Walking For a Cause, Chatting for Fun.
Megan is one of those folks you come across once every few years- creatively witty, sharp, humble, and deeply intelligent. These characteristics shone through when the dynamic duo of Walk Sew Good got in contact with me in early 2016 to let me know about the adventure they were planning to undertake. Megan and I have continued a long-term Instagram and email friendship since then. The more I’ve got to know Megan, the more fascinated I’ve become with this woman’s incredible life experiences, creativity, and bravery in the face of adventure and adversity (be it stomach bugs, trekking mountain with a lack of food and water, or just fighting the anxiety beast in her own mind). I’m really delighted to share Megan’s fun and inspirational interview with you.
INTERVIEW WITH Megan O’Malley
For those readers out there that are meeting yourself for the first time would you kindly introduce yourself, share your Instagram handles and let us know what you contribute to the world.
I’m Megan. My Instagram handles are @megs_omals and then I’m one half of a project called @walksewgood. What do I contribute to the world? Gosh that’s a terrifying question. So I’m not going to answer it. Moving on.
The Walk Sew Good Duo Gab Murphy and Megan O’Malley
Sustainability in Style readers might remember reading about Walk Sew Good when it was in it’s conception stages. Can you recap the Walk Sew Good mission/journey for anyone who isn’t up to speed?
I came up with the slightly crazy idea to walk across a subcontinent after reading about Satish Kumar, a man who had walked 13,000km across a good chunk of the world in the 1960s to promote peace and nuclear disarmament. I thought it was such a unique and peaceful way to get a message of importance out there. I was really inspired to walk for something that I cared about and decided to walk across Asia telling the stories of people creating fashion in positive ways. My dad said it was the worst idea he’d ever heard. That made me more determined.
I then realised I had zero survival skills. None. I had never even been on an overnight hike. I recruited my friend Gab and she was able to safely navigate us 3500km across Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. We met with over 50 different brands, suppliers and organisations along the way and are still in the process of creating videos to tell each of their stories.
There are a lot of negative stories coming out of Southeast Asia about the fashion industry that can leave people at a loss of what to do. We focused on telling the positive stories to empower people to support businesses doing the right thing and start conversations about what sustainable fashion looks like.
We finished our walk in September. Everyone was very impressed that we didn’t die. That’s actually one of the first things people say to me when they see me again.
Above and Below The Visual Perks of Walking Asia
On the road with Walk Sew Good
How did you get the courage to follow through on what might seem like a totally HUGE idea to many of us?
I’m not really sure how I picked up the courage to actually do the walk. I think it was more a case of pure stubbornness combined with the exciting potential for adventure, learning and change. I listened to a lot of podcasts about thru hiking (long distance hiking), read books about people who had walked a lot further than we were going to and watched Wild.
Reading about and learning from people who have done way crazier things than what we were attempting to do put things into perspective and made it all seem possible.
This is what Sustainable Clothing Production Looks Like- Smiles!
You’ve openly discussed this before, but as a sufferer of anxiety what were some of the personal challenges you faced before, during and after the Walk Sew Good adventure?
I’ve suffered from anxiety ever since I can remember. It makes my body do all kinds of interesting things which is fun. Before we left to go on the walk, Gab and I went on a test hike together (because I’d never been on an overnight hike before). I had a panic attack on the second day and we ended up going home a day early. It made me realise I needed to go and see someone about treatment because I couldn’t just go home if I had a panic attack in Asia.
I went and saw a therapist until I got bored talking about myself but I think it helped. That’s not to say I was anxiety free on the walk, I wasn’t but you learn different ways of coping. I think I’ll always have anxiety, I just have to manage it.
Walk Sew Good Calm waters
Were there any surprising things you discovered about yourself or others during this challenge?
I guess the most surprising thing was how bloody wonderful humans are. Everyone was so worried that we were going to be robbed or injured or worse and they couldn’t have been more wrong. The level of kindness and generosity we experienced was beyond our wildest expectations. People would stop and give us fruit and vegetables as we walked past. They would beckon us into their homes for a cool drink of water. We stayed in a temple in Thailand and when some of the monks in training found out what we were doing, they prepared a beautiful salad for us.
Almost everyday something amazing would happen.
It kept me going.
I was also really surprised by how disconnected I am from the process of making and growing things. We were passing through farms a lot and it brought home that I had little to no understanding of how food is grown. Similarly, when we would visit some of the makers and brands I was amazed at how much knowledge and skill was involved in making a lot of the products.
I’ve been in the sustainable fashion space now for quite a few years. I thought I grasped how our clothes were made for the most part but I was truly humbled when we watched the weavers, sewers and craftsman at work. I wish we could have brought more people with us to experience that because you gain a new appreciation for your clothes and the legends that made them.
