Conservation Catwalks: Strut Your Environmental Stuff!

For many first-year students, freshman orientation can be an overwhelming experience. They’re confronted with so many new faces and personalities, so many different responsibilities and places to navigate, and on top of everything is the challenge of meeting and making new friends.

For Ava Holmes and Olivia Moskowitz, though, they cut right through all the haze. They weren’t even in the same orientation group this past summer, but they picked each other out of the crowds and instantly connected over a shared love of dancing, conservation and fashion. The latter two passions became the basis of a dynamic partnership, and the two even organized a new student group, “Conservation in Style,” which focuses on eco-friendly fashion to raise awareness and funds for endangered species.

Ava and Olivia

Ava Holmes, left, and Olivia Moskowitz connected instantly during freshman orientation.

Holmes, who grew up Ithaca, N.Y., was involved in fundraising for all sorts of environmental causes in high school, and during her sophomore year she specifically started working with The Gabby Wild Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes wildlife conservation through the intersection of science and art. Her dad is president of Primitive Pursuits, a wilderness school in Ithaca, and her mom has been involved in performance arts. “So it was my heritage to incorporate them both,” she says.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moskowitz had similar interests in high school, and she spent a lot of time working at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital. She’s now enrolled as an Environmental Science and Resource Management major with SEFS, while Holmes is majoring in Environmental Studies with Program on the Environment.

Outside of class, Holmes and Moskowitz quickly built up their ranks in “Conservation in Style.” They serve as co-presidents and already have more than 60 members, and they got The Gabby Wild Foundation to sponsor the group. The timing was perfect.

In 2012, Gabby Wild introduced the “12 in 12 for 12” campaign, which involved her wearing 12 animal-inspired outfits—one for every month of the year of 2012—to raise money and awareness for the conservation of 12 threatened species around the planet. Designers from the Lifetime TV show Project Runway designed the collection, and that successful collaboration helped kick off a broader commitment to pairing fashion with conservation. As a result, one of the foundation’s big promotions now is a cross-country series of eco-fashion shows, called “Conservation Catwalks,” that raise money and awareness for conservation issues.

Holmes and Moskowitz saw a tremendous opportunity to organize their own “Conservation Catwalk” on the UW campus this winter. To prepare for such a major undertaking, they collaborated closely with a number of other student organizations, including ASUW and the Student Health Consortium, in their production of the Everybody Every Body Fashion Show; they coordinated with different university departments, from business and marketing to drama and architecture; they recruited student models around campus; and they also engaged in a wide range of sponsor and partner outreach, including choosing which designers to work with and some of the styles to feature, and emailing with the CEOs of companies and Project Runway designers.

Conservation Catwalk

A Sumatran tiger-inspired dress at the UW Conservation Catwalk on February 28.

In the end, they managed to pull together $10,000 in raffle prizes and completely packed the Husky Union Building for the show on February 28—all, it’s worth remembering, in only their second quarter as undergrads. They directed all the proceeds through The Gabby Wild Foundation to support wildlife conservation efforts for specific endangered species, including African elephants. “We want to make sure our money is going to the best cause and is really directed to animal conservation,” says Moskowitz.

The concept behind the catwalk—showcasing environmentally responsible fashion—takes many forms. Most of the outfits on display were produced by local designers, and all were made from sustainable materials. Eco-fashion includes using only eco-friendly materials, such as organic hemp or cotton, sustainable silk or recycled items that would otherwise be wasted or thrown away. “We had one designer on the catwalk use soda pop tabs to make chainmail dresses,” says Moskowitz. “Some really unique things come from using sustainable materials.”

If can tabs aren’t your aesthetic, don’t worry. There are plenty of more wearable, everyday designs, including some beautiful dresses made from vintage tablecloths, says Holmes, not to mention some eye-grabbing leopard- and tiger-inspired dresses.

Conservation Catwalk

A dress inspired by the critically endangered Amur leopard. Some estimates have fewer than 30 of these leopards remaining in the wild in Russia and China.

Whether through those designs or through the concept of the show, a big part of what motivates Holmes and Moskowitz is the chance to connect with people. They want to make conservation issues more accessible and personal, and really resonate with younger audiences. The catwalks are a perfect medium for that, because students get to see and wear high-fashion outfits and take part in a campus social event, all while raising visibility for critical conservation areas and extreme population decline in endangered species. “It’s a really fun way to make sustainability exciting,” says Holmes. “We encourage people think about where their fashion is coming from and how it affects the world.”

Some of the takeaways from the show are easy—like avoiding ivory products and fur, or new clothing whenever possible—and Holmes and Moskowitz are also trying to cultivate a deeper passion for conservation in as many people as they can reach. “I love getting people involved and getting people excited about a cause I’m passionate about,” says Moskowitz. “It’s really rewarding.”

