Models To Look Up To: Ethical Fashion Models

Models To Look Up To: Ethical Fashion Models

With an increasing number of fashion brands ‘going green’ there is also a growing tribe of models leaving behind the standard glamour pack in order to make a difference. Call them ‘eco models’ ‘ethical models’ or ‘green models’, here is a round-up of the fashion models admired not just for their beauty and brains – but for their ethical values too.

Summer Rayne Oakes

Widely considered the world’s first eco and ethical fashion model, US-based Summer Rayne Oakes is more than just a beautiful face. A Cornell University graduate and Udall environmental scholar, Summer got into modelling without compromising her green philosophy. “I was fortunate enough to have agents who believe in me and my work,” says Summer. Modelling exclusively for sustainable brands such as TOMS and Aveeno, Summer’s achievements outside of the modelling arena are many: co-founding Source4Style (a sustainable and ethical fashion marketplace), contributing to, providing expert opinion on Discovery Network’s Planet Green and co-authoring the best-selling book Style, Naturally just to name a few.

Image source:
Summer Rayne Oakes – Image source:

Summer’s love of the environment began in north-eastern Pennsylvania as an ‘outdoorsy’ girl with a penchant for all things related to nature. “In college, people knew me as the rainforest girl with the bug net in her backpack who studied sewage sludge,” says Summer. Summer’s love of the outdoors is still obvious in her preference for trail running over yoga and adventure travel over resorts.

In her book Style, Naturally, Summer also explores her love of fashion: “When I was able to figure out how to combine style with sustainability, I began down a path to a more fulfilling lifestyle. Who I was – my style, so to speak – was no longer conflicting with the way I wanted to live my life. I could finally look good, feel good, and do good – simultaneously: a win-win-win situation.”

Now residing in New York City, the concrete jungle hasn’t tainted Summer’s passion for the environment. She continues to incorporate her eco philosophy in her urban surroundings: “I do what I can—where I can. I normally walk everywhere; nearly 100% of my food purchases are made or produced by local farmers and food makers. I don’t like to waste stuff… I care about purchasing better-made products, things that will last.” One look at her Instagram account is all the proof you need of her sustainable lifestyle. It is peppered with images that are testament to her green lifestyle, from the plants in her bedroom to what’s on her plate: “I’m broadening my horizons now and learning more about how our food affects us.” By that she means her journey into clean eating and detoxing from sugar. Considering all that Summer has achieved in ethical fashion, success in the food arena is almost assured.

Nerida Lennon

Sydney-based Nerida Lennon is just like any other international model you might meet, one so genetically blessed that it takes strength of willpower to look away. But unlike most other fashion models, Nerida thrives on academia.

Nerida’s CV reads as follows: a Psychology and Sociology degree, teacher of Environmental Sociology and writer for The Guardian Sustainable Business. She is also a prominent ethical fashion advocate in her own right, publishing a monthly newsletter featuring the best articles each month from EcoFashion News. “Eco beauty is a strong point for me,” says Nerida, “as is all the wasted food, water bottles, set designs, clothing and so on in the industry.”

Nerida Lennon - Eco Model
Nerida Lennon – Image courtesy of Nerida Lennon

Scouted by a model agent when she was just 17, Nerida is grateful to have landed a contract with a high profile modelling agency: “I had no idea which agencies were reputable so it’s lucky that I ended up with one of the leading agencies, Vivien’s Model Management.” Nerida’s modelling career took off and she travelled internationally modelling for luxury brands as Gucci and Dior.

Nerida had no intention in becoming a model as a young girl. However her childhood spent in a leafy mountainous outer suburb of Melbourne (Australia) makes it easy to understand how she wound up in sustainable fashion: I grew up in a rainforest on top of Mount Dandenong and as far back as I can remember my father (who was a mathematician) was very concerned about climate change,” Nerida says of her upbringing. “My father designed the house to be more environmentally friendly with rainwater tanks, double-paned windows, stove-heated hot water [and] compost… he also converted both our cars to run on biodiesel which he made himself.”

Her father’s environmental concerns motivated Nerida to attend PowerShift in 2009, a youth climate summit hosted by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. “It was such a powerful weekend and at the end of the event they asked all attendees to reflect on which area of our lives we could use this new knowledge to make a positive difference,” Nerida recalls. “The fashion industry instantly flashed into my mind, but I quickly pushed it away as I knew it would be challenging… but [it] persisted in my mind as an area I should explore and when I finally did start to research I was shocked to find fashion is the third industry most reliant on natural resources after mining and agriculture.” Once she learned the shocking truth about how clothing production affected not just the environment, but people too, Nerida left traditional modelling. She now works with brands that align with her social and environmentally responsible ethos.

Nerida’s lifestyle is as ethical and sustainable as her wardrobe. She and her partner purchase green electricity, refuse to own cars, buy from Bondi Food Collective (“who source local, seasonal and organic fresh produce, plus dry goods and cleaning products”), use natural, vegan and organic beauty and personal products and incorporate local free-range organic beef into their diets. With plans to move to the US, they also rent a furnished apartment rather than purchase new furnishings. Despite living in an apartment complex, they compost their food scraps and encourage their neighbours to do the same. Nerida’s values even influences her finances: “One of the most important things for me is using my superannuation account investment to support more environmentally and socially responsible businesses such as renewable energy.” Indeed this is an eco model who puts her money exactly where her mouth is.

