The TH Interview: Summer Rayne Oakes

In the numerous posts we've published about Summer Rayne Oakes, we've almost always prefaced her name with the phrase "eco-model." Oakes has graced the covers of magazines ranging from E/The Environmental Magazine to Ethical Consumer, but in between jobs in front of the camera, this 22-year-old Cornell graduate keeps busy with writing projects, corporate consulting gigs, multimedia productions and speaking engagements. While very capable on the runway, she's proven herself an expert in the environmental impact of the fashion industry, and an innovator in promoting alternatives to business as usual in the apparel world. We got a chance to chat with her after the launch of her company SRO's latest project, the industry newsletter S4.

Treehugger: You've been busy lately. What are some highlights from this summer?

Summer Rayne Oakes: I've almost exclusively been working on producing/hosting environmentally-focused multimedia programs with a number of production companies. I also went on a speaker's circuit over the summer. In the course of a few months, I hit the Sustainable Business Network, Yale's Sustainable Design Conference, Eco-Petals Eco-fashion event, F.I.T., Pace, Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, and Cornell.

TH: Most people fear public speaking more than death

SRO: I find it exhilarating. Speaking is very personal for me. It's very different from the stuff I'm filming for TV, though the underlying message may be the same. When you speak, you are present in the moment with your audience. You can feel the energy in the room change when you hit an emotive chord and can sense an awakening in the room. TH: You've also just published the first S4 Newsletter

SRO: The time was right for it. There is a real need for more comprehensive information on sustainability issues in the apparel sector. S4 addresses issues not normally associated with fashion like globalization, global warming, energy, and poverty.

Sustainable marketing language can be obscure and oversimplified, particularly in eco-fashion. The language tends to focus on putting product out on the market. That's perfectly all right, but we need a better understanding on how the market affects environmental, trade, and sustainable development issues, especially since we're seeing larger companies jumping on board.

TH: The first issue of S4 focuses on the apparel industry's discovery of bamboo. Why did you choose this subject for the newsletter's premier?

SRO: Bamboo is so timely since it hit the market only a few years ago. When I see something build so much buzz, I have a knee jerk reaction to find out more. Most of the information on websites and in the media is recycled from general information provided by manufacturers. That can raise some eyebrows.

Bamboo (which is largely processed as a rayon) has a lot of potential, and I'm not just talking as a fiber, but as a viable resource to help millions out of poverty. On the fiber front, designers have been getting really positive response from customers. Because of that, larger companies, like the Targets and Wal-Marts, will be moving in and bigger questions on sustainability need to be addressed. SRO and S4 were designed to assist in tackling those issues and communicating them effectively to consumers.

TH: Sounds like you're pretty busy with activities off of the runway. Will modeling continue to be a part of your work, or do you see yourself shifting focus.

SRO: I think activities outside of modeling have always been a large part of my life. I enjoy modeling, but I've always seen it as an approach to getting the bigger issues into the public eye. I know the "Eco-Model" label has brought me some attention, but I always make sure that the substance and the message aren't far behind the image.

At this point I'm focused on building both sides of my company: the consulting arm and the multimedia production component. I've been working closely with two other consulting firms in New York that have not only allowed me to help other companies with their messaging, but also have aided in putting my own message into perspective. It's a matter of doing the market research, figuring out how to hone in on the sustainability message, and launch it to your target demographic effectively.

TH: Did you ever think you would be in the entertainment industry?

SRO: No, actually. The television stuff came later. In June 2005, I did an interview for a show segment for Eco 4 the World. A few months later they asked if I would host the show. I didn't have any say in producing or directing the series, but it got me thinking about developing other shows that are built around the issues that I feel most passionate about. I'm now working with a number of producers on developing programs, and have seen some serious interest from networks. We're hoping to take one of the shows, Style Trek (covered in Grist's recent profile of Oakes), to some of them by the end of the fourth quarter this year.

TH: It seems we're seeing the high fashion world paying lots of attention to sustainability issues. How long do you think it will take for the mass market to follow?

SRO: It's already happening. The movement seems to have leapfrogged from the indie design labels and directly to larger companies, like Wal-Mart, Target and Levis, for example. I think the indie fashion labels have done a phenomenal job trailblazing a new path for this movement. Now it is up to larger companies with the economy of scale to step up to the challenge. The concept and the products need to be available to more people.

TH: Does the "green as fashionable" approach risk turning sustainability into another fad?

SRO: You can't strictly look at fashion as "a trend." You must consider the "business" of fashion. We need to "look up the fashion industry's skirt" and take a look closer at how it operates, the people and workers that it affects, the manufacturing practices, and the global scale of the industry. Fashion is a business, particularly one that depends on developing nations. This is a genuine movement to figure out how to make businesses more responsible.

TH: What do you think is driving that?

SRO: There are internal and external factors that are coming into play. This isn't your grandmother's industry any longer. The effects of globalization are causing people to realize that businesses need to change. New people are entering the industry and asking, "How can we do better?" Externally, factors like global warming, outsourcing, poverty, environmental degradation, human health, and trade issues are definitely on the minds of everyone: from CEOs to consumers, farmers to activists.

TH: Any final thoughts?
SRO: We have so much work ahead of us. We clearly need to do a lot more than we are now. Small, incremental changes are important, but we need more leaders to step up to inspire change on a greater scale.

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