“I read this article about a man who had walked 13,000 km around the world in the 1960s to promote nuclear disarmament. He’d gone to all the nuclear capitals of the world and tried to meet with the leaders to persuade them to disarm. He did it without money and basically on the kindness of strangers. I was blown away by that. So I thought, well I can walk! Why don’t I do something like that for a cause I care about? And sustainable fashion is my thing I guess, so the project evolved from there.” – Megan O’Malley
Stories steal our hearts. They encourage us to dream. And the best kind of stories drive us to act. It was this kind of story that first inspired Megan O’Malley and her friend Gab Murphy to walk 3,500 km across Southeast Asia with a goal of their own: to collect the inspiring stories of the humans who make our clothes and to share with the world exactly why our own clothing choices matter so much.
Megan’s own story began a few years before she first read about Satish Kumar’s journey to advocate for nuclear disarmament. Her passion for sustainable fashion was sparked in unexpected places during her time working as a dancer on a cruise ship and as a Bollywood dancer in India. These experiences gave her new insight into both her privilege and the exploitation occurring in different industries across the world.
“You’re not allowed to form unions [on the cruise ship] and you’re not allowed to do all of these other things. Basically you have no rights. I just couldn’t deal with that anymore. I got off. I went to India to be a Bollywood dancer and I was supposed to be there for 6 months but I only lasted a month because I got a taste of what it’s like to be exploited… and I didn’t really like that. Again, I was privileged enough to be like I can leave, I’m not sticking around for this. They would tell us to do things and I would say no. I was 26 at the time, but they had 17 and 18 year old girls there who wouldn’t say no, didn’t know how to say no.
I had those experiences and at the same time I was a crazy shopaholic. When I was on the ships we would stop at ports and I would get off and go to all of the terrible shops and buy lots of fast fashion and my suitcases would be full to bursting. My fellow cast members would have to sit on the suitcases to get them closed.
I realized this exploitation in the cruise ship industry and the bit that I experienced in India, this is happening on a huge scale, a much bigger scale in the fashion industry. And by going to these stores I was kind of a part of it. That’s where I started to really research it. And I’m a total nerd, so I got really into it and bought textbooks and then went back to uni and started studying. I focused a lot of my work on sustainable fashion and it just kept going from there.
If you’re aware and you have your eyes open, it can totally shift the way that you think. I’m still angry at myself that I was brainwashed by the massive marketing machine that is fast fashion. I thought I was a person that really cared about the environment and people, and you just get so sucked into that machine of buy this and you’ll be cool, or you need a new outfit every day, or you need a new outfit for Friday night. You get brainwashed by it. I think once you’re aware and you’ve recognized what’s going on in the world, it’s kind of too hard to turn back.”
Armed with awareness of the exploitation taking place in the fashion industry and inspiration from Satish Kumar to walk for a cause, Megan conceptualized a plan to undertake her own walking journey where she would meet with, interview, and learn from the people who make our clothes around the world. The only question remaining was how to bring her vision to life.
“I had never really done long distance hiking. The most I’d hiked was a day. So I realized I needed someone to help keep me alive that maybe had a little bit more experience, and that’s why I roped Gab in. But she didn’t know that I hadn’t had more than a day’s hike until a little bit into the project when she was creating a blog post of our favorite hikes. She asked me, ‘do you have any overnight hikes that you’ve done?’ and I told her, ‘I’ve never done any’. I think she was a little bit terrified by that.
Then we just researched and contacted as many people as we could. Originally we wanted to start in India and finish in China but there’s a whole lot of Bangladesh in between and it just wasn’t going to be safe. So we eventually came up with the route: starting in Ho Chi Minh, going through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and ending in Hanoi. [The trip] was actually only 10 and a half months. We stopped in places for a month or so, or a couple of weeks. So it wasn’t always walking. It was always a little bit hard to get back into it after we’d stopped in a city after interviewing everyone.”
Setting off on their adventure, Megan and Gab walked up to a maximum of 38 km a day to reach incredible people across Southeast Asia who design, dye, weave and sew the clothes most of us put on every day, but rarely stop to think about.
