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Nowhere to go but Green – with Tanja Wessels

By on October 26, 2020 0 40 Views

Tanja Wessels has been moving up the environmental ladder in the bustling city of Hong Kong in the past few years. Known as part “advocator” and part “agitator”, Tanja has been raising awareness about environmental issues through art, writing and activism. In her own words, she “writes, talks, wears, and thinks sustainability”. Wessels focuses on second hand fashion, psychology and Eco-Anxiety, and is the founder of ‘All In – Asia’, a social media platform that celebrates the best in environmentalism in Hong Kong.

This year, as one of the chosen TEDxTinHau Countdown speakers, she hopes to deliver the much-needed message, that “We have a dysfunctional relationship with materials” and invites us to challenge the price we pay for goods, on an emotional, environmental and economic level. “We are the storytellers for current and future generations – are we telling stories worth sharing?” asks Wessels. We sat with the inspiring enthusiast with some of our own questions to get to know more about her and the work she does.

How are art, fashion and environmental activism related?
I’ve always felt that fashion is a great entry point to the sustainability sphere – we are all part of it, and that makes things more tangible and immediate to us. Fashion is an industry, and it is also a form of self-expression, therefore it is creative, personal, functional and impactful. We wear what we do to signal to others how we would like to be seen, we support brands and logos we want to be associated with.

The fashion industry is fast growing and extremely lucrative. Today the global fashion market is valued at UD$1.9 trillion, with an expected value  of US$ 3 trillion by 2030, that is an expected growth rate of 4%, according to textile and apparel platform, Fibre2Fashion.

With its high impact, fashion, along with food, is the perfect consumer entry level opportunity to change the narrative.

We often complain about industry practices, but do you think that as consumers, much of the responsibility also lies with us to ensure we set specific standards for industries through what we purchase?
I am very cautious about putting the responsibility on the consumer. People respond to what they are offered – asking someone to pay three times the price for a garment based on morality is a complicated ask. In an ideal world we would have enough groundswell around consumer behaviour to influence industry – in reality, what are we really seeing? We have to meet people where they are.

In most developed cities around the world people are used to, and expect, to pay low prices for everyday wear. Sustainable fashion needs to compete at this level, rather than solely relying on niche brands working really hard to meet all the targets of producing fairly made clothes.

I would love to see, and am working towards, rebranding second-hand clothes and getting it into the mainstream arena. How can we satisfy contemporary consumer expectations with better options? Keeping them away from the fast fashion loop may be one such way.

What is Eco- Anxiety?
Personal fears and concerns around environmental collapse. In 2017 I started noticing that I was feeling a lot of stress, irritability and anger at the levels of waste I was seeing around me – pointless plastic packaging in people’s takeaway drinks and meals as they walked down the street, overflowing public bins, news headlines of rising greenhouse gases, cheap fashion and lowering prices advertised around the clock etc.

It all came to a head one day in a supermarket when I saw a coconut wrapped in foam packaging and a layer of plastic on top of that. I stood paralysed as thoughts of future biodiversity loss, flooding and fires ran through my mind like a bad film – one I couldn’t turn off.

I knew something concerning was happening to me. As soon as I got home I searched the words PLASTIC and PANIC online and the world of eco-anxiety opened up to me.

People often complicate “green lifestyles”. What are some easy steps we can all take to ensure we reduce our carbon footprint?
When we learn to set our personal default settings to: REFUSE, the important things in life move into centre stage. If you look around you right now you will most likely be seeing a lot of stuff. All that stuff needs attention, maintenance and space. All that energy you are giving to inanimate objects is attention you are not giving to other areas of your life, including your mental health, wellbeing, family members and friends. We have limited energy and attention – are you using yours in the best way possible?

When we care more about what’s happening inside of us, thoughts and feelings, we can have more valuable life experiences – there is no price tag on that.

Everything is a trade-off. For too long we have been told to value the wrong things.

You encourage people to buy secondhand clothing, yet in many cultures, especially in Asia, buying second-hand isn’t a trend most want to follow. How can we break the stigma around buying second-hand clothing and accessories?
Great question! One I think about day and night. Different cultures have their own belief systems, so there are nuances along every step of the way. In a broader, global way, I would like to move second-hand from the charity/fringe arena and into the easy to access and mainstream lane by removing some of the existing barriers including psychology and ease of access.

By helping people move beyond faulty assumptions such as: used clothing is dirty, of lower value, not as good as brand new clothing etc, we can help people understand that the world is changing and our mental models of the world can change too.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see for industries, fashion and otherwise to develop more environmentally friendly products and practices?
Shifting from short term to long term thinking.

What advice do you have for individuals who consider themselves too busy to practice some of the simplest things like carrying their own coffee mug and shopping bag to help reduce the plastic burden?
Start small. Once you see and understand the value in one area you will connect the dots and the shift will feel natural and worthwhile.

Should sustainability be a subject taught to students from a young age in schools?
I think teaching children to understand how their thoughts and feelings work, to understand their minds and emotions, will help everyone and everything move to a more holistic approach to smarter living. I think everyone should be taught these skills.

We are all, no matter what our age, part of the sustainability conversation. We are living in a game-changing time, all of our actions have long term effects.

How can we encourage our youth to live a more environmentally friendly life, especially given the way they are targeted by companies to buy products constantly through advertisements?
By doing it ourselves and making it joyful and easy. People follow what we do, not what we say.

If there were three products you could remove from the planet, what would they be?
Fur keychains/trinkets (fur in general), plastic beverage bottles and balloons

Website: tanjawessels.com
Follow the @TEDxTinHau countdown on our Facebook page.

 – Photo by Alex Marco
 – By Shikha S. Lamba
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