Entrepeneur, activist and model, Summer Rayne Oakes is a jack of many trades with all of her initiatives sharing the common thread of striving for a more sustainable future. Speaking to Urban Times, Summer Rayne sheds some light on the unique platform that fashion provides for connecting people with the environment, while we also hear about the projects she has in the works: from her new eyewear range, eco by Summer Rayne Oakes, and work at ABOVE, to her film eXtinction, highlighting the fragility of life:
Stephanie Kramer: How did your upbringing spark your love for nature?
Summer Rayne Oakes: You know I often wonder how much of one’s passion is innate and how much is fostered through the osmosis of one’s upbringing and surrounding environment? For me I think my passion, upbringing and surroundings all contributed. I grew up in a very idyllic area of Pennsylvania. My parents are very practical people…my mom was always gardening, we composted, grew our own fruits and vegetables – and they both allowed me to explore my strange and (sometimes) obsessive curiosity with frogs and bugs and herbs…things that little girls in my area didn’t really have time for.
Is there a link between fashion/beauty and ecology?
Absolutely. If Einstein and his successors could prove that mass tells space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass how to move – then one can see how the clothes that we wear, the food that we eat, and the products that we put on our body affects the planet and inevitably our health through it’s production, use and disposal.
What can fashion and the beauty industry do for the environment?
Fashion and beauty at the very least can act as a platform to get a point across. It’s a perfect medium for that – but it can go much further – and it should, and it is. The industry is one of the largest employers in the world, it’s a springboard for economic development, and it’s a big user of materials, water and energy and producer of waste. With all that knowledge of those inputs and outputs, comes quite a bit of responsibility for the environment.
You have firsthand experience in the fashion industry – both as a model and entrepreneur. Do you think those in the public eye have even more of a responsibility to be sustainably-minded?
Fashion is a medium I use to express myself and to connect with people on something that is more deeply personal – our environment.
That’s an interesting question. I’d like to think that with great opportunity comes great responsibility. But then again, I think we all have responsibility as human beings to live life more mindfully. Would I like to see more people with a platform champion causes they believe in? Absolutely. But everyone has their gift and drive, so I’m open to people leaving some other intangible benefit in this world that might not be linked to more mindful living.
You’ve chosen to stay committed to causes and brands that align with you core values in the environment. In fact, it is those beliefs that have shaped and molded the career that you have today. How did that come about?
It was a social experiment really. As I said before, fashion was a platform for me to get the word out about what I love and get people to feel supercharged about social and environmental issues. I decided that it would be pointless to go the traditional model route so decided to create my own destiny and align myself with conscious companies or projects with cool causes. It’s really evolved from there.
So it has really shaped your career?
You can say that it has really shaped my career. But it’s more than that for me. My life is my message. My message is my life. I’m just following my passion and being me.
I really didn’t set out to say, “I’m going to be The Eco-Model” (laughing). I was just following what I felt was right, what I thought people should be doing. I was staying true to my vision, who I am, who I am becoming. I’m not afraid to stand for something – to say “No” to some things, to speak my mind. I’m glad my work has created a new language, a new paradigm – not just for the industry but for other industries as well. I think more people – no matter whether they are a magazine publisher, beauty consultant, designer, car maker, carpenter – whatever – they can start integrating a humanity and consciousness into what they do.
What does “eco-modeling” mean to you?
The basic foundation is aligning yourself exclusively with more environmentally- and socially-relevant companies, brands and projects. I think the next level up – and at least for me – is working and consulting with brands and projects behind-the-scenes; and also getting really involved with causes, launching your own environmentally-focused projects and businesses. Some people may have different definitions. That’s mine.
Toyota’s engineers and designers behind the Prius felt that your life really embodied their ideal customer and therefore dedicated and designed the Prius C to your life-career. How did you feel about that?
One word: Flattered. You just never know whom you’ll inspire in life. It was a lovely moment to meet the team and listen to their story.
You have recently partnered with MODO to launch your line of sunglasses and optics – eco by Summer Rayne Oakes. What inspires your designs and is there a particular reason why you chose to work in eyewear?
MODO had been introduced to me and I loved how they were rethinking the entire supply chain of eyewear – and pushing the bar on smart, sustainable design. The collaboration was a natural. Most of my creations are inspired from vintage shapes – but updating them in a modern, sleeker way. Next season will have more use of two-tone colors.
Any other collaborations coming up that we can expect?
I’ll be working on a jewelry line come Fall … for U.S. and U.K. markets.
You’ve recently launched the company Source4Style, which is a B2B marketplace that connects designers with sustainable material suppliers in the global marketplace. In the future, how can we ensure that a sustainable supply chain becomes the norm?
Encourage transparency from brands and suppliers – and for the companies that we buy from to take the lead on issues that matter. So many companies dictate governmental policies, and so much of what we buy and choose to invest in dictates business. We all have a say, we just have to find our voice and the use the optimal tools to get our voice heard.
Is business and consumer attitude changing?
Most definitely. Question is: Is it changing quickly enough? Cone did a study a couple years back that revealed that 90% of consumers (in the U.S.) want companies to tell them the ways they are supporting causes. That’s just south of 300 million Americans. I’m sure it’s a similar percentage in the U.K. And companies have listened. SMI a couple years back found 120 major companies around the world using social media to get their sustainability messages across. That has more than doubled in just two years.
Harvard also put out a recent global study concluding that high sustainability companies outperform similar low sustainability companies in long-term stock and accounting performance. That’s further accentuated in consumer-facing brands. So it proves a point: green is good for business. A few years back, NASDAQ announced their Global Sustainability Index. We have qualitative screening on our stock portfolios, shareholder action … now we can choose the better companies to invest in and make sure they continue to outperform the not-so-great companies. That is how our financial system should be working.
You asked whether we’re changing quickly enough. That is an underlying theme that you explore in eXtinction – the recent award-winning film you produced and will be releasing soon. Why did you want to make this film?
It was a message that I wanted to get off my chest – a sort of cinematic glimpse of my soul – as much as it was homage to my late mentor, Tom Eisner.
What is it about – and what is your hope?
The film humanizes loss. It gives the viewer a way to contextualize the speed of ecosystem degradation by giving us a chilling reminder of our own mortality. Yet it gives us an opportunity for redemption as well. It is my hope that the film will touch the viewer’s soul by highlighting that which is most vulnerable.
You have worked as a correspondent for Discovery Networks in the past and are working on some new projects with ABOVE Magazine and the ABOVE brand. What role do you think media plays in driving forward the sustainability movement?
Media – and its use of social media – plays a pivotal role. In the UK alone, consumers spend 45% of their time awake watching TV, typing on their mobile and other devices. There was also research that found that many people get their daily “news” via facebook, which is not uncommon considering that the average visitor spends 7 hours total on facebook/month. There is an opportunity here. Not only to get a message across – but to build movements that stick. A report from Walden University suggests that 9 in 10 adults agree that digital technology can turn interest in a cause into a movement more quickly than anything else. I mean, look at Kony2012. Even if there was some misinformation, as some suggest, it was effective. But we have to be careful about how we use it since it can be so powerful and pivotal in shaping people’s views.
Any advice for our Urban Times readers who are looking to blend the environment with their love of fashion?
Either be practical when it comes to what you wear (i.e., get the basics that you’ll wear time-and-time again) – or get super creative and have fun with it … make a statement. Buy to last…And don’t be shy to tell your favorite brands how you want to see their companies move forward.
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