United Nations – Michelle Yeoh discusses sustainable clothing

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

Michelle Yeoh at UN for the SDGs

Through a collection of interviews and videos, we’re going to tell the story of Michelle Yeoh. She is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and an important figure in pushing sustainable clothing forward. We’ll take a look at Yeoh, her important work with the UN, and some of the broader trends in sustainable clothing. 

Get our best content on Climate Action in your inbox every week

United Nations – Michelle Yeoh discusses sustainable clothing 

Michelle Yeoh has been a UN Goodwill Ambassador for five years, and an important voice in the fight for sustainable, eco-friendly fashion. As she told the UN: 

“Clothes are central to our lives: we wear them every day, they define us, they keep us warm and mirror our way of life. Yet, our consumption of clothes has increased to new dimensions.

My main advice would be: check your labels and educate yourself… Think twice about whether you really need a new outfit, or if there are other ways of enhancing your wardrobe by swapping clothes with friends or even borrowing an evening dress from a rental website.”

Our key takeaways: 

  • On average 40% of clothes in our wardrobes are never worn
  • The fashion industry generates around 10% of global carbon emissions. 
  • Wood-based fibres use on average 60% less water than cotton
  • Wood-based fibres also produce 15 times fewer carbon emissions than synthetic fibres 
  • ‘Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.

United Nations – Michelle Yeoh discusses sustainable clothing 

Michelle Yeoh needs very little introduction. One of the great action film heroines of all time, she has for the last five years balanced an illustrious acting career with her role as UN Goodwill Ambassador, committed to eradicating global poverty by 2030. It’s in this broader role that she has become a staunch advocate for sustainable clothing.

Global fashion does not exactly have a reputation as a beacon of ethical production and consumption. However, habits are changing, thanks in no small part to advocates like Yeoh. Sustainable clothing is an important part of UN Sustainable Goal 12 – ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns – which we’ll look at in a little more detail below.

For now, though, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all got the power to choose what it is that we buy or don’t buy. As such, making ethical clothing the bedrock of our consumption habits is an important step forward; you can love clothes and hate climate change. As eco-directory Good On You have it, we should all: ‘wear the change you want to see.’

United Nations Development Programme goodwill ambassador Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh giving a special keynote address at the Sustainability and Renewable Energy Forum in Kuching. - ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE / THE STAR

Michelle Yeoh in conversation with the UN 

Here we have a brief excerpt from a Q&A Michelle Yeoh gave with the UN in 2019, offering her tips for how we can all ensure we’re supporting sustainable clothing brands.

You have always been a strong advocate for responsible consumption and production and its impact on the environment, particularly through promoting sustainable fashion. What motivated you to lend your voice and advocacy efforts to this cause?

“My goal is to leverage the platform I’ve been given through my career in film, television and entertainment to raise awareness of and mobilize support for the Sustainable Development Goals—specifically, how each and every one of us can play an important role in making them a reality.

We want to reach and inform as many people as possible. My goal is to help empower people around the world to take action and win the fight for a better tomorrow. That’s the only way we can make real change in this world.” 

Image of Michelle and Tizanio inspecting clothing

Why is sustainable fashion so important in achieving the UN sustainable development goals?

“Clothes are central to our lives: we wear them every day, they define us, they keep us warm and mirror our way of life. Yet, our consumption of clothes has increased to new dimensions.

Instead of a summer and winter collection, we now have up to 52 micro-seasons per year. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 per cent more items of clothing compared to 2000, but each garment is kept half as long.

On average 40% of clothes in our wardrobes are never worn, while 85% of textiles are either landfilled or incinerated, and very little is reused or recycled.

The fashion industry is valued at 2.5 trillion dollars and employs over 75 million people worldwide – a true engine for economic development but at the same time the second largest polluting industry after oil.

There is a lot the fashion industry can do to reduce carbon emissions, improve working conditions, pay fair wages, support material innovations, and apply more stringent environmental and social codes of practice.”

Do you have any tips for consumers on how they can make better choices when purchasing clothes?

“My main advice would be: check your labels and educate yourself… Think twice about whether you really need a new outfit, or if there are other ways of enhancing your wardrobe by swapping clothes with friends or even borrowing an evening dress from a rental website.”

Sustainable clothing: Made in Forests

In 2018, Michelle Yeoh produced a documentary in collaboration with the UN called ‘Made in Forests. It offers a vital insight into what sustainable fashion could look like in the future, and how sustainable clothing can be made. 

‘Hi, I’m Michelle Yeoh, I like to look good’ – the video follows Michelle through the process of producing a dress and jacket made from sustainable wood fibres in Italy (spoiler alert: it looks good). Wood chips from certified sustainable forests are processed into a pulp, and from there turned into fibres and eventually into thread, ‘a soft and silky material with a light footprint on the planet.’ Just one example of the fashion industry modernising itself.  

‘We buy it, but the environment pays the price’ – Made in Forests, the key points: 

  • Manufacturing clothes is very water-intensive and releases high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 
  • The fashion industry generates around 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined and 20% of global wastewater. 
  • Wood-based fibres use on average 60% less water than cotton and produce 15 times fewer carbon emissions than synthetic fibres. 

The wood-based fibres are (of course) produced hand in hand with sustainable forest management. Ethical clothing produced by Italian stylists in collaboration with the forest – what’s not to love! Indeed, such schemes offer the perfect mix of ethics and aesthetics. 

‘I made my choice,’ says Michelle, ‘what choice are you making?’

