Nadya Hutagalung on inspiring the next gen of eco warriors

by Hayley Tai  /   June 9, 2020

The media personality is stepping up on the global stage to raise awareness on conservation and environmental issues


Nadya Hutagalung has a clear message to spread: Make this world a better place to live in. As perhaps one of the most celebrated eco-activists in Asia, she believes everyone can play a part to make a difference to our environment. 2019 was a busy year that saw her stepping up on the world stage.

As a UN (United Nations) Environment Goodwill Ambassador (a role she has taken on since 2015), the Indonesian-Australian spoke on the rise of a new generation of eco-warriors, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian last July.

Months before that, she presented a series of pop-up fashion installations in Nairobi for UN Alliance For Sustainable Fashion – a movement that aims to halt the environmentally and socially destructive practices of fashion. The mother of three was also the moderator for the Global Environment Outlook session in Nairobi – an assessment on the state of the environment by the UN.

The mantle of eco-activist isn’t new for the 45-year-old, who’s based in Singapore. She built one of Singapore’s first eco-homes (with floors made of regionally sourced renewable and recycled materials) more than a decade ago (more details about how Nadya built her eco-home in our IG Live video with Nadya below), founded Green Kampong in 2006 – an online resource for sustainable living, and worked on Let Elephants Be Elephants, a 2014 documentary on the illegal ivory trade that was aired on National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild. 

As we redefine our relationship with nature on World Environment Day (June 5) this month in these exceptional times, Nadya, who’s also an aspiring photographer, tells Her World’s creative director Windy Aulia about her causes, as well as her lifelong journey towards sustainability.

Windy Aulia (WA): We love that you stand for many good things for the environment. How did you get started?

Nadya Hutagalung (NH): Well, it definitely started with my mum. She was doing all of these things before I could even understand them. She’d talk to me about sustainability and the orangutans she had rescued. When I was a kid, I stayed in the Australian countryside and spent a lot of my time with nature. I decided I wanted to do what I could to help when I spoke in my first wildlife conservation forum in 1996 at the Singapore Zoo on rescuing orangutans. 

WA: Tell us more about one of the biggest roles you’ve taken up with the United Nations (UN).

NH: As UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador, I give talks to spread awareness on wildlife rescue and eco-consciousness. I’m very thankful for the role because it’s global, and gives me a wide view of the problems faced by different countries and cultures.

I travel about once or twice a year. Last November, I spoke at the SEA of Solutions 2019 (in Bangkok), a regional summit to encourage businesses and governments to work in partnership to reduce plastic leakage into the marine environment, and to solve plastic pollution at the source.

WA: You also spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian last year. What did you touch on? 

NH: One of the topics was encouraging young eco-warriors. We have a new generation who’re really passionate about the environment. Sometimes, they don’t get heard or are punching against a brick wall as they don’t know who they’re up against.

Greta Thunberg has done a great job. I think the best advice to young people who want to be part of the eco-movement is to educate yourselves as much as you can. Read widely but also critically. Be very sharp about the news you receive, and cross-reference it.  

Dress, Bottega Veneta. Accessories, Nadya’s own

Dress, Bottega Veneta. Accessories, Nadya’s own

WA: And how can an individual help to spread awareness? 

NH: I think many people know about activism, but they don’t necessarily understand advocacy. Standing for a cause doesn’t just have to be in the form of campaigns and news. In fact, working with businesses and getting them to understand the importance of conservation will get you heard. 

Also, it’s very important to understand that everything about the environment and what we do is interconnected.

Knowing your audience and who you want to work with is equally important. For example, if I want to reduce the amount of wildlife being killed, protesting against the big guns won’t help. They have much more resources and money. Instead, meeting with them and coming to an agreement will be a better option. It’s not about completely eradicating such practices, but minimising total environmental harm. 

WA: You’ve worked on several conservation projects. Which was the most memorable? 

