Earth Day: Following Your Passion with Environmental Activist, Scientist & Eco-Model Summer Rayne Oakes1
Summer Rayne Oakes has taken an unlikely career path, having parlayed her background in environmental science and entomology with a successful career as a fashion model. Considered one of the foremost authorities in sustainable design, Oakes has co-founded the award-winning online materials marketplace, Source4Style; authored the best-selling style guide, Style, Naturally; is creative designer behind her line of recycled optics and shades called eco by Summer Rayne Oakes; has collaborated on collections with Payless ShoeSource, Portico Home, and Aveeno, and was the muse behind the creation of the Prius C – Toyota even went so far as to name a paint color in her honor!
Formerly an on-air correspondent for Discovery Networks Planet Green, Oakes has once again turned to the media world, producing an award winning environmental art short entitled eXtinction and a weekly conversation-style video series launching in April 2013. Vanity Fair has named Oakes a “Global Citizen,” Outside called her one of the “Top Environmental Activists,” and CNBC called her one of the “Top 10 Green Entrepreneurs of 2010.” Oakes lives in Brooklyn with her two dozen exotic insects. Follow her at twitter.com/sroakes and http://www.summerrayne.net/
Here are some of the highlights of my conversation with Oakes – you can check out the whole interview here: http://tinyurl.com/cr8nh9f
ES: What is it about nature that you love so much?
SRO: When I was a kid, I loved to draw and I loved to draw nature and be outside, and I really found myself lost in my mother’s National Geographic magazines. I think it’s a shame that we don’t collect that stuff anymore, because it was exactly that I was engrossed in. I was fortunate because I grew up in a pretty idyllic area. It was really the phenomenal vistas and people and places that I saw in National Geographic that allowed me to dream outside of the borders. Who knows exactly what it was that makes you tick…you do what makes you come to life. Because what you’re passionate about is what you’re going to want to devote your life to.
ES: You’re an environmental scientist and activist, entomologist, keynote speaker, and an eco-model. I read somewhere you used that – being a model – as you’re “way in.”
SRO: That was definitely the wolf in sheep’s clothing. For me, it was trying to find new ways to communicate environmental issues. And I kind of struggled with it, because some of my best friends are not in the same field. I wanted to get an opportunity to share it with people like them. We often find ourselves saying what disconnects us vs. what connects us. So, “environment” was a real disconnecting part. People just didn’t share the same passion for it that I did. And so I thought there has to be a cooler way to connect that passion, and I thought “Well, what about through fashion?”
ES: I first saw you on the cover of Natural Health and I just saw your picture, but you radiated this energy and intelligence and passion. Of course, then I read the article, and there was something about you that stood out. You do inhabit your passion. To me that’s one of the most inspiring things about you.
SRO: One of things I’ve realized, particularly working in the fashion industry, is you’re there to project an image…and I’m only really good at being myself. I was never good at playing a part, and the whole purpose of fashion is to play a part. You mentioned it seems so natural I would do this, but it’s not always so natural. The idea of expressing your values and who you are as a person didn’t exist in the fashion industry. Trying to create that platform was a very difficult, arduous journey. When I shot the cover of Natural Health, they called me and said “I don’t know if we want you on the cover.” And I said “Well why the hell not?” They said “You’re too sexy, you might not be relatable.” And I said “You’ve never seen me smile. I have these dimples…” I was also standing in a field of lavender and honeybees which no else wanted to go in and I was like “Give me all the honeybees.” I just felt like I was in heaven in there (laughs).
ES: It looked like heaven too. You mentioned how in the fashion industry, how you had to pave the way for what now seems effortless, and create that niche.
SRO: I don’t want to take too much credit. The only way you can trail blaze a path is by linking it on to other things that pre-exist. It’s very difficult to do things on your own, and I’ve received a lot of wonderful help along the way. One of the biggest pieces of advice I have is to never be shy to tell people about what you want to do or why you’re doing it. My first agency out of college was Boss Models. And they really took a chance on me because I wasn’t the typical person. I’m like “This is why I’m here. I really want to connect environmental issues with fashion.” And, at that time – this was 2004, 2005 – no one had even heard of anything of that nature. They gave me a lot of lines. I remember they looked at me and said “Look. Eighty percent of the jobs won’t be available to you because your hips are two inches too big.” And I just looked at him and said “I just shared with you my deepest core passion about what I’d like to do and you’re giving me this line. First of all I don’t want ninety percent of the jobs. I don’t want ninety five percent of the jobs. Forget about my hips.” And I had this presence, and I was like “If you think my hips are going to stop me from doing my passion which is far greater than any trivialities of the fashion world, you are sadly mistaken.” And they were impressed, and they signed me on the spot. It didn’t’ really work out, but you have to stand for something. You just can’t be shy.
