Summer Rayne Oakes; Founder; sugardetox.me
Summer Rayne Oakes
Interviewer: David Corsar, NWFThe National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”
David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an NWF Fellow help shape your career? Summer Rayne Oakes: I learned to not be afraid to ask for help, particularly when you’re working on something that is far larger than you. I don’t think I would have been able to articulate that at the time when I was an NWF Fellow. Looking back now, I’ve met people through my experiences that have been really integral in allowing me to break out of the mold and ask for help on work that I was doing that was clearly far greater than myself.
My fellowship project was intended to be more global in scale, and when you’re working on something like that, you begin to recognize that you can’t always pursue those initiatives without great partners.
DC: What are you up to these days? And how did you end up on the path you’re on in the intervening years?
SRO: Currently, I’m focusing on launching a 2.0 version of my site sugardetox.me and writing a book with a similar goal: helping people cleanse themselves from sugar. About 3 years ago, I started to make a transition from sustainable fashion systems, on which I had spent around 12 years of my time on, including the NWF fellowship—to sustainable food systems. The focus on the sugar detox bubbled up to the top because it was something that I was always struggling with; I felt as if it was the one thing that was separating me from optimal health. As I was doing this website, I found other folks were struggling with this too. It made me question our food system as well as think about how people should first be healthy for themselves, so then they can go and do the greater things that they need and want to do in the world.
The project that I was awarded the fellowship for was called the Organic Portraits project, which was recently published, and it opened up the doors for my very unusual career trajectory. I think that I wouldn’t have even considered what I was doing at the time as a career. I got into the world of fashion doing what I would describe as “cause-based modeling”, which is working with brands, projects and organizations that are more aligned with my values. That led to the founding of my first company, SRO, LLC, which is a consulting firm focused on, environmental communications and sustainable supply chains, and I began integrating that into my line of work as a model/spokesperson. It’s pretty unique.
I’m putting those skills together now and applying them to the food system. There’s really no blueprint of what I’ve been doing and want to do, but one of the things that I learned in college is that you can often speak things into existence. When I started working on Organic Portraits and the concept around sustainability in fashion, those two words weren’t really used as an expression, but by actually creating a project that tied those two worlds together, it opens up the conversation and gives people a language to view this world through a new lens.
DC: You described a pretty organic career path, which I think is becoming more the norm these days. Do you have a personal mission statement that follows you through this path?
SRO: My personal mission statement is, “The world doesn’t say no unless you let it.” So, if one door is closed, you go through another door; if that door is closed, you go through the window; if the window’s closed, you break in - metaphorically speaking, of course. You have to have a plan and patience for this. I think that’s the crux, and I think that’s my personal mission when it comes to sustainability. It almost doesn’t matter what I’m doing in a specific sense – whether I’m writing, or modeling, or whether I’m consulting – it’s done in the spirit of this lens of bringing the love of nature to more people. And it often starts, for me, with meeting folks wherever they are at in their personal lives – and maybe that is an initiative that speaks to their health, their home, or in their community—whether it is the local or global community.
Regardless of whether it’s serving in people’s personal lives or inspiring them on some greater vision, I think we all do this the same way with a human touch or a human story. There’s one quote that for me sticks out in my mind; I first heard this quote when I was at COP-20 in Rio, and it really stuck with me: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” I really do believe that, and I believe in the greater vision, but also having the steps to be able to get there. People can be pulled by a vision, but if there’s no clear path, then it’s just lost at sea. And I think that’s probably truer and more imperative in the political climate that we’re in now.
DC: You mentioned a love of nature and bringing that to other people. What initially brought that to you and motivated you to begin this path?
SRO: I realized that I could have more of a positive effect on people who don’t already think like me. So, early in university, I recognized that a lot of my friends were not necessarily in the environmental space, and I had this desire to have them understand my passion. What really drives me is working in industries that aren’t already heavily influenced by environmentalism. That’s how I got involved in the world of fashion in the first place. At first, it was a very calculated risk to enter the world of fashion just to be able to understand it. I wanted to understand the psychograph of what people in the fashion industry were looking for. And how can I try to tie these two worlds together? So now, I’m constantly looking at other industries and asking how could I help bring sustainability – or health or wellness – through that conduit? That’s part of what’s exciting to me—charting new frontiers.
