Angela Lindvall: I met you almost eight—nine?—years ago when I first started Collage Foundation and you were working on the Organic Portraits Project, how have you seen the industry change over that time?
Summer Rayne Oakes: Yeah it’s crazy to think the time that has passed. There are some obvious differences: More people involved in sustainable design, a growing interest and understanding of the concept, more coverage within the media, and a greater move to integrate into academia.
AL: What are some of the less obvious changes?
SRO: With the acceptance of sustainable design comes a more critical evaluation of the externalities along the supply chain. Consumers are more discerning especially as media becomes hypercritical on how “green” a product really is. Basically not everything goes now.
AL: What do you think were the drivers that led to that change?
SRO: The advent of the blogosphere and social media tools with a focus on green-mindfulness has played a huge role in catalyzing change, from simply presenting options to consumers to galvanizing outrage around socio-environmental injustices. Think about how many people retweeted “H&M’s slashing on 35th Street” or the recent reports of a Zara’s contractor in Brazil using slave labor.
Operating in a resource-constrained economy has also triggered change. The increased cost and reduced availability of fuel, water, and fiber such as cotton has created a bottleneck in the industry, forcing the market as a whole to reduce any unnecessary waste along the supply chain.
AL: If you were starting your “career” in this space now vs. when you started ten years ago, what would you do differently?
SRO: [Laughing] A lot! I’ve actually thought about this one quite a bit. I’ve wanted to give people a blueprint but times have changed. Thankfully the industry has progressed.
But the idea of sustainability in fashion was so nascent ten years ago that you could work on anything and it’d be newsworthy if only because it was the “first of” something. So to answer your question, if I were starting now, I’d become hyperfocused on one project and knock that out of the ballpark.
When I first started, I had the deepest pleasure of experimenting on a variety of projects, from working on the Organic Portraits project to creating Ecofashion 101, a K-12 School Curriculum; producing Behind the Label, the first sustainable fashion editorial in Lucire; and really creating a career behind values-based modeling, which has been fulfilling, especially since the modeling industry at one point never had a firm set of values—save for the fact that a model wouldn’t wear fur or front a cigarette or alcohol campaign. I suppose if I tried to do all of those now—even simultaneously—it wouldn’t be as novel, and novelty has it’s place in establishing oneself in an area.
AL: You launched a new company, right?
SRO: Yes, it’s called Source4Style, and it’s a business-to-business marketplace that allows designers to source and discover more sustainable materials from around the world. We’ve been in beta for the past ten months and will unveil our brand new site towards the end of September. It’ll thrill you!
AL: Absolutely amazing. What was the impetus behind creating a company like Source4Style?
SRO: After my book tour [Style, Naturally] I had an overwhelming desire to help create the infrastructure to make sustainable design possible. Anecdotally, I knew designers had a difficult time incorporating more eco-conscious principles into their practice because they didn’t know where to start. I approached a dear friend whom I’ve worked with over the years—Benita Singh—and told her of the general idea. We determined that it made sense to create an online marketplace that facilitated direct sourcing with designers and sustainable suppliers around the globe. That’s how Source4Style was born. And our mission is quite simple: To make sustainable design possible.
AL: Over the past decade, designers and brands have become more focused on achieving sustainability for their collections and companies. How does Source4Style help facilitate their transition?
SRO: Source4Style curates and vets suppliers. Suppliers have to fulfill one of five criteria—which are more broad-scope features like “fair trade,” “preservation of craft,” and “organic,” for instance, but then there are other more specific features that we look into based on the Eco Index, the widely accepted environmental assessment tool that is being developed by the apparel industry.
We understand sustainability is a constantly moving target—and not one that can be purely addressed by material choice alone. We embrace this gray area by choosing not to draw permanent boundaries around an ever-evolving area of interest, but by providing guiding principles, asking critical questions, and opening up transparency along the supply chain.
The other major differentiating feature is that in addition to opening up transparency, we are also opening up the inventory of suppliers, so Source4Style acts as a B2B e-commerce solution where designers can source swatches and customize and book sampling and production orders online, direct-from-the-supplier.
AL: How do you see technology changing the way fashion—including sustainable fashion—is done?