Amanda Rootsey

She has graced the cover of magazines including sustainable lifestyle mag Peppermint Magazine; has modelled at fashion shows such as Undress Runways, has appeared in countless ethical fashion editorials, writes a column for Nature & Health magazine and is founder of Shine from Within, a holistic deportment training school for teen girls. It is little wonder that Amanda Rootsey is Australia’s most recognised eco model and in fact, the country’s first.

She wasn’t always an eco model though. “I started modelling just after high school and loved it. I loved the friendships I made, the thrill of performing and taking on a role for each new job,” says Amanda who was signed with Vivien’s Model Management and several agencies in Europe.

Amanda Rootsey eco-model
Image source: Kindness By Design

However, after several years, Amanda had a crisis of conscience: “The first time I really thought about where fashion comes from was during a show for Salvatore Ferragamo in Italy,” says Amanda. “I put on this fur coat and remember feeling like something wasn’t right.” She had just turned vegetarian and her personal values weren’t aligned with her modelling work. “It was a powerful moment for me. Suddenly I made the connection between the beautiful animal the coat had been and what it had now become.”

It was only a month later when Amanda received the news that would forever alter the course of her life: she had cancer. “I went vegan, started meditating and totally simplified my life with my partner,” Amanda recalls. “We sold up and ended up living in a recycled shipping container living off the grid for about a year.” Her ‘alternative’ lifestyle coupled with her humility is unusual for a model, but is what makes her so endearing. “This journey really influenced my current direction. Going through something where you spend years just fighting for your life makes you think about the type of world you will leave behind for future generations.”

Amanda’s green values are evident not only in her business and the modelling work she chooses (which of late has become more of a role as brand ambassador) but in how she lives her life. From tending a veggie garden, using 100% natural beauty products (a personal favourite is Australian made Twenty8 chemical-free skincare), supporting and buying second hand where possible and being vegan (“raising livestock is the number one cause of global greenhouse gas emissions according to a report by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation”) Amanda is as green – and as beautiful outside and in – as any human can be.

Emily Kate Symes

Emily Kate Symes is the Australian model turned eco-preneur whose e-commerce website EKOLUV is embraced by fashionistas and ethical fashion worshippers alike. A member of the Ethical Fashion Forum’s Fellowship 500 for pioneering ethical fashion innovators and a Nature Champion for the Places You Love Alliance (that helps bring awareness of conservation and protecting natural environments globally) Emily is a woman determined to make a difference.

Emily Kate Symes - Eco Model
Emily Kate Symes – Image courtesy of Emily Kate Symes. Photo by Jim Go Yarisantos

Before her involvement in sustainable and ethical fashion, Emily was like any other girl turned model. Discovered by a modelling agent while eating at a Mexican restaurant, the opportunity to travel was all the convincing Emily needed to take up modelling. “[It] got me out of my comfort zone and opened my mind to new cultures and ways of thinking,” Emily says of her early modelling days. Although she was thrilled with all the travelling and sightseeing she was doing, modelling was an eye opening experience that helped shape her path toward sustainability. “My journey into sustainable fashion took off about 5 years ago when I was modelling overseas. Being surrounded by fashion every day I saw a lot of waste, seeing styles go on sale quickly to be replaced by this season’s latest ‘it’ dress.” Like most people who find themselves involved in ethical fashion, Emily asked all the relevant questions: where were the clothes made, who were they made by and what where they made from?

The answers to these questions propelled Emily into social, environmental and animal rights activism. But it was the overwhelming poverty and injustice she witnessed firsthand that cemented her resolve to make a difference: “Living overseas whilst modelling I was exposed to a lot of things that we can be sheltered from here in Australia.”

What she saw sparked the idea to create a sustainable and ethical business. She founded EKOLUV an online shop offering styling ethical and sustainable fashion and accessories stocking popular brands including Kowtow, Lalesso and Mettle. “Many people still have pre-conceived ideas surrounding what eco-friendly fashion is, that it is limited to drab hippy shirts but in actual fact there is a growing industry and wide selection of sustainable fashion products available.” Browsing through the EKOLUV website and its stylish fashion offerings, it is obvious that Emily is setting out to prove people wrong – and looks to be succeeding too. “I think the biggest challenge for [our] industry is for sustainable fashion to be on trend, fashion forward or to be seen as ‘fashionable’ for it to really catch on, on a massive scale.” At the time of writing, EKOLUV has amassed a following of 8600 followers on Instagram and just shy of 5000 fans on Facebook. Not bad for an ethical fashion business competing with the large marketing budgets of fast fashion.

There is no doubt that with their winning trifecta of beauty, brains and heart, these fashion models turned ethical and eco fashion advocates serve as greater role models than many of their counterparts. As the sustainable fashion industry is only in its infancy, there is hope that many fashion models will make the cross over.

This is a two part blog series. Subscribe to the blog and be the first to read Part 2. Find out how they define ethical fashion, what they think the future of fashion looks like and their favourite inspirational quotes.

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