In the enchanting realm of eco-conscious visionaries, Melissa Tan shines as a captivating force, effortlessly intertwining her profound love for nature with a multifaceted career that spans the worlds of media and entertainment. In this exclusive encounter, we embark on a remarkable journey through Melissa’s extraordinary life story. We delve into her origins as a “Recycle Junkie,” a title earned in her youth, and explore her transformative experiences, including a remarkable Antarctic Expedition with the esteemed marine biologist, Dr. Sylvia Earle.
With a background in acting and a passion for storytelling, Melissa brilliantly articulates her mission to weave environmental advocacy into the very fabric of our daily lives. Join us in this compelling exploration of Melissa Tan‘s unique fusion of media influence and environmental passion, where she reveals her ingenious strategies for fostering sustainability within communities and inspires us to embrace a more aspirational, eco-conscious way of living.
Melissa, as an environmentalist with a background in acting, could you share your journey and how you became deeply involved in both of these fields?
The story I often share traces back to my childhood. I grew up as a nature-loving kid, always concerned about animals and the environment. My affection for animals is closely tied to my love for nature because even as a young child, I grasped the concept that preserving habitats meant safeguarding the lives of these creatures. I did everything within my power to be eco-conscious. I recycled diligently and stayed updated on environmental news. It was always heart-wrenching to come across those hard-hitting headlines, yet it felt like I was just a kid, and all I could do was recycle. So, I earned the title of a “Recycle Junkie.”
Fast forward, as I grew up, I ventured into modeling, hosting, presenting, and producing. Working within the entertainment and fashion industries exposed me to intense consumerism. I, in a way, became part of the mass advertising machine, encouraging people to buy and consume more. Even as a fashion model, I would change in and out of 150 dresses in a single day. Over the years, I noticed that trends kept repeating, the items were essentially the same, and the quality continually declined. This process led to a certain desensitization towards material possessions.
Simultaneously, due to my contracts, I found myself living out of a suitcase for a few years, which turned out to be incredibly liberating. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle almost happened by accident. When I stumbled upon the concept of zero-waste living, it ignited a spark within me. It brought back those childhood feelings of deep environmental concern. It made me realize that caring about the environment was so significant that what I had been doing all along, like recycling, was hardly enough. In fact, it was a flawed approach from the start. I began to question, “What do you mean I can prevent waste? What do you mean I can avoid harm? What do you mean I can opt-out entirely by redefining how I live my life?” My perspective underwent a profound transformation.
This was a revelation for me, as I wondered why I hadn’t seen it earlier. It took someone introducing me to the concept of zero-waste living for me to truly grasp its significance. It felt glaringly obvious, and I questioned why I hadn’t recognized it before. It became evident that people needed their eyes opened to these ideas. I stumbled into minimalism, and someone else opened my eyes to zero-waste living.
Gradually, by adopting these two perspectives on life, I managed to untangle myself from the clutches of consumerism and relentless marketing. This is how I found a way to fuse my passion for both fields. Now, knowing the aspirational allure of social media and the world of entertainment, and being a self-proclaimed clothes enthusiast, I thought, “What if we could make environmentalism more appealing? What if it became aspirational in its own right?” We need to dispel the myth that taking responsibility for the environment means missing out or shortchanging ourselves when, in reality, it’s quite the opposite. “Less is more.” Consuming less, owning less, and freeing ourselves from consumerism truly liberates us, providing greater freedom. That’s how I united these two worlds.
How do you leverage your career in the media and your commitment to environmental advocacy to make a significant impact?
Building on the previous question, it’s about using your platform to promote a more meaningful way of life and an alternative perspective. The reality is that most platforms, including social media, are often used for advertising. Much of the content we consume, even unbranded content, tends to glorify consumerism and a certain lifestyle.