It’s also a ton of work, but the hugely positive response to their first show made it all worth the effort. “It’s just really, really awesome when the event is over and everyone is saying, ‘I can’t wait for the next one,’” says Holmes.

They’re already mapping out the Conservation Catwalk for next year, in fact, and their calendar is hardly empty in the meantime. For the month of April—which they describe, without a hint of irony, as fairly “low-key”—they have an ongoing art exhibit at the Odegaard Library featuring the “12 in 12 for 12” collection and photos, and they had an exhibition on Earth Day. For May, they’re organizing a conservation dinner, an Animal Art Walk on May 22, and then at the end of the month The Gabby Wild Foundation is flying them to New York City for Elephantasia, the largest eco-fashion show at the Central Park Zoo to benefit African elephants.

One could reasonably ask, given their school and extracurricular obligations, how they have time for it all. “We don’t,” they’ll answer you, smiling, in unison. But somehow that hasn’t slowed them down or tamed their energy yet.

After all, these two classmates are forces of nature—or rather, forces for nature—and their mantra is pretty clear on this point: Stay Wild!

Photos courtesy of Ava Holmes and Olivia Moskowitz.

UW Students Press for Divestment

A group of University of Washington (UW) students—led by the College Greens and the Student Association for Green Environments (SAGE)—is calling on the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels and take concrete action against climate change.

Divest UWTwo students leading the charge of the “Divest UW” campaign are Sarra Tekola from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and Robert Marsh from the Program on the Environment. They and other supporters are running a petition and gathering further backing, on top of their endorsement from the ASUW Student Senate, in the run-up to a presentation before the UW Board of Regents on Thursday, June 13, at 12:30 p.m., and a simultaneous rally on the HUB lawn. Regents meetings are open to the public, and organizers are hoping to pack the room to exercise their political voice as students in favor of divestment.

What is divestment? Championed by Bill McKibben and 350.org on the national scale, the divestment movement seeks to effect broad social change by shifting investment away from fossil fuel companies and other direct drivers of climate change. McKibben is widely known for his “Do the Math” tour, during which he traveled the country stressing that if we’re going to keep global temperatures rising less than 2°C, then we can only allow about 565 gigatons more CO2 into the atmosphere in the next four decades or so before reaching a tipping point, after which life as we know it will be fundamentally altered. However, says Tekola, the amount of carbon contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of national oil companies and private corporations is about five times higher than that—roughly 2,796 gigatons—and burning all of it would have disastrous results.

The Divest UW campaign, in turn, is focusing on the UW’s reputation for environmental sustainability and stewardship—and how taking a stand on divestment would make a huge statement about the importance of investing in a cleaner energy future right now.

It’s true, says Tekola, that the UW’s direct investment in fossil fuel companies—which is variable, but right now represents about $10 million of a total $2.2 billion endowment—won’t make a big individual impact on the profitability of these companies. But hurting stock prices isn’t the immediate goal. The deeper aim, she says, is to revoke their social license and to put public pressure on these industries. And the only way to combat the financial and political leverage these companies hold is with a mass movement, and with universities at the forefront of social change. Seven other colleges have already divested, and another 300 other campuses have campaigns going on just like Divest UW, so the momentum is growing. On top of that, Tekola says that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has pledged to divest the city’s general fund from fossil fuels.

Divest UWTekola and Marsh cite multiple studies that divestment won’t harm the UW’s endowment or endanger its financial viability. To the contrary, they argue that divestment will put UW on safer long-term financial ground. The Divest UW campaign is designed to hedge against increased risk and potential profit losses, and to preserve the health of the endowment for future generations of students.

A similar divestment tactic, says Tekola,  was effective with the tobacco industry, which had stymied health science, label laws and taxes through incredible congressional influence until scientists and universities joined forces to sound the alarm of the dangers of cigarettes.

Now, the Divest UW campaign is hoping to overcome the assault against climate change science. Their message is clear: There is no possible way fossil fuel industries can continue business as usual while preserving a stable climate, and investing in a business-as-usual scenario presents incredible financial, social and ethical risks to the UW endowment.

“Climate change isn’t something that only affects polar bears,” says Tekola. “It will submerge Harbor Island and the shores of West Seattle and South Park, and we are already seeing the impacts. Last year the Atlantic Ocean was in the subways of New York City, on top of it being one of the hottest years on records, there is no denying climate change is here. Continued support for the use and investment in fossil fuels is signing a blank check for the destruction of our home. There are many better alternatives, but first we have to take a stand. Supporting divestment is about protecting our future.”

Divest UW is an entirely student-led initiative, and you can find more information, sources for statistics and information, and studies regarding the impact of divestment on an endowment financially on the group’s Facebook page or website.