WOMADelaide is on the way and one of my favourite parts (besides the music, and the trees, and the colour and atmopshere) is the Planet Talks. The daily talk series includes some of the world’s great minds in a series of fascinating live conversations about our environment and sustainable relationship with the planet. Set under the stunning tree lined canopy of Botanic Park’s aptly named ‘Speakers’ Corner’, the Planet Talks is a unique ideas festival within the festival. Walk Sew Good is a project to encourage a fashion industry that seeks to protect people and planet rather than exploit them. In an act of solidarity and friendship, Gab Murphy and Megan O’Malley set off together in 2016 across Southeast Asia. They walked for 3500 km through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meeting with and learning from people creating fashion in positive and sustainable ways. They came back with a bounty of evidence to suggest we can make a difference to avoid shopping for items that support injustice and exploitation. I had a chat with them about the project, how it affected them personally and the women they met along the way, as well as considering how we can harness their work for a more positive and sustainable fashion industry.
Can you tell us about who you are and the Walk Sew Good Project?
We are two dorks – myself, Gabrielle Murphy, and Megan O’Malley – from Melbourne and we walked 3450kms across South East Asia to promote fairer fashion. We met with and interviewed artisans, brands and garment workers across Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos for 11 months, filming the stories as we went. The reason we decided to do this, crazy, ridiculous walk, was because Megan (a reformed shopaholic) wanted to spread the word and encourage others to make better choices about what we wear. Megan read about Satish Kumar, a peace activist, who walked from India to Europe and beyond in the 60’s and realised that she wanted to do something similar. I was roped in because I love adventure and studied human rights and the environment alongside Megan at university. Also she needed someone who could hike and keep her mildly entertained.
What was the experience like?
Life-changing. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it. Words and pictures will never do it justice, but let’s give it a crack regardless: It was challenging, it was joyful, it was rewarding and enriching. We knew that the trip would be one of the biggest things that we’ve ever faced in our lives, but we didn’t realise how much it would restore our faith in our fellow humans or how much it would test our willpower and minds.
What were some of the hardest things about the walk?
For me the mental and emotional hurdles were far harder than the physical act of walking long distances (although that doesn’t mean that walking up mountains in 35 degrees and 100% humidity wasn’t difficult). We were away from our loved ones, we often went days without being able to speak english to anyone but each other, we had difficulties in finding food at times and the accommodation wasn’t always comfortable, or even livable. But honestly the biggest test was mental challenging myself every day “Can I do this? Is this crazy? What’s the point, does anyone even care? How can I help these people in the fashion industry? How can we help change the world? Is anyone listening?” That was hard. You have to become really emotionally resilient and just believe in yourself and surround yourself with supportive people (thankfully we met some amazing humans along the way and had a lot of support on social media). There are actually serious change-makers in the world, good things are happening, you just have to open your eyes a bit more.
What were some of the best things about the walk?
The people were amazing, the adventure was breathtaking (literally – we were out of breath a lot of the time), seeing and learning how clothes are beautifully crafted was gobsmacking. The sheer generosity and kindness shown by strangers made us see the world in a way that was so hopeful and it really gave us the energy to keep going. We were so fortunate to go on such an incredible journey, from staying in remote villages in Northern Laos bathing in their communal wash areas, to visiting a big garment factory on the outskirts of Hanoi, to learning intricate weaving techniques in rural Cambodia and eating the delicious street food at pop up markets in Thailand. It was all such an explosion of experiences.
What makes the fashion created in Southeast Asia sustainable? What were some of the methods you discovered?
At the moment it is difficult to call fashion completely sustainable, because usually it has an impact on the planet in one way or another. We don’t have all the answers and we like being transparent about that, but we did find some amazing people coming up with inventive solutions in different ways. Tonle (from Cambodia) upcycle products from the cutting room floor from other big brands to create clothes and ensure that none of their scraps go to waste. Girlfriend collective make active wear from plastic waste, repurposing it into textiles. Pactics have a factory that uses solar power, educates workers, provides lunch and also a daycare. Soaban in Laos educates artisan women about financial economics so they don’t undervalue their work and can be paid fairly.
In Thailand we met workers who took their workplace mistreatment to the government and won their case. We stayed with ethnic minority groups in Northern Vietnam that use organic materials (such as hemp, cotton and silk) to make their clothes, which are much better for the environment. There is a multitude of ways to make things more ethical, it’s just a matter of challenging the status quo. We specifically chose to look at South East Asia because that is where a lot of our clothes are made and often they are the countries where it is easiest to get away with doing the wrong thing. We wanted to show that there are people doing the right thing and that it is possible to do so, even in places that don’t always have support to do so.
What impact has this project had – the wider impact?