SRO: So many brands have their own proprietary systems and software products for sourcing and production. Think of it as a brand’s very own “gated community” with their own gardener, maintenance man, police force, and fire department.
Despite the far-reaching globalization of the fashion industry, everyone is generally sourcing and producing from a lot of the same places as everyone else, so does it really make sense to invest in costly gated communities? The direction the Internet is heading is toward cloud computing—and this will eventually be the same for sourcing and production. Everything will exist in the cloud. So all brands will live in the same “gated community” with one gardener, maintenance man and so on and so forth—but instead will have their own key to their home. That, in sum, will make sourcing and production more efficient, reduce cost for the brand, and still maintain brand IP.
AL: What are key areas that you think designers and brands should be conscious of in the years ahead?
SRO: Water is and will be a growing cause for concern. Water is heavily used in the production, process and dyeing of textiles—and many people have realized that it is a precious commodity everywhere, and especially in the developing world, where many of our textiles are being grown and produced.
Transparency, transparency, transparency: Designers and brands—much to their chagrin—will need to know where everything comes from. Private labeling will no longer be an excuse for “not knowing.”
AL: What’s your experience been running a start-up company?
SRO: That you have to run 100mph uphill and that there is no downhill [laughing].
AL: Seriously, that much work?
SRO: It’s like growing a garden. If you stop watering or caring for it, it’ll just get overrun by weeds. Or something bigger will eventually move in years later, like an Oak tree taking root.
AL: Well, you must be doing something right. Source4Style recently beat out 1,400 other applicants and is a Finalist for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. What does that entail?
SRO: Yes, exciting times. We actually had applied a year ago but didn’t get selected that time—probably because we hadn’t launched the site yet. Cartier has this awesome grant for women-owned business specifically focused on social change. We had to hand in an abridged version of a business plan and now will be competing in France against 17 other amazing finalists from around the world.
AL: Good luck.
SRO: Ah, thank you.
AL: Let’s change it up a bit to talk about other projects you’re working on. Tell me about some of the product partnership collaborations you’re involved with.
SRO: Well, I’m wrapping up my collection this year with Payless. We created Zoe&Zac, which is essentially the first truly affordable eco-minded collection of shoes. And I also wrap up with Portico, which was another great project bringing an environmentally-conscious line of bedding and bath to the market.
Newest collaborations are with Aveeno, helping develop their internal and external Be An Active Natural Campaign and honing in on the company’s move towards more sustainably sourcing, packaging, and focus on health in the developing world.
MODO is another new partnership, which is such a super exciting collaboration for me. The company is really rethinking how eyewear is made, pushing the boundaries for sustainable design within their category and asking how they can give back to communities along the entire supply chain. Beginning of this month we launch my signature eco collection. They’re 50s inspired eyewear with a contemporary edge made from 95% certified recycled materials and we’ve partnered with Trees for the Future—and the group I work with in Mozambique, the Mezimbite Forest Centre—to work with the local communities to restore forests. Every pair sold is equivalent to planting one tree and we want to wearer the see where their tree exactly is, who the person is planting and caring for it, and so on.
AL: Gotta get me some shades.
SRO: I’ll hook you up [smiling].
AL: What other projects can we expect to see?
SRO: I’ll be premiering an environmental art short I produced calledeXtinction at festivals this year.
AL: You held an event earlier this year in New York, right?
SRO: Yes. It was well received. It’s funny too because I had only seen the penultimate copy because my director and editor were editing it up to the last minute. But it turned out beyond what I hoped. I had to shoot it on the weekends between Source4Style and just life in general. It’s a tribute to my late mentor, Tom Eisner. And it’s based on a speech I have given over the years showcasing that the most pressing environmental issues of our day are not happening thousands of years from now, but happening within one lifetime, and more specifically—on the timeline of my life—from birth to death. It’s spiritual, poignant and chilling.
AL: I’d love to see it.
SRO: I might be able to arrange that as well… soon enough.
Angela Lindvall has been a cover girl for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and the face of brands from Valentino to DKNY, but for the past 10 years this supermodel’s mission has been to bring a personal interest in sustainability to her professional career. Angela founded the non-profit Collage Foundation to bring national awareness to environmental issues, co-hosted “Alter Eco” with Adrian Grenier, and is on the founding board of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean by Design Initiative.