However, we can utilize these same platforms to convey a different message. It’s about living a life with purpose and disconnecting from consumerism. I firmly believe that everyone possesses influence, regardless of their role – whether they’re business owners, employees, homemakers, or kids. It’s about illustrating to people the link between their actions in their own lives, offering new ideas, broadening their horizons, and highlighting opportunities. This process slowly fosters a unique perspective and intuition that enables them to identify these opportunities for themselves.
You recently participated in an Antarctic Expedition with Dr. Sylvia Earle. Could you share your insights from this experience and how it has impacted your environmental activism?
The Antarctic Expedition was profoundly transformative for me. As someone deeply connected to terrestrial environments like forests and jungles, this journey shifted my focus to the vital role of the ocean in preserving our planet’s health and climate. It was eye-opening to be surrounded by passionate ocean conservationists, emphasizing the interconnectedness of our world. It made me realize that the solutions aren’t limited to what we’re most familiar with.
The expedition reinforced the idea that it’s not about one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, many focus on planting trees as a carbon offset strategy, but this might not be the most effective approach. Ocean conservation, a part of the bigger picture, deserves more attention. While terrestrial conservation is vital, there’s already significant emphasis on it, and initiatives like reforestation and carbon offsets may not be the most efficient means of addressing climate change.
Preserving what’s already in existence is critical. Damage to the ocean, the primary climate buffer, is irreversible, unlike planting more trees. Another aspect I admired was Dr. Sylvia Earle‘s unwavering stance on ocean conservation and avoiding seafood consumption. It’s a firm, some might even say extreme, approach, leaving no room for half-measures.
She’s unapologetic about it, unlike many conversations that sugarcoat reality. Climate solutions require drastic actions, just like the shift to a plant-based lifestyle that rejects meat consumption. I appreciate the expedition’s imperfections, characterized by diverse perspectives and, at times, egos. It highlighted that even people passionate about the planet can have misalignments when working toward a common goal. Imperfections are natural, but they don’t hinder great people from achieving great things.
In the realm of climate solutions, we must understand that perfect answers rarely exist. Solutions are transitional, and constantly evolving. The Antarctic Expedition showed me that progress involves continuous improvement, even if the path is imperfect.
You’re actively involved in various environmental initiatives. Could you share more about these projects and how they align with your vision for a more sustainable future?
My focus is primarily on community engagement because I firmly believe that effective climate action begins at home. To create true advocates who can influence change within families, workplaces, and positions of power, it’s essential to instill a personal mindset shift. Many of my projects are designed to involve people in climate solutions and change their perspective on their relationship with the environment. These initiatives include talks, environmental festivals, climate reality discussions, workshops on zero-waste living, and urban reforestation activities with the Free Tree Society.
The common thread in all of these projects is placing people at the heart of climate action. By doing so, they can bring their determination and mindset to any role they hold or may move into. You never know who might attend a community event – it could be a student or even a high-ranking executive in a large corporation. Such individuals can profoundly influence their respective spheres with a clearer, more sustainable perspective, furthering the cause of environmental change.
As an actress and environmentalist, you clearly understand the power of storytelling in raising awareness about environmental issues. Could you share specific projects or campaigns where you’ve successfully combined storytelling and environmental advocacy?
It’s widely recognized that people connect best with stories that evoke human emotions. They need relatable narratives because statistics and facts often fail to engage. The climate crisis and environmental news can be overwhelmingly negative and frightening, causing many to turn away from these emotions.
It’s more comfortable to ignore these issues and focus on other aspects of life, creating a kind of sub-reality where we can find peace. To truly connect with people, we must find points of resonance and storytelling is the ideal tool. It allows us to relate environmental concerns to elements in people’s lives that matter to them.
Whether individuals live in cities or rural areas and interact with nature daily, they may not always perceive the connection between their lives and the environment. Reminding them of their shared humanity is essential, and storytelling is the most effective approach. In fact, storytelling is integral to all aspects of my work, making it an intrinsic part of every project and campaign.
As the country coordinator of Fashion Revolution Malaysia, how do you personally define and practice sustainable fashion?
