Thread Talk With Melissa Tan on Being a Fashion Revolutionary

"There is no such thing as sustainable fashion, but there is better sustainability that we can work towards."

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Melissa Tan, a fashion model who is also a sustainability advocate and the country coordinator of the Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement that aims to end human and environmental exploitation in the fashion industry.

“I have not bought any clothes in the last five to six years,” Melissa Tan confessed. 

Living a zero-waste lifestyle is not something we would commonly associate with a fashion model, yet, despite all the pressure of appearing up-to-trend on social media and in her career life, Tan withstands the temptation. The cause speaks louder to her, leading her to eventually take up the role of country coordinator in Malaysia for the worldwide social movement, Fashion Revolution. 

The term “sustainable fashion” has been tossed around aplenty, but the good news is that addressing the climate crisis has become a top priority that most fashion businesses tackle. With the rising popularity of sustainable fashion launches, however, we question if buying is the ultimate answer to the issue. If not, how does one become a fashion revolutionary?  

We spoke to Melissa Tan to understand more about the current state of sustainable fashion in our local community, and the goal she wishes to achieve through the annual Fashion Revolution Week campaign. 

How would you introduce Fashion Revolution to someone new to the movement; what can people expect from Fashion Revolution Week this year? 

The Fashion Revolution has been around for 10 years and it’s the largest fashion activism movement campaigning for a fair and clean fashion industry. This movement is about all of us—from those who design, make, enjoy and even wear fashion. We are not just part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution. We all have a responsibility to demand better and discontinue the current system of fast fashion and ultra-consumption.

The theme of the year is “How to be a Fashion Revolutionary” and hopefully, these “lead-you-by-the-hand” activities—held at the Gaya HQ, a zero-waste community space—will help people recognise that we are all part of the revolution. There will be a clothes swap—crowd puller—and mending workshop at the Fashion Revolution Week. There will also be a community circle on what it means to be a fashion revolutionary and what it means to walk down the path of sustainability.

What are some of the activities that the Fashion Revolution has been doing to shift perspectives on sustainable fashion? 

Globally, we have various activities from awareness activations to policy. In Malaysia, we emphasise and organise more educational events and social media content. I think the main message is to promote transparency, especially since there is so much sustainable marketing and greenwashing in the fashion industry. Without real and transparent information on how fashion businesses work, it’s impossible to demand a better system. Fashion marketing only tells us one side of the story and it is always a good one, but we need to know the truth and how we can create transformational change in the industry beyond what we are doing right now.

What challenges have you encountered as a country coordinator for a fashion activism movement, especially in Malaysia? 

Things often only stop at the surface level. We will purchase something labelled “sustainable” because the greenwashing marketing wants us to believe buying into that makes us feel better. In some situations, the people might be armed with that information but fail to translate it into action. 

I’ve received questions like: I care, but which sustainable brands should I shop at? The first question that comes to mind is always “Where to shop”  instead of “How can I change the way I look at fashion”, that is a problem itself. The ultimate goal is to tell people that shopping is no longer the default option, sustainable brand or not. 

There’s a huge inertia in our culture of overconsumption and the temptation to shop is strong, it takes time to reprogram ourselves. Our voices might be louder, stronger and more pervasive, but so is the marketing power behind the billion-dollar industry. To work against the strong marketing pull that has been developed over decades and to help people turn awareness into action—these are the greatest challenges. 

And the challenges you encountered organising the Fashion Revolution Week annually?

The fact that the Fashion Revolution is a hundred per cent voluntary-group-backed movement. Volunteers come and go, but I’ve been very blessed to have a core team that sticks with me, believing in the same cause for the last few years. We always welcome and need more revolutionaries. 

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the fashion industry, but is it just a myth? 

There is no such thing as sustainable fashion because a piece of garment will have to go through multiple pairs of hands before it reaches you. 