“We talked to over 50 or 60 different brands, individuals and organizations. I feel like I may be editing videos for the rest of my life. A lot of these places don’t have a huge internet presence so it was finding the ones that did and then getting them to pass on details of who else we should be visiting. One of the difficulties we did have was that we were restricted by language. A lot of time we couldn’t interview in the language of the people that were there, so we were interviewing a lot of expats or English speaking locals or getting them to translate, so that was a bit difficult.
There are a lot of businesses out there trying to do it differently. Which I think is really admirable in places where it is so easy to do it the wrong way. We have regulations to stop us from doing it the wrong way here, but in a lot of the countries we visited those regulations don’t exist so much or they’re not followed. So I was completely inspired by how people were really committed to doing things the right way for people and planet.
It’s this world where we have only limited time, so we take little bits. Most interviews were an hour long and are condensed into 2-3 minutes. So there is so much more to learn. When you’re there and you see the whole picture, it definitely has a huge impact on you.
We don’t value the things that we have. We don’t really understand how much work goes into creating them so we take them for granted. The whole time on the trip we kept saying, we wish we could have brought everyone along with us because of what we were seeing. I mean I thought I knew how clothes were made before I left on this trip and I couldn’t have been more wrong, I had no idea. Watching the skills and the love and how a lot of these crafts are connected to culture, it just goes so much deeper than a piece of clothing. I think if people learned to value their things more, there wouldn’t be this huge waste issue that’s going on now.”
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The incredible impact of the inspiring stories that Megan heard wasn’t the only mark this journey left on her.
“The biggest lesson I learned was how incredible humans can be. A lot of people thought we were going to die on this trip. A lot of people thought we were going to get raped or murdered or kidnapped. They had high expectations for our demise. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for I think the first 6 to 8 months we were planning this project. He was like, “you’re going to die, I’m not having any part of it”. What we experienced couldn’t have been further from that.
We had to learn how to say walking in each of the languages of the countries we were in because people would stop on the side of the road and say, ‘Get in the car. Free, free! Please get in the car!’. And we had to be like, ‘No, we want to walk’. I guess that’s such a privileged kind of thing to have really. It’s very privileged for us to be able to walk through places. But people did not understand. So there would be some days where, I think I counted 16 times that people stopped on the side of the road, it was in Cambodia actually, and were like ‘Get in the car, please get in the car!’.
I have so many stories like that of people just being so amazing. Everyone is so scared of each other and I really think this trip gave me the opportunity to connect with people that I would otherwise never connect with. Because you go past on a bus and you wouldn’t see half the places you would when you were walking. I guess that was my biggest lesson. I don’t know how I will ever travel again in the same ways that I used to, because slow travel is amazing. We would watch the tourist buses go past and think about what they were missing out on and what they weren’t seeing. We’re definitely very focused on getting there rather than the journey in between.”
Worst hotel room?
“It was green. The whole place was green from mold. Oh gosh, I could send you some very terrible pictures. We have a collection. Gab started rating places 5 toilets out of 5. There was one place where the roof was falling in. But this mold was ghostbuster green. It was somewhere in Vietnam and the whole room smelt like smoke and it was filthy and disgusting. You kind of had to put your blinkers on.”
Scariest experience on the trip?
“There were two. Walking along the highways in Thailand when trucks were coming towards you, that wasn’t super fun. And then in Laos it was a little bit terrifying because we were camping in the school grounds and people would come and shine lights in our tent and that was a bit scary, but it didn’t happen very often. I think people were just curious.”
One item you won’t travel without?
“After being there I really had an appreciation for toilet paper and knives. But i didn’t travel really with those. I did come back for a great appreciation for those things. And cheese. I guess my phone – ugh – because it helped us navigate the way and we didn’t get lost. That was handy.”
Advice for someone who wants to go on a change-making adventure but is nervous to set off?
“Oh my gosh, I had so many fears! Just acknowledge them, acknowledge that they’re there. I’m a person with high anxiety I was scared of being eaten alive by a tiger and I was scared of not being able to find food and I was scared of toilets and there were so many possibilities. Not people, which was weird, but all of the other things that could possibly happen. But I think just do it. Lots of people have good crazy ideas but never act on them. But what’s stopping you? You just do it. You fail, that’s really the worst that could happen.”
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