Summer Rayne Oakes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 2009, 12:00am

GREEN QUEEN I am called the Eco-Model but that's just a label and it's limiting. I am not a model-turned-activist. I have a degree in entomology and environmental science. In 2000, in the middle of my studies, I started cause-related modelling and design/development projects to push sustainability issues through fashion and media. I thought that if I could work in an industry which was the furthest away from the environment I would be able to reach the greatest number of people.

The fashion industry touches our lives in so many ways: from what we wear and how we take care of our clothes, to the manufacturing industry, which is huge. More than 26 million people are involved just on the manufacturing side alone.

I'm involved in policy-making with non-profit-making organisations and I work on sustainable-development programmes all over the world. So, I'm definitely not just a model who jumped on the green bandwagon.

HERE COMES THE RAYNE My mum had this desire to have her kids on the first day of summer and she hoped I was going to be an artist when I grew up. Also, it was raining the day I was born. I did think I might study art at one stage but I was innately curious about the outdoors and the environment. I claimed my brother's microscope as my own and would look at mould from the fridge and I built a waterfall in my bedroom so that I could raise insects. I grew up in a very beautiful area of northeastern Pennsylvania [in the United States], surrounded by forests, fields and farms. It was always a source of inspiration for me. In high school I did voluntary work, at college, I worked for my local conservation association. I studied waste management, organic contaminants and environmental health; mine reclamation; rainforest regeneration; invasive species; landscape impact analysis; sustainable development; aquatic entomology and stream water quality. I love the scientific process.

STRONG HEAD, BIG HIPS I've been financially independent since I was 15 years old. When my parents split up, my mother made the decision to move to another state to get a better job. I refused to go with her because I was so focused on going to Cornell University and I had built an incredible network in my community. I was always aware that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Seriously, the world doesn't really say no unless you let it.

In 2005, when I approached my first modelling agency I told them what I wanted and I was talking about the environment with passion and vigour: I poured my heart out to them. They said, 'That's all very well but we have to tell you that 80 per cent of the jobs will not be available to you because your hips are two inches too big.' I was incensed. I told them that, first of all, I don't want those jobs, and second, 'If you think for one moment that two inches on my hips is going to put me off doing what I want to do, you are sadly mistaken.' They were scared of me. But I thought it was so trivial.

GREENING THE BIG APPLE I live in New York City now. It made sense for me to go there because it's one of the few places in the world where you can really create yourself. But I always feel there's a half of me that's been put on the shelf for a bit - the half that wants to be living in a green, spacious place. I have an apartment in Brooklyn, which is very 'Zen'. I have decorated it with furniture from flea markets and I have plants everywhere. Every time I go home I add a new plant. I also have vines crawling up the walls and the ceiling, and fig trees.

I am conscious of my carbon footprint. I know exactly how many miles I have travelled and what I have to do to redress the balance. This year, I'm travelling a lot to promote my book (Style, Naturally: the savvy shopping guide to sustainable fashion and beauty; available through

GREY IS THE NEW BLACK AND WHITE I was in Hong Kong and mainland China recently to visit Levis, who I work with, and also to see some factories in Shenzhen, so I can really understand the labour involved in creating fashion. In America and Europe we read about China in a way that's so esoteric; we see it as so big and there's no personal aspect to it and often what happens is we hear and read about the bad stuff. I wanted to come over and get a clear idea of what the issues are, such as how social compliance works and how the making of a shoe comes together, and what I can learn from that. I was taken to some really good [factories] and others that have compliance issues. I spoke to the owners, employees and their families. I gained a better understanding of the grey areas as opposed to the understanding I had garnered from articles I've read in Business Week and other publications. I'm not saying egregious things aren't happening in places but the issues aren't always black and white.

JUST SAY NO I have turned down two major modelling contracts - cosmetics companies offering six-figure sums - because I did not want to be associated with the products. I need to feel as though I'm in a partnership. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it needs to be right. It's about working together and understanding each other's core values. I'm coming in with a certain set of expertise. It's very much my brand as well as theirs. It's a new concept for companies because not only do I work for them as a strategist, but also as spokesperson who gives talks and seminars and I'm the face for the brand. I couldn't represent a company I don't believe in. There's a certain set of values I have and I wear them on my sleeve. I didn't get into the fashion industry to be a model, I came for something much greater.