On a recent evening in New York City, about 30 designers, fashion mavens, CEOs, and even some well-dressed professors squeezed into a makeshift showroom to hear Summer Rayne Oakes explain how sustainable design can help make this earth a better place.
In an industry often criticized for its excess and exploitation, Oakes, age 26, is an anomaly. She's an Ivy League-educated model, as well as a scientist who sees entrepreneurship as a means to fight for the environment. Her newest venture, Source4Style, launched earlier this year. The web-based business offers designers a place online to buy eco-friendly, sustainable fabrics.
There is no doubt that Oakes is spectacularly driven. But despite a brief career that already includes writing a best-selling book, launching two profitable companies, and finding success on the runways, Oakes is really just a geek at heart who loves this planet. Did we mention that she keep a terrarium filled with exotic beetles in her Brooklyn apartment? Oakes recently spoke with Inc.'s Eric Markowitz.
How did you first become interested in sustainability?
I was very involved early on in my community, working on a mine reclamation project in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was really quite liberating at a young age – 16 – to be on my county conservation district, where my role was to help create the plan for the mine-reclamation site. Looking back, it's even more relevant now considering the connection to climate-change issues but back then it was just about restoring communities that were being devastated by acid-mine drainage.
So that's why you went to college to study environmental science?
Yes, I went to Cornell knowing that this was what I was going to be focusing on. During my time at the County Conservation District I worked on a biocells project that involved sewage sludge. I met with the waste management institute at Cornell that was doing research on applying sewage sludge on land, and it became part of my studies.
Why not stay with science as a career?
I was getting traction at university - articles were published about the work that I was doing. I was where you want to be as a budding scientist. But there were two realities. One, federal regulations on sewage sludge were not going to change because we published something in a paper, and two, I lived with four dudes in college and none of them were environmental. They called me Park Ranger. There was this element where you realize that if you can't get your best friends or your family to understand why you do what you do, and why they should care too, you are not going to make a difference no matter what.
Why fashion then?
One of my goals was to bridge two worlds. I was looking for an industry that I thought was the furthest away from the environment as possible and that happened to be, for me, the fashion industry. I knew nothing about fashion and I didn't have one contact. But I figured that I could pass as a model, even though I had no experience whatsoever.
To covertly go into the industry, I partnered with a photographer to help him launch a project that tied in the concept of sustainable design in photography. It was a great marketing package that tied in all the concepts of sustainable design before people were even discussing it. When I signed with my first agency in 2005, the people there were personally supportive but they didn't quite understand what I was doing because these types of issues – about green, social and environment issues – just weren't prevalent then. The way ethics are talked about in the fashion industry is more like 'Oh you don't smoke or, oh you don't drink and show up in a booze ad.'"
My idea was to conceptually and artistically portray something that deals with greater issues, and tell the story in a way that was absolutely stunning, like "Oh I've seen the woman with the boa, but I've never seen the woman with the bees!"
Eventually you launched Source4Style. How does it work?
We put clients through a robust sustainability questionnaire. Much in the same way that Walmart is asking its suppliers for information, we have something that's based on the Eco Index, which is an internal environmental assessment tool for the apparel industry that's been in development for three years. I've been associated with the Eco Index for the past two years and we're one of hundreds of companies that are involved in developing it. We ask questions like, How much recycled material do you have? Is it post-consumer or pre-consumer? And our clients get a grade based on a point system.
What's the advantage of the Eco Index?
I'm all about the framework, and making it easy for people to understand their environmental impact. I hate 40- to 80-page documents – no one ever gets through them! The index is based on simple questions and answers and check boxes. Another way for companies to assess their sustainability is through life cycle assessments, but it's usually a nebulous thing where you hire a consultant and pay them thousands of dollars and you get some sort of assessment of your output, and you don't really understand what you're getting. With this, it's really step-by-step. It's giving you more than just the language to talk about your footprint, it's giving you a way to draw you in and increase your efficiency or sustainability. Anyone can do it. A monkey can do it.
So you vet the suppliers?
We do quality control on our site, so that if our suppliers upload certifications, we check those certifications. The site will always have the element of being curated and vetted. We think that, inevitably, designers will come to our site and say 'Great, we're Source4Style-certified,' and there's going to be an element that we are trusted, but we're not actually certifying the sources ourselves. We are doing our due diligence and making sure that we're asking the suppliers the relevant questions that we know they will be asked anyway, so we're just getting them up to date before they even know it.
Right now, your site offers materials from about 25 suppliers. How do you plan to expand?
The global textile market is a $300 billion marketplace. Our model is twofold: right now you see the marketplace, but eventually we will create a directory of services that will eventually turn into an RFP service. So we want to offer our suppliers two different ways to be able to showcase on our site. By December, we're trying to get 60 - 65 suppliers, 3,000 products SKUs, and 2,000 registered users.
How do you decide if you want to work with a company or not?
I have to feel comfortable that they're interested in having me as a partner, and it involves years of working with one another, and feeling like I'm being engaged and utilized and it's so unique for the industry, it's not as if I'm being completely assessed by my bust/weight/hip and whether or not I have brown hair and brown eyes. What people get with me is something that is far more valuable.
What's your advice to companies looking to become more sustainable?
Don't feel like you have to do it 100 percent, where you're carbon-offsetting everything and you're live in a solar-powered windmill. The whole point is that you need to have a sustainable business first, and you need to understand what that business model is.
How do you find the time to work on all your projects?
You mean, like, the 100-hour workweeks?
Yes. You've accomplished a lot more than the average 26-year-old.
Part of it was just starting early. I've been working an 80- to100-hour workweek since I was basically 14. The thing is, when someone becomes more of what you describe as an entrepreneur, and starts doing something that they're passionate about and that they love, the workweek is not 9 to 5. This is built into my lifestyle. Most of my work is built around my life and who I am as a person. Even if I go out to an event, I feel like I'm working on my projects, because it so inherently defines me. I feel blessed in a way that this is something was gifted with and that I had the audacity to risk it. And the only thing you have to lose is happiness.