ES: And that’s what I picked up on when I watched your demo reel…and speaking your truth opens some of those doors.
SRO: Absolutely. A lot of people want to hold onto their ideas and not share them. And I’m the complete opposite. If I went through the fashion industry not telling anybody about what I wanted to do…I would have been sent on all these castings that didn’t make sense for me, that took me away from my vision. Two years down the line I could have been waitressing, trying to do a fashion career that wasn’t even something that I wanted. Along that way I wore my heart on my sleeve, whether it was naiveté or who I am. And in that process I found people who were into it and wanted to help and wanted to make introductions. And it was those people who ended up building my career. And you wouldn’t have those people in your life if you didn’t tell them what you were doing and what you stood for and what makes you tick.
ES: This is your quote from one of your keynote speeches: “Go forth in your life with vigor and passion. Strive to see yourself in every single person that you meet. Know the goal you are working toward. Let that be your guiding light, and go forward as a human being.” I like that you’re a woman shining a light on sustainability.
SRO: As you’re a woman going through the process of starting a non-profit, you start to realize some of the inequities. It’s funny because I didn’t experience any of those in college. There are those women who trail blazed that path for us to feel equal. Now I see more women starting their own businesses, and we’ve gone through the process. We raised a venture capital round for Source4Style and you can start seeing where some of those inequities or disconnects are happening for women who want to start their own businesses, for example.
ES: So it still exists although we’ve made progress. Doesn’t Source4Style work with female entrepreneurs?
SRO: Yes, the whole idea behind it was to connect designers with sustainable suppliers around the world. About 70-75% of people who work within the manufacturing and textile sectors are women. So, inevitably, by putting those groups together you not only solve the problem of sourcing times – which designers say they spend up to eight five percent of their time sourcing –you’re actually also solving the problem of being able to develop market access to women and men in different parts of the world who can’t get their wares out to U.S. or European market places. We are sourcing in over 30 countries, and we supply products to designers in over 76 countries around the world.
ES: I was watching your short film eXtinction, and you were mentioning that by time you’re fifty, all the lions will be extinct in the wild. That made my heart drop.
SRO: Yeah, the concept behind it was to showcase the more pressing environmental issues that are happening within a lifetime. And I narrate it on the time of my life from birth to death. I came upon this concept because I was really struggling with this idea…how do I connect people with how quickly this is changing before our eyes? What I find is that people have specific statistics in the film that really resonate with them. And more people resonate with the lions than anything else, and I think that is because it’s an animal…it’s big, it’s relatable, it’s the king of the kingdom…and you feel like, wow, that’s something that’s really close to me. The other things are forests and coral reefs might seem more esoteric, and maybe some of us don’t understand what happens if all the coral reefs die.
ES: What does happen?
SRO: About a billion people rely on coral reefs for their food. And it’s because it serves as a whole ecosystem underneath the earth. If you think about it, almost our entire planet is covered with ocean. So there’s a whole level of ecosystem and biodiversity below, submerged in water that we don’t know about. The reality is we’re looking at this from a health perspective. Our coral reefs provide food, tourism, the whole ecological integrity of the system, and these all are coming undone with an increase in temperature of the ocean, which leads to an increasing acidity of our ocean…creatures can’t form their shells anymore…the symbiosis of coral and polyps come undone. And different coral exists in different temperatures. The coral can’t survive if the ocean has warmed.
ES: You are an electrifying speaker. You’re really good at being the Pied Piper for anyone who’s interested and has the energy and the motivation. As you said, it’s time to get down in the trenches now, to create that positive feedback loop and stay connected to grassroots efforts.
SRO: I still feel very grassroots. We’ve done a really good job getting people excited. But now we have to communicate about the journeys, the struggles, and the challenges. Not everybody’s up for that challenge.
ES: How does one go deeper into one’s passion?
SRO: Start with yourself first. I got into the fashion industry because we all wear clothes. There are certain things that really connect us. Sometimes if you start things in your own life, that can be an inspiration for other people. Be a role model…make yourself healthy. Look into your own life, but don’t make it a blanket statement. For me it was about bringing more green into my life and into my home and being able to share that with more people. I took joy in that. It’s not complicated. You really have to get to “What do I want out of my life?” You have to get a sense of your own life and what works for you. It’s about creating a really happy, healthy existence for you and being able to share that with other people. We live life full of a lot of perfunctory relationships…with cute little sound bytes. Hone in on your truth, and follow your passion with the utmost respect and hard work.
ES: When you create your own healthy, sustainable life you can in turn radiate that out and touch other people, which is what I see you doing so beautifully. Thank you, Summer.