Photo of Michelle Yaoh, UNDP Goodwill Ambassador

10,000 litres of water are required to make a single pair of jeans. UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Michelle Yeoh gives us tips on how we can adopt sustainable fashion in our daily lives.


What inspired you to become a Goodwill Ambassador for UNDP? And could you take us through some of the experiences you have had in your advocacy efforts since your appointment in 2016?

I was in Nepal in April 2015 when a powerful earthquake devastated the country. On my way to the airport, I considered myself lucky because I still had a home to go to, unlike the thousands of families whose entire lives were reduced to rubble.

I wanted to, needed to, do something to help. And so I began my journey with UNDP to support their work in Nepal and around the world. My first mission as Goodwill Ambassador was to return to Nepal to not only to support the recovery efforts—but also to raise awareness of the crucial importance of preparing for disaster long before it happens.

Since then, I have been working with UNDP to help promote the Sustainable Development Goals and all the important issues they cut across, ranging from fighting for equality to protecting the planet and wildlife to living sustainably.

My job as Goodwill Ambassador ranges from shining a spotlight on the work UNDP does all over the world to help achieve equality for the most vulnerable and address the effects of climate change, participating in awareness raising initiatives and events, mobilizing support through digital platforms, as well as speaking at high-level meetings and events at the UN headquarters in New York.

To give you a few examples: I have participated in the Wild for Life initiative and UNDP’s The Lion Share Fund to support the protection of wildlife and preservation of their habitats. I spoke at the UN’s High-level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace about the key role women’s empowerment and sustainable development play in achieving lasting peace. Last July, UNDP and I teamed up with UNECE/FAO and UNTV Geneva to produce a short film on sustainable fashion. As part of this initiative, I spoke at the opening of the HLPF Ministerial Meeting to advocate for responsible production and consumption. And most recently, I teamed up with FIA, the UN, UNDP and other agencies to launch a very important road safety initiative.

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.

That’s why I have teamed up with UNDP to raise awareness of the importance of making our way of life on this planet more sustainable for the Earth and more prosperous for all of its inhabitants.

There is a lot that consumers, for instance, can do through their purchasing power and their commitment to reuse and recycle, or governments through more stringent regulations. Everybody involved needs to work together.

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.

From the Oscars to other events, fashion and movies stars go hand in hand. Do you feel that there is more awareness about sustainable fashion in the entertainment industry?

It is encouraging to see that film stars increasingly pay attention to sustainable fashion, for example by taking part in the Green Carpet Challenge. This is an initiative that pairs glamour with ethics and puts sustainability in the spotlight. Emma Watson has taken part in it, and so have Cate Blanchett, Juliane Moore and Colin Firth, who all attended last year’s Green Carpet fashion awards, which rewards designers for their commitment to sustainability in fashion.

The winner of the 2017 Green Carpet Awards was Tiziano Guardini, who made the dress that I wore when shooting the “Made in Forests” sustainable fashion documentary with UN TV and the UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section last year. He only uses natural materials for his design creations, such as fabrics made from certified wood.

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 microseasons per year. The average consumer is now purchasing 60 percent 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 second largest polluting industry after oil.

It needs to change gear – and this can only happen if we look at fashion as a tool to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

And there is a lot of potential: during the High-level Political Forum which I attended last year, the connection was made between Fashion and the SDGs, and it became apparent that almost all Goals relate to production and consumption practices in the industry, be it the use of raw materials, they\ way it production impacts water, health, issues of gender…and the list goes on. There is a huge potential for fashion to become more sustainable, but for this, fashion companies, consumers, influencers, governments, the UN – we all need to work together.

The UN has also realised this potential, and created the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which aims to improve coordination among UN specialized agencies, international and regional organizations and foster more effective knowledge sharing to change the path of fashion from a social, economic and environmental concern to a driver for the implementation of the SDGs.

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 to consumers on how they can make better choices when purchasing clothes?

My main advice would be: check your labels and educate yourself. This is what we were trying to do with the “Made in Forests documentary film: to educate the viewer about the problems of our current ways of producing and consuming when it comes to clothes. We wanted to show that there are alternative materials and ways of production out there – in this case, fabrics made from sustainably certified forests. Who knew that forests could provide a solution in the puzzle of the fashion dilemma?

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.

As UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, award-winning actor Michelle Yeoh has taken on another role to raise awareness and mobilize support for the Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2016 to end poverty in all its forms by the year 2030. The Malaysian-born film star was appointed UNDP Goodwill Ambassador on 15 March 2016.

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