Robert, how would you summarize your work in a single sentence to someone who doesn’t know what you do?
That’s impossible! Perhaps, “environmental content creator” comes close: I record and document my personal experiences and create content from them. And what I create is always related to the environment. I could simply say that I’m a marine biologist, but most people don’t quite know what that means. Describing someone like me in one sentence is very tricky. Every day is different, so I’d need 365 sentences at least.
How many countries have you visited on your mission?
I know this one off the top of my head: 129 countries.
On your expeditions, have you had unpleasant encounters with garbage and plastic?
Countless. And more and more often. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t quite as bad as it is today. No matter where I go – Antarctica, a rainforest, a desert—it’s getting worse and worse.
Would you say that we live in a throw-away society?
Absolutely. Every single day, I use plastic products that were made to be used just once. Germany is one of the world’s largest producers of plastic waste. And this includes the clothing industry: We’re always told that things are improving, but very little has actually happened. Cost is still more important than sustainability. Of course, many people simply can’t afford sustainable clothing. It costs more because it doesn’t harm the planet, animals, or people.
What do you think is behind this throw-away mentality?
First of all, it’s a learned behavior. For years and years, we just threw things away. We live in an affluent society where you can simply buy 20 T-shirts without ever seeing the consequences: The child labor, the poisoned rivers, the enormous transport distance, the piles of garbage left behind. Such a shirt has a total lifespan, from production to disposal, of just a few months. The big industrial manufacturers just don’t tell us that. There’s zero transparency.
How can I personally reduce my consumption of throw-away products?
Consume less, repair more. Sadly, many of us have forgotten how to do this. We used to take our broken things to the tailor or shoemaker back in the day, but who does that nowadays? It’s so much easier to throw them away and buy something new. We need to wean ourselves off fast fashion. Buy something good quality when you get a chance. It’s better to invest once than to have to keep replacing everything. We need to be aware that fast fashion produces seas of garbage, pollutes the environment, and kills animals. If you must consume, consume the right things!
How do I know that a product labeled “sustainable” is actually sustainable?
It’s important to understand the certificates. What do they mean? Which ones are actually relevant? Something that’s made of recycled material can’t necessarily be recycled again. Apps for sustainable shopping can help, too. Especially when it comes to clothing, sustainability is not just about the environment but also about human lives.
Have you ever seen any improvement after pointing out a problem?
It would be terrible if everything only ever got worse. When I pull ghost nets out of the ocean, the situation improves in that area. When I do a clean-up, the garbage is gone from that place. My “Mission Erde” (Mission Earth) community is growing and giving rise to new movements, such as groups of people going around collecting cigarette butts. I can see it on social media, too: Posts about animal abuse or related issues attract comments from an amazing #MissionErde community of hundreds of thousands of people.
Robert Marc Lehmann is a qualified marine biologist, research diver, and award-winning photographer and cinematographer. The adventurous scientist supports animal welfare and environmental protection projects all over the world. As well as showcasing the beauty of nature, the photos and videos he produces during his expeditions also reveal the impact of human actions on animals and their habitats. His book “Mission Erde – die Welt ist es wert, um sie zu kämpfen” (Mission Earth—The World is Worth Fighting For) documents his occasionally perilous environmental missions.