanches of discarded materials. 

It’s terrifying — they become fashion minefields. In our nation, the bundles of clothes coming in also originate from these pools of recycled waste fabric, sold cheaper, which leads people to buy more and more clothes for shorter periods. Hence, the problem just repeats itself.

Rejected Recycled Products

In your opinion, compared to Western countries or some Asian countries that have implemented ways to reduce waste, do you think Malaysians are aware of this notion in terms of understanding and implementation?

Compared to five or six years ago, my perspective has changed. It used to be that recycling was the key. But now, I don’t think so. With fashion recycling, you know less than 1% is actually being recycled. 

This is because the demand of the market is limited, and there is only so much they can do with fast fashion given how it is made in the first place.

For example, with plastic bottles, we collect them, but in sorting centres, not all of them are actually recycled. So the question is, what about the other plastic bottles that are rejected? Are they recyclable or not? 

Sometimes, they’re not recyclable because there’s no market for the rejected ones, and they eventually end up in landfills. Simply put, donating doesn’t mean the problem disappears. We need to pause and imagine the bigger picture in the future.

This issue also applies to the fashion industry. Where do the rejected items go if there is no demand for them to be recycled?

The Importance of Sustainability

Honestly, I do see a lot of initiatives in our nation, such as local supermarkets and cafes opting for reusable straws and bags. Compared to five years ago, I don’t think we understood the importance of sustainability as much.

The straw is actually an invitation to our disposable culture. It’s not really the main bad guy; it’s just a symbol of our system. This is the catalyst that helps us explore further into sustainability and how we use all these things. 

I think, yes, we did take a step back from where we were before. This is because we tackle this issue only on the surface, thinking that addressing one thing is enough.

Let’s take a look at our garbage can. We didn’t use plastic, or when we shop, we didn’t request a plastic bag, but somehow our garbage can eventually gets full too. 

If we don’t actually change our lifestyle by buying things we don’t really need, all our efforts will just bring us back to square one sooner or later. Instead of living a purposeful life, we’re actually stuck in the assumption phase.

Fashion Revolution 2024

For more ways to get involved with this year’s campaign, read about Get Involved Guide here.

Let’s talk about Fashion Revolution Week 2024 and collective action. Understandably, this notion can contribute to significant changes. Can you explain how many ‘collectives’ it would require for it to be effective?

Fashion Revolution is about each of us acting as points of influence in the market. Let’s say you are into fashion, you feel good in your clothes, and have your own style. Then suddenly your outfit attracts some eyes and people ask where you got it. How you answer is important and plays a pivotal role.

Come together and bring in your repair pile by organise your own event!

For example, if you say, “This is from my grandmother; she made it, then passed it to my mom, and now it’s with me,” it tells a story. This is more impactful than saying, “I bought it on sale yesterday,” or “I bought it brand new at a shop.” Sharing our stories of sustainability can influence others’ actions. Eventually, it becomes a collective movement.

Moreover, it saves you money and makes your life happier. To be honest, it also creates a healthier relationship with fashion and yourself. We are not trapped by consumption or pressured by trends, which often lead us to buy something we will use for only a short time.

Ethical Fashion

Could you educate readers in an easy-to-understand way about what ethical fashion is?

Ethical fashion refers to clothing that is made in ways that value the well-being of people and the planet. There are many factors involved, and one of the biggest issues is unethical manufacturing, such as sweatshops where workers are underpaid and work in poor conditions.

It takes all these aspects into account, striving to create clothes that are not only environmentally friendly but also made under fair labour conditions. Practices, like using sustainable materials, reducing waste, recycling, and ensuring that workers are paid fairly and work in safe environments.

It stands in contrast to fast fashion, a term that describes the rapid production of cheap clothing to keep up with ever-changing trends. This quick turnaround leads to a lot of waste because clothes become cheaper as new trends emerge, resulting in more fabric waste.

While we may not be able to completely stop fast fashion, we can slow it down and make it more sustainable. It’s important to know that simply changing the material of the clothes doesn’t make them sustainable. 

By choosing ethical fashion, we can help reduce the negative impact of our clothing choices on the world and support a more sustainable and humane fashion industry.

How can we remove the stigma that reusable clothes are not something to be ashamed of, especially in the fast-evolving fashion industry? This is particularly important for youngsters who fear being left behind by trends.

This issue affects all generations. Younger generations might be influenced by the latest trends, just as older generations were in their time. It’s a cycle driven by marketing, which pushes us to buy what we are told to idolise. 

However, Gen Z also stands out for quickly supporting second-hand shops. They are attracted to these shops because of the affordability and the option to buy in bulk. 

It’s crucial to understand how we approach sustainability. Some people believe that if they buy cheap items, it’s easier to dispose of them. This mindset needs to change.

Understand The Meaning of ‘Sustainability’

To help and understand sustainability, we should focus on recycling, restyling, and making fashion a part of our identity. 

Figure out how a piece of clothing can be restyled, whether through thrifting, borrowing, or rediscovering items in our own wardrobes. It’s about redefining ourselves in sustainable ways.

It’s also important to remind people that behind each piece of clothing is a person. Not just one person, but multiple people who may work in underpaid labour and uncomfortable conditions to produce cheap clothing. 

These items are often quickly discarded. By understanding the human cost behind our clothes, we can help remove the stigma around reusable clothing and make more ethical fashion choices.

Be Part of The Community!

… we all have the power to influence change.

Melissa Tan

Do you have any advice for those who want to start living a sustainable lifestyle or be part of the sustainability community but feel hesitant? Please share some encouragement for them to take the first step. 

Each of us should understand that our actions are votes for the future we want to see. The more we buy fast fashion, the more we perpetuate harmful practices in the fashion industry.However, we all have the power to influence change. 

How To Be Fashion Revolutionary

This year, Fashion Revolution’s theme is ‘How To Be The Fashion Revolutionary.’ We invite you to explore different ways to be a voice or a host of action that can ripple outward into your circle and the industry as well.

This campaign encourages us to demand answers to questions like, “Who made our clothes?” and “Are they working in safe conditions?” Many business people are unaware of the stories behind the products they sell. 

By participating in this campaign, we can learn which actions are effective. You’ll discover which brands practise ethical fashion and which do not, and you can choose to support those that do. Engaging with sustainability in fashion helps you understand how to use your voice and make it heard by the right audiences.

Sustainability Is For Everyone

For me, sustainability is for everyone. There are many pathways to channel our voices. If you’re an introvert, you can start by sharing within your comfortable circles. If you’re an extrovert, ignite the conversation in your own ways. No sharing is a waste of time; voice out and be confident with your own style. That’s how you can help make a difference.

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