Green Interview Series: Turning waste into Art with Thảo Miên

Thảo Miên is a graduate from London College Fashion in the UK, with a degree in Textile. Since coming to Vietnam, she has inspired the public to pursue a more sustainable lifestyle through workshops and exhibition. Let's meet our special guest today, Thảo Miên, to know more about her view on Sustainability in Vietnam!


Tram Anh: Can you introduce yourself and your work?


Thảo Miên, an artist for sustainability
Thảo Miên, an artist for sustainability

Thảo Miên: So my name is Thảo Miên. I did a degree in Surface Textile Design at London College Fashion, London University of Arts London, UK. I worked in fashion since 2012, in both London and Vietnam. Then, I realised how polluting this industry is, and I think I got lost at that point, not sure what to do next. I hence decided to spend 3 years as a break to travel around. After my break, I switched to work more in the art industry rather than solely in the fashion industry. Eventually, I am completely out of the fashion industry and no longer need to depend financially on working in this industry, as now I can solely focus on the art industry. At the moment I’m assisting a Berlin artist for theater documentary project and making my own textile sculptures.


Tram Anh: What is your understanding about sustainability? Can you share with me your sustainability journey so far?


Thảo Miên: We did try to create new environmental materials and move toward an eco-friendly process. However, people are overusing the concept of sustainability and creating more demand for those eco-products. Whenever a new product is made, a lot of energy has been consumed, regardless of eco material or not. Thus, I don’t believe that eco product is the main solution for our Earth. Minimising our need for ready-made stuff and spending more time in nature seem to be a better direction in my opinion.


From Feb, 2016 to the end of 2018, I did my solo travel with only a 7kg backpack, which included 7 outfits, my 2.3kgs laptop and camera. With the low Vietnamese income, my traveling budget was filled with the money I saved from not buying new clothes before and during my trip. After my travel time, my need for new clothes still stays very low. I understand the need of being fresh and presentable at work; but trust me, if you are fresh inside and your mind is filled with new experiences and ideas, you will look and feel fresh in any piece of clothing. Also, we should accept ourselves and each other that on-one is unable to be great all the time. Vivian Westwood once said: "buy less, choose well, make it last". I believe we won't be able to dress well if we own too many clothes.



I stayed for a month in Kapalutan - an isolated island in Indonesia that took me 3 days by train, ferry, canoe and traditional long boat to arrive. There, I experienced an absolutely zero waste lifestyle. The house is built on top of the ocean, so before every meal, we jump to the deep crystal clear water to spear-fish exactly the amount of fish we need for that meal. If we need more than 1 fish, we will hide the 1st catch between 2 dead corals. There is no fishnet, no tool to hole the fish and absolutely no plastic and no chemicals. My question at that time was: If I want to live with zero waste, I have to live somewhere like here?:)) People are so small compared to nature. I almost threw away my passport and stayed there, but one day, on the way back to the island, there was an unexpected storm that my sailor said was more often recently. I realize that it's my friends and family from the city that contribute to this global-warming problem. They, we, might be a part of the storm that will soon destroy that zero-waste model, and the future generation may never know how to live in harmony with nature. I went back to Vietnam and held talks about my experiences. However, the thing that most of my participants were interested about is "Wow, that's a beautiful place, let's go there!". That's make me feel lost again.


I then spent a lot of time on my projects from waste to express my concern about pollution. One time, I managed to get 150kg of textile waste from a factory, however, in the end, I used only 200g! The rest, I thought at first I would make a huge project with volunteers, however, I then asked myself "What do I do with this after the exhibition?", plus, not all volunteers are able to make an excellent work. I then realised that no matter how much I am trying to recycle waste, it is nothing compared to the giant amount that people are releasing to nature daily. This 150kg is only the waste of a small factory, in a day. I think that in order for people to be more aware, they need to feel happiness when being in nature, just like how I felt during my trips. In my three years wandering around with nature, I felt satisfied with that 7kgs of stuff, nature and people I met on the road had fulfilled all my needs. It is impossible for people to just "demand less", as it is a natural human characteristic to have unlimited demand. So now, if people can realise that we NEED nature, NEED to be surrounded by nature, they will eventually reduce the demand for stuff. It's an eco-product if it makes you need less, in a long time.

A great piece of art made from fabric waste by Thảo Miên
A great piece of art made from fabric waste by Thảo Miên

Tram Anh: As you were in the fashion industry, how do you think people in the industry are practising sustainability and social responsibility?


Thảo Miên: People are aware of it, for sure, but not enough. However, everything comes with prices. It also depends on the demands from customers. If customers require items with the certification, businesses will definitely try by all means to get those certifications.


The understanding about sustainability also varies between companies. Some companies also did try to be more sustainable, but the market did not react so well to that change. If we, as customers, require a long lifespan, well-thought, eco-process, slow-made product and are willing to pay for it, I'm sure you will have something that you cannot only wear beautifully for a long time, but also able to fix and inherit it for your child.


Tram Anh: Do you think some artists are trying to be "green" through events and exhibitions?


Thảo Miên: I think firstly to prepare all waste to be ready for exhibitions is really challenging (to make sure it's not smelly and safe enough). I once tried cleaning fish net waste, and it seemed to take so much other resources and time to clean them. Some art projects from waste do not receive good feedback from other artists, as they are simply just showing off good-looking things made from waste and lack of deeper ideas and purpose. Of course, it is a personal opinion, and it is difficult to judge. Some artists might follow this route, as they can generally receive lots of attention, fund and support from organisations. Some others might not care that much, they focus on the final message that is delivered, and spend not much attention about how much waste the projects save or how green the projects are. So personally, everyone is well aware of the problem, but to put it into action, it is still a long way from now. Each person also understands it differently.



Tram Anh: What is your future plan or hope, if you can share, regarding sustainability in your work?


Thảo Miên: I hope that waste will become a main source of material in the future, a cheap and diverse source. So that everyone could look at it no longer as "waste" but as "resource", hence, big companies will see the demand and step into the industry to take action and start acting. People will all look at waste as new materials, and start being creative about that. For the art industry, if people can be inspired to understand the importance of nature, hence to actually reduce their consumption and demand, not simply at the stage of acknowledging. We are done with that stage, now it is the stage to take action.


Tram Anh: Thank you so much for the interview today! I wish the best for you and your art works, so that we can have more inspiring ways to encourage people to live more sustainably!


I hope you enjoy the interview this week! Art is always a great way to express people's opinions, and I believe that the world needs more people like Thảo Miên to spread the idea and practice of sustainability.


If you know any individual or company anywhere in the world that you think will be interested in an interview, please let us know!


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