“Get on the bus,” Summer Rayne Oakes ’04, natural resources and entomology, said to an audience of students, faculty and staff last Wednesday. She did not mean get on the TCAT and leave the car keys at home, though the world’s first eco-model certainly would not object to that. Oakes was referring to the countless Campus-to-Campus bus trips she boarded every Friday down to New York City and back to Ithaca again each Monday to work as a model, while enrolled as a full-time student. Too often, she said, “so many of us have ideas and talk about it, but we never get on the bus.”
Five years out of college, Oakes is already recognized in the world of fashion and business as a leader in sustainability. In addition to her work as a model, she is the founder of Summer Rayne Oakes, LLC, a consulting firm, and co-founder and CEO of Source4Style, an online marketplace of sustainable materials for designers. She is author of the bestselling guide Style, Naturally and correspondent on Discovery Network’s Planet Green.
She said that none of what she does feels like work. “It’s not work; it’s my life,” she said. Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvannia, Oakes said she always had an innate fondness for nature. “When we were young, we had no fear. I don’t think I’ve ever lost that,” Oakes said. When she first visited campus, she burst into a meeting at the Cornell Waste Management Institute, where she would later work as a student on the health impacts of sewage sludge.
After immersing herself in waste management, she believed that any scientific research she published could have only a small audience. At the time, she was living with four male students who jokingly named her the park ranger and who were “not environmentalists by any stretch of the imagination,” she said. In trying to explain her passion for sewage sludge to her housemates, Oakes realized she would have to serve as a bridge connecting disparate groups to make a difference.
Christina Copeland ’11, natural resources, invited Oakes to speak because “fashion and environmentalism isn’t something one originally thinks of as going together, but she shows us how important that partnership actually is.”
Oakes did not have a single contact in the industry, so she decided to start out as a model, did some research, bought a bus ticket and then met with 50 people over the course of two days.
“Start speaking your vision, and show people you are doing it. People get inspired; they want to be able to help,” Oakes said.
She said, “people lose themselves in all aspects of their life in some shape and form” when they make it big and especially in fashion. Oakes said she grounds herself in where she grew up and where she is headed. When an asphalt pit was scheduled to be built near her home, Oakes’ mother, cognizant of the connection between the environment and health, led the campaign against the asphalt plant. Her mother’s efforts incurred slashed tires and death threats targeted at her family. The pit was never built.
Oakes credits her mother for setting an example of environmental activism, but also learned tougher lessons from her. At one point, her family plummeted below the poverty line and her mother could not make ends meet even while working two jobs.
When her mother moved to Cleveland for a better job and to be with her boyfriend, Oakes refused and began living alone at age 13. She jokes about being the “most responsible kid ever” but also speaks to the strength and independence one gains from feeling “like you have nothing to lose [and that] even the people closest to you might not be there for you.”
In college, Oakes found mentors in her professors, “those people that could be your support, that could be your extended family,” she said. In her years here, she developed talents that she has carried into her work, “making more of an impact using all of my talents combined.”