Eco-Model Summer Rayne Oakes on Sustainable Shoes, Shopping and Style
Summer Rayne Oakes (www.summerrayneoakes.com) is a green leader for the wired generation. The youthful, rising star is a model/activist/author/blogger/TV host. She has a background in hard environmental science, and is regularly consulted by Fortune 500 companies for her expertise in sustainable fashion and business. She has appeared on various spots on the Planet Green network, and is currently developing her own show for the channel. Her book Style, Naturally (Chronicle Books) is a guide for women of all backgrounds and income levels to live greener, healthier, more fun and fashionable lives.
E Magazine: How do you suggest people use your book?
Summer Rayne Oakes: It really is for women who don"t yet have "environment" or "green" in their lexicon. For someone who"s already green, they may feel like it"s a little more 101. For someone who"s traveling, the back of the book is an incredible resource: for example there are listings of some of the best vintage shops and places to find sustainable styles. It"s that resource you can constantly come back to.
E: What"s the most important thing people should take away from the book?
S.R.O.: The first thing is that there are options out there. A lot of folks who come into this, who may have never thought about environmentally friendly fashion or beauty, may think it"s cost prohibitive or it doesn"t look good. This book enlightens the reader: we have some pretty interesting green stuff out there, and it"s not all about buying products. There are many stories, with tips embedded in them, about how to look at your wardrobe and personal care beyond the shopping experience.
E: Do you still encounter resistance from people who say green is elitist, particularly since we are in a recession?
S.R.O.: Well a good example is a friend of mine who doesn"t have money to spend on a wardrobe, but she always looks really great. She swaps clothes with her friends, puts things together in new ways, and so on. Sometimes it"s about relooking at our wardrobe and redesigning it. If you can"t spend all this money on high-end organic products, look at the stuff you use everyday, and gradually purchase things that are better for you, whether that"s shampoo or foundation or something else. It"s not about completely throwing everything out and starting over.
E: Do you find that your mission of spreading the word about going green through fashion has been working?
S.R.O.: It is working, especially when you are able to connect it down to the producer level, and see change on the ground [such as] the organic cotton industry working with marginalized groups of people and in other areas. I was recently in China, where I saw environmental policies getting pushed through suppliers. They"re ensuring wastewater treatment, and are talking about organic [methods] and energy conservation, which are huge steps from what it was five years ago.
E: What has been the response to your line of affordable-yet-sustainable shoes, Zoe & Zac, from Payless?
S.R.O.: The vast majority of us need something that"s affordable. Payless offers an alternative that is greener but within our price range. I think that"s a really important step. In dealing with larger suppliers, they can improve their wastewater, use responsible dyes, and so on, scaled up to a whole new level. The Payless sustainable shoes are selling really well. We launched with a woman"s casual brand, and some little girls" versions, which basically sold out. We also sold reusable bags for $1.99, with one dollar going to The Nature Conservancy to plant trees in deforested parts of the Amazon. The idea is to tie into a greater reason for the shoes, to make the connection between the product and the Earth a little more linear. Those bags sold out.
We do have a fall campaign coming out in September, with new shoes. There"s this one shoe in it that could be unisex, and which I particularly like. Hopefully, down the road, we"ll have more men"s shoes too.
E: Since you were recently in China and in Africa on a mission to further the sustainable fashion industry, what did you experience?
S.R.O.: With China, I was shocked at how sophisticated a system [the garment manufacturing] is. When you think China, some think "oh…sweatshops." There are some there, but there are also these incredibly sophisticated systems that work with U.S. and European manufacturers. Some are incredible spaces that look like university campuses or the Google campus, with parks, open space, well-ventilated facilities, with sound that is dulled, windows and wastewater treatment. People walk through there all the time: auditors, people from other facilities, people can go to the factory floor. I imagined getting checked in, but a lot of these are really quite open. Yes, many of them have assembly line jobs for 11, 12 or 14 hours a day. But in late 2008 there was a new national social compliance standard, and they"re having a labor shortage for the first time in recent history.
I went with Levis to observe and to learn. Soon I"ll go back and go on some audits. Levis is working with Nike, Adidas and other major companies who do business over there. In my opinion, they"re pushing the envelope. It"s also important to remember that China isn"t the worst when it comes to labor standards. Some countries are cheaper and less regulated. For example a lot of people I"ve talked to have pointed to a place in Bangladesh as the worst case scenario.
E: Some observers are worried about the future of the Planet Green network, the first 24-hour green TV channel. Are you?
S.R.O.: Launching a whole network is different than launching a block of programming or a show. There are a lot of things that have to come together, such as working with advertiser space, coordinating with production groups, knowing who it will resonate with, creating enough appeal to get it into the mainstream
a constant push and pull of a lot of different things. I think they did a really good job of getting it out to the mainstream, and making a buzz. That was one of the goals, so next is getting back to what Discovery is all about: the discovery of it all. Building up that credible insider.
I think you’ll see less makeover, green how-tos and tips, and more shows about the journey of it. People have a really positive feeling about Laura Michalchyshyn, the new president and general manager of the channel, and she seems like a real go-getter personality. Now we have an opportunity to come out with programs that really ring true to the brand, but draw in our core audience.
I will be doing my own show for Planet Green, hopefully for 2010. I wanted to make sure that I was doing something that"s really right, and that will have longevity
E: What are you working on next?
uot;m working on a site to streamline the sustainable design chain. We want to build dynamic functionality to help designers design better. I"m working with a team that includes Bonita Singh, who has a lot of experience working in fair trade and socially branded marketing, Adam Schwartz and others, especially my friends.
The more you can use online to build offline force, the better.
BRIAN CLARK HOWARD is the Home and Eco-Tips Editor of The Daily Green (www.thedailygreen.com).