NH: It has to be Let Elephants be Elephants (2014). It’s a 22-minute documentary that was filmed in Kenya and Sumatra… and I had a lot of fun producing it. It’s a heart-warming journey into the world of elephants, going into the wild and discover the poaching crisis and growing demand for ivory. The documentary achieved a concrete outcome! There was regional reach…when many people saw the documentary… and it’s funny as some don’t even know ivory is made from dead elephants. 

WA: The fashion industry has come under flak for not being environmentally friendly. What more can be done?

NH: I think fashion has come a long way. Brands are looking to technology and scientific solutions to create sustainable materials. Some companies are investing time, money and R&D into plant-based dyes, agri-waste and different types of fibres to create textiles. I think that’s very exciting. 

T-shirt, jeans and accessories, Nadya’s own

WA: Is there someone you look up to in fashion or sustainability?

NH: The team at Pangaia are amazing. I collaborated with them on a capsule collection, Protect the Species, to raise awareness about endangered species. I worked with Canadian artist Raku Inoue, who creates art with flowers, on two T-shirts – one for the Sumatran Elephant and one for the Tapanuli Orangutan. Pangaia calls itself a material science company, and collaborates with artists and activists to spread environmental awareness. 

WA: What are you working on now as travelling is restrictive? 

NH: For my advocacy work, I’m working with Melissa Kwee from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) on a platform to help people in need during the pandemic. It’s an all-in-one platform for donation and tips on how to help. I started this because I realised many people want to help, but they’re afraid of going through the wrong channels. Using my platform and an organisation like NVPC, I believe this is more accessible to those who want to offer aid.

Credit: Shirt and tank top, Nadya’s own

WA: You have personal projects like your book Walk With Me (2018?). How was the experience working with top photographer Davy Linggar and fashion designers like Didit Hediprasetyo? 

NH: Walk With Me is a celebration of my 30 years in the entertainment industry. The book is a documentation of my journey, my passions, and my work with elephants and orangutans. You’ll find chapters on my travels to Africa, Sumatra and Nepal.

There’s also one chapter on my photography, a tribute to the people I love. I chose the team based on their previous work. Didit often dressed me for past events. I really love the way he can tell stories with style, and I love his aesthetic. Davy Linggar has a beautiful sensitivity in the way he captures moments so delicately. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a dedicated team. When the book was out, we donated 15 per cent of the proceeds to Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Sumatra. 

WA: I see that you’ve taken up photography. How’s that going?

NH: It’s something very personal and my view of the world. I don’t have much technical experience, though. When I chanced upon a vintage lens, I bought the adapters for my digital camera body. The way the pictures turned out reflect how I view the world, and it became a tool for me to tell stories. 

WA: We’re all homebound, and how are you coping? 

NH: Initially, I wasn’t doing too well. Before the pandemic, my life revolved around the various advocacy events I would take part in throughout the year. There were plans for a talk in Washington in the United States this year and other events, and when they were cancelled, I was thrown off-balance.

After a while, I collected my thoughts and focused on the present. Instead of worrying, I began to enjoy the quietness and stillness. I get up at 7.30am, do a bit of meditation and some yoga (find out which type of yoga is perfect for you) or pilates. I write before or after I meditate… it’s expressing thoughts that you’ve been keeping inside. You’re kind of letting go of what’s taking up so much headspace. 

WA: Speaking of home, how do you guys unwind as a family? 

NH: My husband Desmond also practises meditation, as well as the Wim Hof Method, where you jump into an ice bath after meditation to jolt your physiological senses.

My 12-year-old daughter Nyla listens to a Yoga Nidra playlist as she’s going to bed and it loops throughout the night. I’ve been doing a bit of basic needle work, and I recently built a hamster home for our newly adopted hamster.

Nyla wanted to adopt one so we went through the Hamster Association Singapore, and they’re really serious about the whole process! They make you take pictures of what you’re going to buy for the hamster for vetting purposes. 

Her World's sustainability issue

This story was first published on Her World’s June 2020 issue.