Video Transcript:

“Can you imagine what we drink in 10 years only goes to make one pair of jeans, and that’s 10,000 litres of water? Did you know that? Well, I didn’t.

But there are ways around it, and that is called sustainable fashion. We can be conscious citizens, informed citizens. Don’t buy fast fashion. It’s a lot of wastage. 

Check the labels. Because sustainable fashion has labels that tell you it is from tree fibres, monocell, lyocell, modal. So, check the labels, be aware of the debate, be an informed citizen.” 

Sustainable clothing vs fast fashion  

‘We can be conscious citizens, informed citizens. Don’t buy fast fashion.’ – Michelle is right. Fast fashion is about rapidly producing cheap, trend replicating garments. Brands typically drive down production costs by using low-quality materials that harm the environment and exploiting cheap labour. Fast fashion sustains demand by constantly producing ‘micro seasons’ – new collections that appear at a frightening rate.

This creates a culture of disposability, in which consumers continuously buy new clothes (and have them shipped halfway across the world) and dispose of old ones, week in week out. 

This takes its toll on workers and it takes its toll on the environment. In the documentary ‘The True Cost,’ author and journalist Lucy Siegle put it like this, ‘fast fashion isn’t free. Someone somewhere is paying.’ There’s a reason some clothes are cheaper than others.

More than 60 per cent of fabric fibres are now synthetics, which are derived from fossil fuels, and so they do not decay in the landfill. Fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara are about as synthetic dependent as they get.

‘It is really a global problem,’ says Dr Patsy Perry, a researcher from Manchester University, and co-author of a report on the polluting impacts of fashion. ‘Consumers must understand fashion as more of a functional product rather than entertainment and be ready to pay higher prices that account for the environmental impact of fashion.’ 

However, in the last decade, consumer habits have finally begun to make a difference. A 2015 survey found that 66% of shoppers worldwide say they are willing to pay extra for products or services from companies with social or environmental impact commitments. This is great news, although, as the Harvard Business Review has pointed out, there remains an ‘intention-action gap.’ 

Basically, there’s still a gap between what consumers say and what they purchase. It’s a gap we need to close.

Sustainable clothing and the UN

The UN partnered with Michelle Yeoh to produce the Made in Forests documentary because the UN Sustainable goal 12 commits to promoting ‘public procurement practices that are sustainable,’ and ensuring that ‘people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.’

The UN makes clear that informed purchasing is an essential aspect of the struggle against climate change: ‘if you can buy from sustainable and local sources you can make a difference as well as exercising pressure on businesses to adopt sustainable practices.’

In Indonesia, with UN Development help, more sustainable, traditional weaving methods have been revived. Growing, harvesting and weaving cotton locally, Indonesian women have created a sustainable income source to provide for their communities without harming the environment. 

In the developed world, too, we can make a difference at the individual level. In fact, we’re duty-bound to do so. Ethical, eco-friendly clothing choices have never been more important. It is us in the developed world that consumes the most. In fact, average consumption rates in rich countries are up to 30 times as high as they are in poor countries – scandalous, really.    

Making sure that consumption slows, and is funnelled into educated, ethical investments is hugely important. This is the point Michelle Yeoh is making, and it is one we should all pay attention to. 

Michelle Yeoh calling for more environment ambassadors

Sustainable clothing and You (and Us!)

Michelle Yeoh uses her platform to advocate for more sustainable clothing companies and a greater sense of consumer responsibility. Here at One Tribe, we want to follow that example and do the same. 

For instance, we’ve partnered with the amazing Goose Studios, which provide 100% organic clothing. They’re a brand built on the ethical commitment to environmental sustainability, inspired by Patagonia, another prime example of how sustainable clothing can succeed. The vegan shoe brand Koi Footwear is a third brand producing sustainable eco-clothing.  

Clearly, you don’t have to be Michelle Yeoh to wear sustainable clothing, just as you don’t have to be an artist-led eco-friendly fashion house in Northern Italy to make it! Our job is to educate ourselves and commit to informed, ethical decision making. Too many of us buy fast, and cheap, and often. Less really can be more.

It was the novelist William Gibson who said, ‘the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ Sustainable clothing is the future of fashion, and it is already here, it’s just not yet evenly distributed. It’s up to us all to vote with our feet, and our bank balances – to make it in the fashion industries’ interest to go sustainable. Our consumption habits can change production practices; we have to support brands that provide affordable ethical clothing.   

“We can be conscious citizens, informed citizens”  – change starts here. 

Join the tribe!

Connect your business or place of work. No credit card needed.

sustainable clothing, trends in sustainable clothing, pushing sustainable clothing, eco-friendly fashion, fight for sustainable, global carbon emissions, carbon emissions, fast fashion, un goodwill ambassador Michelle Yeoh, global fashion, global fashion Michelle Yeoh, sustainable consumption, ethical clothing, eco-directory, sustainability and renewable energy, sustainable clothing brands,  promoting sustainable fashion, sustainable development goals, consumption of clothes, reduce carbon emissions, environmental and social codes, sustainable clothing made in forests, how sustainable clothing can be made, sustainable wood fibres, fashion industry, fashion industry modernising, high levels of carbon dioxide, sustainable forest management, don’t buy fast fashion, polluting impacts of fashion, the environmental impact of fashion, struggle against climate change, adopt sustainable practises, sustainable income, ethical eco-friendly clothing, harming the environment, ethical investments, sustainable clothing companies, environmental sustainability, sustainable eco-clothing, wear sustainable clothing, eco-friendly fashion house, affordable ethical clothing.