As much as I’d like to say “Megan and I have eradicated fast fashion!”, that’s just not the case, haha. We are just a little drop in the ocean, but drops add up over time and I think that we are helping with the flow of a bigger wave. We are connecting with our audience through social media and we often have friends and family, even strangers reach out to us to learn about the impact their clothes have. The videos that we create can also be used by the people we’ve met, they can go to talks and schools and show people what they do in quick, easy to digest videos. I think that we’ll keep seeing the wider impact in time to come.
What was it like to come back to Australia – has it changed you?
Not going to lie, for me, it was very difficult. It’s been hard for Megan too. For both of us we’ve had to find work almost immediately so we can sustain our lives as we hadn’t had an income for a year. Going straight back to work was not easy sailing and we still have our commitment to seeing Walk Sew Good finish, so that’s been a very difficult balance. In terms of social change from South-East Asia to Australia, that was hard too.
In Australia a lot of people tend to just buy things and throw them away, whereas a lot of the people we spent time with in Asia would repair the things they already had. Obviously this was mostly out of necessity, but it is so much more resourceful. I also am finding it really hard to engage people face to face about their clothing choices – it is so painful to me to go to parties or events and listen to people brag about their $15 dress from Kmart or H&M.
We have heard some seriously heartbreaking stories about how those clothes are made so cheaply and it just tears me apart to think that people don’t care. I think mostly it’s because people aren’t aware of how things are made, we don’t question it. It’s just there and it’s convenient and there are other things that we are thinking of rather than how something came to be. It’s very hard to contemplate the life of another human being you’ve never met, particularly when you are so far away from them, they don’t speak your language, you don’t hear their stories and so in your own little bubble, it’s as if they don’t even exist. But they do, and they matter.
Can you imagine talking about how many factory fires deaths, when someone is showing off their new outfit that makes them feel good about themselves? Not exactly a great conversation starter. At the moment I’m trying to find the right balance, to not retreat back into ignorance and to be available to my sisters and brothers around the world, but it’s hard. Life’s hard though isn’t it? If it were all easy, it would be incredibly dull wouldn’t it?
How do you think we can best make an impact in our country when it comes to fast fashion and sustainability in the industry?
Personally I think we could all start by buying less stuff, choosing well and making it last. Buying second hand or reinventing old clothes is a great affordable option. At a brand level, I think that brands have a responsibility to be more transparent about their operations and ensure International Labour (ILO) standards are met and have proper waste management so they aren’t dumping toxic waste. At a government level, I think we should have protections in place to help ensure that clothing coming into Australia isn’t made from child-labour or forced/bonded labour and that the chemicals in them aren’t carcinogenic or toxic. I don’t think the onus should be placed on one person or group, but the more people that are involved the better.
Can you tell us the story of a couple of women you met across the journey?
Hmmm that’s tough, there were so many incredible women that we met! Vannary San is a Khmer woman from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, she grew up on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in a small village with very little. She worked extremely hard to get herself an education and since then has started her own business Lotus Silk, which focuses on making Cambodian golden silk and working with local artisans to craft it into beautiful textiles. She is helping revive traditions in Cambodia, such as silk harvesting and weaving to support local communities. And she does all of this whilst supporting her young family. Vannary met her husband when she called up a computer helpline to help fix her computer and she just told him to give her instructions over the phone and she would fix the computer herself and she did, he was so impressed he had to met her in real life.
Keo is a woman we met in Luang Prabang in Laos and she, along with the help of her sister Mone, had taught herself English in a year. She is from the South of Laos from a small Katu village. Keo and her sister speak Katu with their family and community at home, but in Luang Prabang they use Lao and English mostly. Mone had gone to work for Ock Pop Tok and had encouraged her sister to come and join her. The two then started a business of their own called “The Weaving Sisters” and they teach traditional Katu weaving with beads to visitors. Keo had such a vibrant personality, her joy was infectious. We went to talk with her briefly and ended up staying late into the night, having dinner, laughing, dancing and singing Adele songs with her. She even wants us to go back to Luang Prabang and walk through Laos with her to her hometown. Her parents had to escape from Northern Laos during the conflict in Vietnam and walked over 1,000kms to settle in the south, with little except the clothes on their backs.
What is next for you?
Ahhh I’d love to know! At the moment we are just focusing on finishing the videos and publishing the stories we collected. There is a lot of footage to get through. We do have a few talks coming up here and there, so it will be good to share our story with a live audience. Apart from that, who knows, Megan has an incredibly creative mind and I know she’s going to do amazing things. I’m not sure what the future holds for myself, maybe I’ll walk South America next? Walk Sew Good may not be forever, but the stories will be archived on the internet for longevity.