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Staying sustainable in the life of model-marine scientist

Staying sustainable in the life of model-marine scientist

Words Rae Rodriguez // Photography Matthew Adekponya

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Most days, my day starts before it even begins. My agency lets me know my next day’s schedule around 6pm the night before, if I’m lucky. This means anything can be thrown at you; from a 4am call time, an international flight, or if there’s no email - nothing at all. Models are never in one place for too long, overseas assignments last for three months before models have to move on to the next market. Sorry, I thought I was on set - I forgot I had to introduce myself. My name is Rae Rodriguez, well in the fashion world anyways. My mom calls me Désirée. I’m still not sure why they called me Rae, but I guess it’s worked out pretty well.

I’m a Puerto Rican model with a degree in marine science, so naturally an environmental activist. I grew up between islands where I learned to care about the land and ocean as I watched our planet grow more and more polluted. I started modelling five years ago mainly to see if I could be successful, not because I loved fashion or wanted to become the next Joan Smalls. My career took off during my time at university in Australia, which was a slight issue for my grades - I found myself flying around the country a few times a week to shoot. Somehow, I still graduated with distinction. It was a hectic period of my life - I still remember having to write a final report entitled Allelopathic Interactions between Alcyonacean Corals while getting hair and makeup done to shoot for Vogue.

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My latest modelling assignment was in London, where in the first six weeks I worked in six different countries. Before that I was based in Sydney, and before that Los Angeles. The excessive amount of air travel and transit that models have to do is so unsustainable. A model in Europe could work five days straight in five different cities, and this would be a normal occurrence. The CO2 emissions produced on these flights and train rides put aside, imagine all the single-use toiletries from the 4 nights in a hotel, and the unavoidable waste produced in 5 photoshoots (mascara wands, wipes, packaging), it’s actually insane. What I’m trying to get at is that modelling sustainably is no easy job. Constantly having to move and be flexible to the demands of clients isn’t exactly conducive to living a stable life either. While I was based in Europe I felt forced into making “convenient” decisions rather than the healthy, sustainable ones I wanted to make. There’s not a bulk food store on every block, so I’d have to buy food wrapped in plastic. I was spoilt living in Australia for three years, where supermarkets brag about selling local produce in bulk. In London, green beans are flown in from Kenya, and sold by the handful, wrapped in plastic. While I strive to be plant-based and eat as many vegetables as I can, I was shocked learning that avocados sold in the United Kingdom have often been frozen for up to a year before reaching supermarkets. I found that having to stay in hotels and not speaking the local language meant that I could rarely prepare healthy, fresh food for myself. How can models live like this when agencies continuously tell their talent to be smaller. I’d always feel guilty eating convenient, unhealthy snacks on the go, even though that would be my only option. I felt like I was set up to lose; contributing to the world’s waste AND not eating healthily.

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At the end of the day, I can’t help but get frustrated working in an industry that revolves around consumerism. I studied and try to actively practice sustainability, but the purpose of my job is literally to sell things. It feels so hypocritical. It’s hard shooting 30 outfits a day, 5 days a week, all for different fast fashion brands. Knowing well that around the world, other models are shooting the same thing at different brands. I’ve had instances when clothes broke as soon as I put them on even though I was the first person to ever wear them. I can’t have integrity in my work knowing that the clothes I’m selling aren’t even made well. It’s easy to feel down dwelling on sustainability struggles for too long, but I find solace and comfort in knowing that I’m making the best choices I can.

Part of making the world a better place is acknowledging the faults of the industry, and sharing the solutions that can make it better. To keep up a sustainable life on the move, step one is always a keep cup. I’ve actually broken three so far. Now, I’ve got a steady recycled silicone cup which collapses so I can fit it into my purse. It takes some trial and error to make sustainability work for you. Regular coffee cups (without the plastic lids) have that un-recyclable plastic lining that clutter recycling bins and landfills. Along with my coffee, I always bring snacks to work. I hate single-use packaging so I always have nuts and dried fruit from the local bulk food store, or homemade banana bread in a reusable container to pick at during the day. I’d recommend eating in at restaurants rather than ordering takeaway to minimise waste from containers.

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Since models will often work at different studios around the city, getting to work can be a hassle. I like to prepare public transport routes in advance, and walk whenever I can. This minimises my transportation emissions and gives me a few minutes to walk in some fresh air. If public transport is out of the question, ride-sharing services like Uber Pool are the next best option. To mitigate the amount of carbon I’ve contributed to emitting on domestic and international flights, buying carbon offsets that will go to projects working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions work towards being carbon-neutral.

It’s a consensus that photoshoots are some of the greatest sources of waste. I try to do my part and reduce waste on set by obviously bringing my own cup, water bottle, and utensils. When I can, I take off my make up in the shower at home, or with biodegradable makeup wipes. I’ll always have my own toiletries with me on trips so as to not use the hotel’s single-use products. When I get ready for a new climate, or even on my off-days, thrift stores are a haven. Buying second-hand means you’re not contributing to the dark cycle that is fast fashion by promoting the use of unsustainable materials and unethical working conditions. Bonus: vintage clothes are definitely a vibe. If I do buy something new, I will always make sure the brand is responsible in its production and has sustainable values. I admit I’m in a position of privilege to receive new, gifted clothes from brands via social media, but that helps me share only brands that I would vouch for. Along those lines, when I do have an opportunity to shoot for or collaborate with companies, I will always opt for the more environmentally friendly one. I’ve had the conversation with my agency and made it known that I want to prioritise sustainable brands. It’s always worth making a stand for what you believe in.

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My most crucial suggestion for sustainability struggles however, is to always stay educated. Do your research - just because you saw a hot eco tip on your favourite Insta-model’s story, doesn’t mean it’s legit. I personally will try and find a consensus between Reddit’s r/ZeroWaste, Facebook groups, and my own experiences. It’s also important to remember that everybody makes mistakes: if I buy plastic, I make sure to recycle it properly and repurpose when I can. I always make a firm effort to do better next time. Staying mindful and making conscious decisions is what sustainability is all about.

Although sustainability is an emerging trend with the Who Made My Clothes? and Fashion Revolution movements, I don’t think the industry will change for the better until everyone involved starts to change with it. Brands and influencers need to take social responsibility for their actions. The mass production and consumption of apparel is destroying our planet faster than we can keep up with. I want to set a precedent for models and industry professionals to learn about and speak up

about the consequences of being unsustainable, it doesn’t take much. This isn’t to say that there aren’t loud enough voices already. Over the past few years, it’s been great to see and connect with more and more individuals on their sustainability journey. Immense positive change happens when people work together. For a while modelling was my exciting escape from university. Now it’s turned into my full-time job. After having learnt the effects fashion is having on our environment,

I’ve changed my stance. Modelling has given me a platform to not only enjoy the fashion industry but use it as my platform to live sustainably.

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