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The Not-So-Wasteful Artist

Life in the fast lane is a norm in Hong Kong and most Asian cities. Yet four years ago, Tanja Wessels, a writer, artist, and TEDx speaker who has lived in Hong Kong since 2015, suddenly had a wake-up call to embark on a lifestyle change. She is now using waste to reimagine our relationships with materials and to embrace the art of slow living. We chat with Tanja about her journey. 

By Vivien Wong
June 30, 2021

Being a changemaker, can you tell us what happened during the year of 2017 that changed your lifestyle completely? 

In 2017, I made a connection between what was happening to me in the emotional and psychological capacities, and what was happening to our natural environment. When I look back at it now, it seems very easy to understand, however, at the time it felt bewildering and overwhelming. Eco-anxiety can have that effect.

The American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” My experience included sadness, anger, and panic, and it came to a head in a supermarket aisle when I couldn’t stop staring at a coconut wrapped in a fruit foam sock and clingfilm. My head was racing with images of collapsing icebergs and wildlife in distress, yet my legs were as heavy as lead, and I couldn’t move. I knew something was very wrong.

When I researched the words ‘plastic’ and ‘panic’, the world of eco-anxiety opened up to me and it was a game-changing moment.

There are a number of ways to work with, or through, eco-anxiety, including getting active in a sustainability community or starting one of your own, making small changes in your daily habits such as eliminating or cutting back on meat, composting, and using public transport. Reading books on the topic is also very helpful, as is making art or contacting your local legislator. Once you understand what you are experiencing, you are in a better position to navigate it, because you are empowered.

Today’s consumers buy 60 percent more clothing than they did 15 years ago, and they last half as long. What do you think drives this behaviour? 

A number of factors have merged to create this dynamic: social media, falling costs, rising consumer spending, and streamlined operations mean that brands can offer up to 24 new clothing collections each year, and in some cases, refreshing their selections on a weekly basis.

I think most people don’t fully understand how clothing manufacturing affects people and the planet. In October, I did a TEDx talk with TEDXTinhauWomen where I addressed some of these topics. Some of my closest friends, who have known me for decades, were surprised at the data I shared, and told me they would be changing their fashion habits after watching the talk.

Fashion’s environmental impact isn’t as clear cut as it is with, for example, animal agriculture. Most people can make the connection between choosing to not eat steak and the impact it has. Choosing not to buy that cute dress with the discount price tag is a less obvious connection.

You decided four years ago to stop buying new clothes and you are still on that journey. Can you tell us about the highlights and lowlights so far? Was there a time when you wanted to give up and what made you persevere?  

There are so many highlights! And new ones come along on a regular basis. Some of my favourites so far include feeling truly free from fashion cycles and media noise, not having to navigate overstuffed wardrobes, not paying attention to money and trends, and not numbing feelings with shopping. The irony is that I had never enjoyed fashion as much as I do now that I’m not directly engaging with it.

I have never wanted to give up my not-buying-new-clothes choice. The further away from fashion hype I move, the more interesting things get. It is very rewarding to find creative solutions to limited clothing selections; in a way you have to let go of your own expectations and allow alternatives in. That may be the greatest insight I have had to date when it comes to not buying new clothes.

It is not a completely challenge free choice though. I don’t like shopping online, so I really limit myself when it comes to second-hand options in Hong Kong. I recently had an important event with strict wardrobe requirements. I spent weeks finding the right top to wear for it.

It has been four years into what started out as a one-year personal challenge. I hope to do this for the rest of my life. It has made my world so much more interesting and rewarding.

With the innovations nowadays, are there any alternatives, such as plant-based leather, for consumers who want to make a change? 

The pace at which alternatives are becoming available is accelerating, and although many things are still happening in fringe areas of the industry, hope is on our horizon. Plant-based leather is being created from materials including mushrooms, mangoes, pineapples, and apples. Silk-like textiles are being made from orange peels, and fabrics are being made from recycled oyster shells. There is truly a lot to get excited about.

Until a lot of the innovation goes mainstream, I believe that pre-loved clothing, tailoring what you have, and upcycling, are good avenues to pursue.

Hong Kong has some fantastic options. Online second-hand platforms are going from strength to strength; Vestiaire Collective is a case in point. HULA does a great job of combining online shopping and the physical store experience. PO House is bringing together a number of designers and approaches to pre-loved clothing in a wonderfully sophisticated way.

On the upcycling front, I love the work of Kay Wong who brings fine art into everything she does. A new local brand I recently discovered, Good Days Activewear, makes elegant athleisure with great production values and prices to match.

Another way you can make a change is to take the two least matching items in your wardrobe and throw them on with a sense of adventure and fun. Wear them out with playful confidence and see the profound shifts that happen to you on a psychological level.

As an artist, how do you use the power of photography to convey your message to the public? Can you tell us about this form of art? 

I grew up with a very creative mother and she instilled a love of art and nature in me from the very start. I studied filmmaking in university and have always been drawn to cinematic visuals in everyday scenarios. A couple of years ago, through Circular Community Hong Kong, I met photographer Alex Macro from the UK who had just moved to Hong Kong. We connected over our art school backgrounds and commitment to sustainability. We started playing around with ideas and things organically took off from there.  

The power, and joy, of visual art is that people interpret it how they wish, and that gives them a sense of engagement and connection. You don’t have to tell them what to feel and think, they get there on their own. I think in this time of eco-anxiety, people are numbed by numbers and data. They often tune out and switch off when presented with frightening statistics.  

Photography can turn that on its head. As a society we have been visually trained to engage with images from a young age, we read them before we are even aware that we are doing it. This creates a wonderful opportunity to juxtapose unexpected elements and invite people to question their assumptions. It is one of the things I enjoy doing most in this world. Alex and I are working on some new ideas for 2021. 

In your TEDx talk, you said that “we are the fabric of this world” and “small action makes big impact”. Can you elaborate on that? 

I love to remind people of how powerful they, and their minds, are. When we talk about innovation, textiles, materials, and technology, that is a manifestation of our minds and our thinking. Those materials didn’t put themselves together, we are where these materials begin and end. We decide what gets made, and how, and what happens to them when we no longer want them. In many ways, we are the true fabric of this world.  

There are so many global shifts happening around us right now. It feels like an invitation to upgrade our mindsets for new thinking and to re-weave the tapestry of this world.  

Why is slowing down one’s lifestyle important and what does slow living mean to you? 

Like all of us, I am a complicated combination of a number of things. My interpretation of slow living is a reflection of that. To be honest, I do everything pretty fast; I walk fast, I speak fast and I think fast (most of the time). I am curious and always expecting someone or something inspiring around the next corner, so I move towards that at a quick pace. I even jump out of bed before the alarm goes off in the morning. I’m not sure what I’m expecting, but clearly something good. 

On the other hand, I take a very philosophical approach to my life and spend a lot of time in meditation and contemplation. As a hypersensitive person, I navigate things with care, partly because I have to from a self-protection perspective, and partly because I have a deep capacity for empathy and that naturally drives me to explore meaning and purpose. It is both a blessing and a hinderance. I make a concentrated effort to pivot things towards the blessing side. So, in a physical, day to day capacity I am fast. But on a psychological level I am slow.  

Slow living to me means listening to my inner world, the one that says we are all connected, and a life worth living is one that can communicate that. It is also one that sees me jumping out of bed in the morning to make that happen.