Tanja Wessels walking and wearing her TEDxTinHau Countdown talk ‘Why I dress like an apple’. Photo by Alex Macro.
Colleen Galbraith reflects on watching Tanja Wessels’s TEDxTinHau Coundown talk.
Why does fruit need clothing? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, but this is how content creator and environmental advocate, Tanja Wessels, opened her TEDxTinHau Countdown Talk in Hong Kong, part of Countdown, the global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, launched in 2020.
When planning for the event, the first question Tanja asked herself (like most fashion fans) was “what am I going to wear?”. Her striking style evoked Patricia Field’s timeless look for Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City’s finale in 2004, with a conscious 2020 update – the wasteful wrappers that adorn so many apples in Hong Kong supermarkets were carefully collected and upcycled to create her tulle effect skirt.
Tanja is celebrating four years of not buying any new clothes. This may not seem like much if you aren’t into fashion, but Tanja walks, talks and wears sustainable fashion with passion. What started out as a one year experiment after a period of eco-anxiety, led her to change her relationship with an industry whose products mostly end up in a landfill.
The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and around 20% of wastewater, inspiring Tanja to share her three ideas to change perceptions of fashion and help us all respect the planet.
One: shopping for fast fashion can’t fix us.
Feeling the need to belong, combined with the availability of cheap clothing, leads us to buying clothes unnecessarily. This resonated with me, thinking of my wardrobe full of unworn clothes after ten months of COVID-19 social restrictions in Hong Kong. Tanja talked honestly of the links between our addiction to fast fashion and the mental lows which follow the ever-shortening highs of a new purchase. Tanja spoke of the fear of rejection, vulnerability and shame associated with needing to keep up in the conventional fashion game. After four years of no buying, she reasoned that she cannot lose a game she no longer plays, as her experience has made her feel more powerful in her clothing choices.
Two: if we stopped using plastic straws, why are we still wearing plastic clothes?
While it is obvious there is plastic in Tanja’s upcycled skirt, many of us don’t realise how much plastic there is in the clothes we wear. With the increasing popularity of athleisure during the pandemic for namaste and Netflix binges, the sector is set to grow 7% in the next three years. Most items of sportswear contain plastic (polyester, acrylic or nylon) because it is lightweight and cheap. But every time they’re washed, microplastics are released into the water system, polluting the planet’s water. There are around 700 marine organisms that consume microplastics and I didn’t feel very zen as Tanja reminded us that the plastic from our socks ends up in the sushi we eat.
Three: second-hand needs a rebrand.
As someone who has been known to store a new-for-me vintage bag overnight in the freezer to freshen the leather, I was not surprised to hear that Tanja has been asked by fast fashion fans whether she ever thought that shopping for second-hand clothes was “dirty”. We know that fast fashion is dirtier. Growing conventional cotton relies on pesticides and these chemicals make their way into the fibres of our clothing, before being absorbed into our skin. In the next stage of the lifecycle of your crisp white t-shirt, that “just off the rack” feeling may be down to a toxic finish of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Buying second-hand clothing decreases the amount of chemicals you’re likely to come into contact with and saves the clothes from landfill, while balancing the use of water and energy expended in creating them.
Tanja left us with three other creative ideas for change:
- Don’t forget about your accessories – consider switching from mass produced leather made with pollutants to planet-friendly alternatives;
- Slow down and embrace the repair culture for your clothes. Nothing is ever truly broken in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where damaged pieces are repaired with gold to enhance their beauty; and
- Finally, ideas begin with us, and each of us has the power to develop more creative and meaningful relationships with the clothes we wear and the materials we use.
The latest looks can be found away from the chain stores of Causeway Bay. We can all be inspired by Tanja and the ways fashion is changing in our home of Hong Kong, from pre-loved luxury at HULA to restyling with Redress. Whether you are organising clothes swaps with friends, working with one of Tsim Sha Tsui’s traditional tailors for style crafted to last or supporting a small local business like Beam Bold’s adjustable pieces in natural fabrics, I know I’d choose planet-friendly over fast fashion any season.
You can #JoinTheCountdown and make your actions count with the Count Us In aggregator. Commit to buy fewer new clothes and wear them for longer at Count-Us-In.org
Colleen Galbraith is a qualified lawyer and is currently studying for the Masters of Corporate Environmental Governance at the University of Hong Kong.