I often provide training on this topic, drawing from my own journey in zero-waste living and minimalism. I frame it as seven distinct ways to build a zero-waste wardrobe, emphasizing that you rarely need to buy new clothing because the world already holds an abundance of garments. In fact, owning fewer items can strengthen your sense of style. Rather than relying on a credit card, you’ll discover that creativity becomes your primary tool in fashion.
Sustainable fashion isn’t about consuming more; it’s about understanding what suits you best and getting creative to achieve your desired looks without buying new items. This includes practices like swapping, second-hand shopping, borrowing, restyling, shopping within your own wardrobe, embracing capsule wardrobes, and exploring so-called sustainable fashion brands.
It’s essential to note that no fashion or product is entirely sustainable, although some brands demonstrate improved practices. Even so, consuming from these “sustainable” brands should be a last resort. I use myself as an example, considering my role as a public figure who often needs to look good. I’m in entertainment, and I have a visible presence in various spaces. My aim is to show people that looking great without buying new clothing is entirely achievable. I encourage individuals to challenge themselves and set boundaries around their approach to fashion, as boundaries can be a source of inspiration, leading to more sustainable choices rather than opting for the quick fix of swiping a credit card.
Melissa, how do you incorporate sustainability into your daily life?
I lead a zero-waste lifestyle, which means I generate minimal waste. I’m committed to not purchasing new items. Moreover, I utilize my platform and my voice to influence the people around me by simply being myself. My actions and choices serve as a source of inspiration and a testament to the possibilities of sustainable living.
What’s your perspective on climate optimism as an artist and environmentalist?
Climate optimism is a personal struggle for me, and I believe many environmentalists share this challenge. When you’re deeply involved in environmental causes, you’re constantly bombarded with grim news and stories of environmental issues. We often find ourselves immersed in discussions about negative events, which can be disheartening. The reality is that, as climate advocates and storytellers, we’re exposed to a constant stream of distressing information.
For those of us in this field, we have to work diligently to foster and maintain climate optimism. We have to find new and engaging ways to convey our message, even though it can feel like we’re saying the same thing over and over. Sometimes it’s frustrating because the change seems slow. We’re exposed to the often daunting reality of climate issues more than the general public, which can lead to climate anxiety and pessimism.
We are acutely aware of the complexities involved in shifting our course toward a more sustainable future. We understand the many layers of change required, and it can feel disheartening when we don’t see all the pieces coming together as we’d like. Unlike some who may be encouraged by surface-level green messaging, we know there’s more to the story.
To address this, we must cultivate our own climate optimism. Without it, we risk burnout and can’t contribute effectively. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and engaging in inspiring projects keeps our spirits high. Achieving positive results from our efforts feeds our souls and sustains our motivation. Despite the challenges and the world’s ongoing struggles, the sense of fulfillment from our work keeps us moving forward.
What’s your favorite Malaysian food, and does climate change affect it?
I have to say Durian is one of my favorite Malaysian foods. However, the love for Durian, not just mine but globally, is leading to deforestation and monoculture. I’ve witnessed fields being cleared to make way for durian plantations. This beloved Malaysian fruit is contributing to climate change while also being influenced by climate change in the near future.
Regarding the specific impact of climate change on durian plantations, I’m not entirely sure at the moment. What’s clear is that its cultivation is contributing to deforestation, which is a significant environmental concern.
Being a Malaysian, tell us about a practice(s) in your culture that is actually very sustainable and good for the planet.
In Fashion Revolution Malaysia, we created a series of documentaries during Fashion Revolution Week that highlighted sustainable practices in fashion rooted in our culture but often forgotten. One notable practice is the tradition of mending and reusing our clothes, especially when it comes to making festive wear for celebrations like New Year, Hari Raya, and Chinese New Year. In the past, our mothers’ generation would have one set of clothing made new each year, often crafted by our grandmothers. These garments were treasured, passed down, and cherished for generations. While this practice isn’t unique to Malaysia, it reflects a mindset from a couple of generations ago that valued sustainability, which is sadly less common today.