Two words about your past: Bollywood dancer! How did this come about and what part did it play in setting you up for the events/ career paths/ adventures that followed?
I’d just finished up three years dancing on cruise ships and came home and panicked about what I was going to do with my life. I tend to do that often. Friends of friends had done dance contracts in India and it had always been top of my list of countries to visit. Within about two weeks of looking into it I was on a plane to start a 6 month contract in Mumbai. I lasted one month. The conditions were terrible. I was housed in an apartment with four other women, all 21 years old or under. At the time I was 26 and the youngest was 17. They failed to mention that we would be sharing beds with these strangers. We had no autonomy over the jobs we were sent to or really the way we lived our lives. I found it really incredible that I was set a curfew for the first time ever.
One of the women shared that she had been sent to a movie set to act as a stripper and was bullied into doing things she wasn’t comfortable with. Two of the women, including the 17 year old, were told to get on a 12 hour bus to Goa around the same time gang rapes were happening across India. When they asked if they could fly instead our Indian agent yelled abuse at them.
I had to learn very quickly to stand up for myself and the others. I think the agent and event staff were used to dealing with younger women who were too scared to say no. Payment was terribly sketchy and one of the women who had been there longer talked about how she had to fight our agent each month to be compensated correctly. I made the decision to leave because essentially I was being exploited and I had the option to get out. I wrote a big long letter to the agent in Australia telling her about the poor conditions and why I thought she should stop sending young women to India.
She sent out my replacement the following week. While I may not have been exploited anywhere near the level that some people in the world are, it gives me some minute understanding about what they go through. I was fortunate because I could leave. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who are trapped in that situation. I don’t want to be part of any kind of system that puts anybody in that kind of position if I can avoid it. I think that’s another reason I was really drawn to creating awareness around working conditions in the fashion industry. It wasn’t all bad though. I got to dance in a couple of movies and on Indian Big Brother for a Diwali special. A lot of the people were really lovely and I learnt so much within such a short space of time. I want to go back to India one day and explore it on my own terms.
Gab and Megan celebrating a border crossing moment
Megan sewing with Passa Paa
Carrying your belongings for 12 months would teach you a lot about what you can and can’t live without. What are your essentials to life and were you able to take them on the walk?
I am by no means a minimalist but I was surprised at how easy it was to carry your life on your back. I did cull quite a few things from the beginning to the end of the trip and was left with the bare minimum by the time we reached Vietnam. Saying that, I really did miss my beautiful clothes. I think of fashion as art and a form of expression.
Cargo pants and sweat stained tops did little to fill my creative fix. I also returned with a greater appreciation for toilet paper. I really like toilet paper. And knives. Now I sound like a scary weirdo but cutting food with a spoon or fork is time consuming and I’ve got a life to live.
As someone who WALKED FOR A WHOLE YEAR in the name of a great story, what tips/advice would you give people who have wild sustainably stylish dreams and no idea if they should go through with them?
Just start. There’s never going to be a perfect time. You might fail but be OK with that. I’d much rather try and fall flat on my face than stay in my safe bubble never attempting anything new.
You learn so much about yourself and the world when you push the boundaries of what you thought you were capable of. If you live like that then nothing is really ever a failure, just a learning experience. To quote a less than sustainable brand, “Just do it.”
Backpack life. Could you do it?
Megan learns the fine art of loom set up
How have you been dealing with media opportunities upon your return home?
If I’m being honest all I really want to do at the moment is run away and live in a cave. It’s against every fibre of my being to do live interviews and speak at events. When I was a dancer I used to always stand up the back of the room hoping someone would notice me but also not notice me. I will do all I can to resist being the centre of attention. So that makes life interesting. We’re in this interesting paradox where we find self promotion a bit icky but we have to get the story out there to as many people to drive impact and interest in our message. It’s a hard one to negotiate. We’ve been really lucky though that lots of good folks have helped us tell the stories.
I act super awkwardly when someone says they’ve seen us in the paper. I find a way to quickly change the subject. I need to get more comfortable talking about it all. Oh funny story, well, sort of. We were being interviewed by Tom from Hack on Triple J. We’d been stopped and rerouted by the military earlier that day so had been forced to walk further than we had anticipated. I was also finding it increasingly difficult to find food that my body didn’t reject. By this point we’d been on the road about 9 months and I was very tired of rice, greens and egg. Any way, I must have been so exhausted and a little hungry because everytime Tom asked us a question I would start answering it and then completely forget what the question was. I kept looking at Gab mid sentence with wide scary eyes so that she could step in. Fortunately that interview wasn’t live and they did an amazing job of editing it.
As a valued member of PROJECT JUST (another amazing initiative that Sustainability in Style readers may remember from previous posts) research team what five tips would you have for people wishing to shop more mindfully for fashion?