On the label, it would say “Made in China” or “Made in Bangladesh”, but that’s only where the garment was put together. But who dyed the cloth? Who wove the cloth? Who grew the cotton? What kind of dyes? What kind of finishings? Where is the zip made? If one element out of the hundreds is sustainable, does that make the garment sustainable?

There is no such thing as sustainable fashion, but there is better sustainability that we can work towards. We have to acknowledge that no piece is perfect, but we can always strive for better. We can change the way we use the garment. A piece can be handmade but if you only wore it twice before discarding it, that doesn’t make it sustainable as well.  

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That brings us to the “Who Made My Clothes” project that Fashion Revolution has been doing globally, but is this an ongoing activity for the Malaysian community as well?

“Who Made My Clothes” is a global call to action—we did it in Malaysia before too—to pressure the brands into providing better work conditions and fair pay. When it comes to sustainability in fashion, we don’t realize that sustainability and people are very intricately connected—it’s never just about polluted rivers and overflowing landfills.

A cheap price tag—however little the profits are—goes to the brand. The lower the profits, the more it suppresses the people; not just the wage, but also cutting back on the cost spent on building safe workplaces for the workers. They are risking their lives for an outfit photo we are posting on Instagram. How disconnected can we be to fail to notice that each garment that we put on does not magically appear?

Yes, brands might tell us that they are paying their workers well, but most of them are referring to the factory that assembles the clothes, the one they have direct relationships with, the one that they send their representative to go and visit, so yes, they pay the workers in that factory well. We are overlooking how the exploitation in fashion might take place within the subcontractors. What we are seeing is merely just what happened to the people on the first or maybe second tier of the entire supply chain.

What part do you think the consumers play in this movement? How can we contribute to the change?

First of all, never see yourself as a consumer. We are citizens and what we do has an impact on the planet. It’s not meant to guilt you but rather, to create a better sense of consciousness of how we connect ourselves with the system. If we position ourselves as consumers who buy, we are sending a trigger to the system that hikes the demand. On the contrary, if we shift the demand to wanting to create a better impact without investing in things that fall outside of our basic needs, that pulls another trigger—would businesses proceed to produce if no one is paying? 

What are your thoughts on the relationship between microtrend-driven settings, fast fashion, and overconsumption in fashion?

Our culture now leans toward cheap dopamine—just take our attention span for example, with the content that we consume online. You need to hook the audience in the first three seconds, but how much of that information are we retaining? It’s the dopamine hit, and once it passes, we seek the next dopamine hit. There’s no time for us to develop a connection to the message that creates lasting change in us. The same mindset applies to fashion microtrends.

It comes, we consume, we feel good, but what’s next?  We don’t develop a connection with the pieces, the image we are building, or even the expression of style. It’s about chasing the next dopamine hit.

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A post shared by Melissa Tan (@heymelissatan)

There’s a rise in thrift shopping; what are your thoughts on that? Is it any better? 

Thrifting and the secondhand market is only a band-aid to the issue. It is a helpful transitionary measure, of course, but the flip side is how the lower price tag of a used item enables overconsumption. We see people doing “bundles” and thrift hauls, a bag full of clothes that cost say, RM5, and so the devaluing of clothes makes us even less sorry about it.

The secondhand market used to mean recirculating the existing pieces in the market. Now, it has become an excuse to add more to the circulation, and sadly, only a fraction of them ends up in someone else’s curated wardrobe. What I believe is that if I need something, it’s probably in my wardrobe and if it’s not, it’s probably in my friend’s wardrobe, and that’s when a clothes swap comes into the picture. 

The problem that we have with clothes swaps is that sometimes, it is not as inclusive. 

Cloth swapping is a community activity and you don’t have to wait for someone to organise it. It can be done among your friends who might have similar preferences and also sizes. Fashion Revolution has been doing this for quite some time and I’d invite partners who established connections with other communities, so we can get more inclusive participants, for example, we are doing one with Jasmine King so we can bring people from a different dressing experience to the swap.