Another sustainable tradition, although not as prevalent as before, is the use of tiffin carriers for food deliveries. Families would order weekday meals, and the food delivery person would transport the food in tiffin carriers containing two to three dishes. After delivering the food, they would collect the previous day’s tiffin carriers and exchange them. This practice is more common among those in landed houses because they could hang the tiffin carriers above their post boxes for easy exchange. While it’s less common now, it’s a practice we should strive to bring back and make more widespread, especially as it’s being replaced by less sustainable food delivery and takeaway options.
In your journey as an environmentalist, what are some of the major challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?
One of the major challenges I encountered on my journey as an environmentalist was dealing with climate anxiety and climate doomism. For a period, I grappled with these feelings, and it became challenging to stay motivated and continue my advocacy work. It often felt like a tremendous task to keep showing up. To overcome this, I realized the importance of surrounding myself with like-minded individuals and immersing myself in spaces where I could draw energy and enthusiasm from others who shared my passion. Being with people who believed just as strongly as I did helped me rekindle my own motivation.
It’s crucial for those of us who are champions of sustainability and change to remember that in mainstream society, we often stand as beacons, and we might be the only person within our social circles or workplaces who are deeply committed to reshaping processes and systems. When we constantly encounter resistance to change, science, and our messaging, we must take the time to return to spaces that replenish our souls. This renewal allows us to continue facing the broader world and work on pulling others in the same direction we’re heading.
So when you constantly face resistance to change and science and your messaging, you need to then continuously put yourself back into spaces to feed your soul again.
Are there any specific moments or accomplishments that stand out to you?
There have been several moments and accomplishments on my journey, although I can’t recall all of them at this moment. One standout experience was the opportunity to visit Antarctica. Initially, it seemed like an unattainable dream because I didn’t have the means to make such a journey. However, two years later, I took a chance and entered a competition. I presented myself to individuals who recognized my potential to convey their message, and I was selected.
This experience was incredibly validating for me. A lot of the work we do, both you and I, often happens behind the scenes and goes unnoticed. Yet, it can be emotionally taxing and challenging. For us to consistently operate behind the scenes, it takes a significant emotional toll. So, it was truly heartening to have our peers and those we admire acknowledge and appreciate our efforts.
What advice would you give to individuals who want to make a positive impact but are unsure of where to start?
My advice for individuals who want to make a positive impact but are unsure of where to start is this: Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just take that first step. Begin by doing something small, and then let your curiosity guide you. Explore various paths and continuously find ways to use your voice, your influence, the space you occupy, and your daily decisions to instigate change in the culture around you.
Even if it seems like a minor change, every time you make a conscious choice, you are not only transforming yourself, but you’re also becoming a role model for those around you. People notice your passion and your ability to make a difference. They will start turning to you, seeking your insights and solutions. As a result, new opportunities will naturally open up. The next time someone says, “This could be improved,” they might say, “You’re the right person to ask about this.”
Do you have an idol?
Absolutely, I admire Carolyn Lau, the current president of the Free Tree Society in Kuala Lumpur. Carolyn is a true inspiration. She’s a naturalist and landscape architect with a deep connection to the forest. Even in her late 50s, her enthusiasm for her work is boundless. Whether she’s talking about the trees in our urban forests or conducting workshops, her genuine passion for sharing her love of the natural world and educating others is infectious. What impresses me most about Carolyn is her character. She demonstrates that it’s not just the big actions that matter; it’s also how a person shows up in small and large roles. When I look at Carolyn, I see someone I aspire to be when I’m 59, still carrying that same fire, unwavering passion, and unbridled joy for the environment. She’s dedicated to bringing people along on the journey to nurture their love for our planet.
This is part of a series where Green & Beyond Mag explores the stories and takes a peek at the lifestyles of incredible people like green entrepreneurs, innovators, climate advocates, activists, community leaders, and content creators, all around the world, who love the planet and are working tirelessly to make the world a better place.