DC: Who do you consider your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
SRO: Most recently, I’ve been drawn to the work of a friend of mine, Martin von Hildebrand with Gaia Amazonas. He’s quietly doing the work that he is doing, working closely with and empowering indigenous people in the Amazon, and that’s resulted in over 67% of the Colombian Amazon either being indigenously owned or in ecological reserves. Most of the time, I realize that the real heroes are not often shared in the news, and he’s one that really sticks out in my mind.
I also spent a lot of time with a South African gentleman by the name of Allan Schwarz; he’s a Master Architect and Director of Mezimbite Forest Centre, and he is one of the largest tree planters in Mozambique—if not the largest tree planter. And again, he’s focused on empowering local people—connecting them to both the local and global market for their products. I resonate his philosophy: First produce for the local people and anything leftover—sell to outsiders. What a brilliant model. It makes sure that everyone is wealthy, nourished, fed, clothed.
Recently, I just had a friend in town, her name is Safia Minney, and she comes to mind as well; she was the first person to ever bring fair trade to fashion – started about 25 years ago. And that goes back to what I was saying before that in order to work on things, you need to have a language to talk about it, and now we do, compliments to folks like Safia.
DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in specifically developing your career pathway, putting together those puzzle pieces?
SRO: I’ve had both informal mentors and also partners and colleagues that have been influential, and lately they are most often outside my typical trade. But early on they were more in my industry, because it was what I was exposed to; some folks that come to mind are definitely some of my Cornell professors, such as the late Tom Eisner, who was the father of chemical ecology. He was a great influence in my life; we had a professor-student relationship that was more of a reciprocal relationship, with a deep mutual respect for one another. Because Tom was very involved in the creative arts, as was I, this relationship was a bit less conventional. I really appreciated the class that he started called For the Love of Nature; he brought different speakers in because he said we often could get lost in the world of learning about mitochondria and the minutia of the world, and forget why we fell in love with nature in the first place. That class was refreshing for me because it always helped you remember why you were there, why you were studying biology or entomology or whatever it was.
Barbara Bedford, she’s a wetlands scientist, and she was also my advisor at Cornell, and she was extremely supportive in allowing me to exercise my creative endeavors outside of Cornell. So, for Organic Portraits, I was able to suggest it also as a for-credit class because I was spending so much time on it.
Damon Horowitz is a friend of mine, and he is a philosopher and also a professor at Columbia and now Stanford, and he became a really great advisor to my company and just an all around wonderful friend and supporter.
Ron Gonen – he’s the one that started the curbside composting and zero waste initiative under Mayor Bloomberg here in New York and is now working on something called the Closed Loop Fund, which is focused on the circular economy, and he’s been a really big influence in my professional life.
And I’ve also learned a lot from the people that I mentioned earlier, people like Martin, Allen, and Safia, these are people that are big people in my life today, and I’ve been involved with their organizations working in very different capacities, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from them.
DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor yourself, or do you already?
SRO: What I’ve learned as a mentee is that you give yourself up to somebody to really learn; I think that’s the best kind of mentorships that I’ve experienced. Just showing up can be a huge thing, I did work for Martin with Gaia Amazona because I wanted to be involved in some capacity, and I said “just let me do it!” and asked him to trust me. He did.
I think for me, I’m looking for the right type of people to mentor, and it has to come at the right time for me and the right time for them. It’s important to come to a mentor with a clear path and a willingness to give yourself up in order to be able to learn and to really follow through with the work.
I’ll give you an example. I’m thinking about a photographer friend of mine, and he’s very interested in capturing the human story and I love his work. In a way, I feel as if I’ve been a mentor to, helping him view his work on a larger stage and to act on it., What’s great about him is that he’s got the fire in his belly to do it and the talent to boot, and he always, always shows up. I think that those are the types of relationships that are few and far between and I think that those are the most meaningful for me.
DC: Finally, what would you recommend to current students who want to make a difference for sustainability, perhaps in the fashion industry, or more broadly?
SRO: Don’t be afraid to gain experience in whatever way you can. When I was in university, I was doing 3 or 4 jobs simultaneously and really focusing on this idea of merging sustainability and fashion, so I may not have gone to as many parties, but I don’t regret not going out. By the time I graduated, I felt very prepared, even for my very unconventional career path.