- When you walk into a shop, look beyond the beautiful things and start to wonder about how the beautiful things were made. It really changed things for me.
- Before you go to buy something ask yourself if you’ll wear it 30 times or more. Fast fashion is all about disposable clothing. Committing to wearing something 30 times means you will be fighting the good fight against the “wear it once and throw it out” kind of mentality.
- Nothing is perfect. Don’t try to be perfect but do try to be smart. Do your research and decide what matters to you.
- Check out the Project JUST Seal of Approval guides for ideas about where to shop. I promise they have researched the heck out of these brands.
- Get involved in the ethical fashion community because it’s a bunch of really smart people doing very cool things. We have just started a group in Melbourne that meets monthly for dinner and if anybody reading this would like to get involved, please let me know!
How your sustainable clothing is made- by human hands and with love.
Do you believe that one can be sustainably stylish? Why/Why not? How about sustainably fashionable- oxymoron or a possibility?
I think the most sustainable thing you can do is not exist but that’s not very stylish. The next step down would be to become a nudist, again not really feasible. So the next best solution would be to do everything you can to shop and live sustainably.
That doesn’t mean being perfect. Nothing and noone is perfect and you’re only going to give yourself a stress headache if you try and go down the perfection route. Try to connect with the story of a product and think about why you’re buying it. If you know how something is made, you value it more and wear it with a little more love. That’s sustainably stylish to me.
Megan’s reflects over her walk Sew good surrounds
You also have the opportunity to work with young people at the moment. Can you explain what this means to you and what we can do as Sustainable Leaders to inspire younger people to engage with sustainability ideals
Honestly I think it’s really easy to get young people engaged in sustainability we just have to give them a way. I was working in a Grade 1 classroom a few years ago and some of the girls had decided to start a nature club. I overheard them speaking about it and asked them if they wanted to make it a regular thing and invite the rest of the year level to join. They are now nearly in Grade 5 and Nature Club is still going strong.
We’ve raised money to support the St Kilda little penguin colony, educated the school on why single use plastic isn’t great, fundraised for Tree Day, learnt about bee populations and why they’re important to humans, introduced weekly recycling inspections and so much more. They’ve recently decided that they want to run a Nature Club for the younger children in the school and they’re making that happen.
Children are capable of incredible things, you just have to direct their passion for creating change into something tangible and real. It sounds corny but my Nature Club kids have inspired me to do better. One of them asked me the other day about how to become the Environment Minister. They’re the best.
Nature at its finest
There have been whispers that you would love to use your skills and experience to help inspire others. What would be your dreams for the next five years?
Gosh the next five years? That’s another terrifying question. I can barely work out what I’m doing next year. I was getting really panicky the other day because I want to do everything and there aren’t enough hours in the day. I was speaking to a friend about it and she kindly reminded me that I can save some of those things for later.
My brain is so caught up in short term thinking that sometimes I forget about the future. I don’t like to make too many plans because life changes on a dime (is that the right expression?) but I would love to start something that completely changes the way people consume and engage with fashion. I’d really like to push the boundaries of what’s possible and challenge people to dress differently. I have big ideas. Watch this space. Or maybe don’t because there’s still a chance I might run away and live in a cave.
Megan learing on the job with walk sew good
What moment in your career stands out as a highlight or a turning point? My hero Jane Goodall wrote to me and asked me to dinner. Of course I accepted and we chatted about the world over a margarita pizza. That actually hasn’t happened yet but I feel like it would definitely be a career highlight so I am taking steps to make it a reality. The first step being to lie about it happening in this article in the hope that Jane Goodall will read about it, admire my audacity and invite me to dine at an excellent Italian restaurant. I’ll pay Jane, if that helps.
Life on the water
What’s your favourite sustainable living or environmental quote?
I’m a big fan of Edward Monkton an illustrator and writer. I have The Elephant of Joy posted on my pin board in my office.
Let us, like the Elephant,
Live happy and live true
By finding JOY and WONDER
In each little thing we do.
There is a beautiful image of an elephant skipping through a field with a bird on its head and a flower in its front foot (just googled the name of an elephant’s foot and came up empty. I think it’s just called a foot). It’s not really sustainability related but it’s pretty lovely. Then there’s my hero Jane Goodall:
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
I named my backpack after Jane and I’m obviously going to have dinner with her in the future. Legend.
Are you optimistic about the idea of a sustainable and equitable future? Why/ Why not?
Honestly change is slow. Maybe too slow. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try to make it happen anyway. I don’t want to look back in 50 years and regret not taking action. I live to help create a world for future humans that is a bit better than the world I was born into. I’d like to think that isn’t an impossible task.