10 Fashion Tips for Hip Conservationists


A president of a major foundation called me late one evening recently to discuss the agenda of a conference we were both attending the next day in Aspen. After going through the details he had one last question: What, he asked a little timorously, should he wear — what was the dress code?

It may seem trivial and given the enormity of our mission, perhaps even a bit vain, but this question comes to me again and again from fellow conservationists. And once you get past the strangeness, it’s really perfectly understandable. If there is a certain look for designers, lawyers and bankers, then why not for conservationists, too?

The problem is, no one’s really laid out what that should be. So here’s my attempt to help: 10 fashion tips for the hip conservationist.

1. Dress for the part: smartly, but not over the top. If you’re a field biologist, do you really need a jacket and tie when you can get away with so much less? If you’re a top manager, don’t dress like Indiana Jones. We expect our chief lawyer to look lawyerly and our chief scientist to be, well…a bit rumpled. (And he is.)

2. But occasionally dress against type. People will either say “Wow, you look smart” or “Wow, you look relaxed,” depending on if you are a scientist or a lawyer.

3. Dress jeans are OK, but…this means dark blue, no holes, and minimum of patterns. With lace shoes, dress shirt and a sports coat it looks just right for most male conservationists. For me, it’s a staple.

4. Wear pants that come down to at least the top of your heel. Please. When you stand up, no part of the sock should be visible. In general, this seems to be a tough rule for conservationists — they seem to grow a few inches in the job, somehow.

5. Wear clean shoes. Like Mother, other people do notice them. Shine them up if they are the type. Above all, no sneakers (unless you are going running); no suede clogs (unless you are at home); and absolutely no crocs — ever!

6.  Don’t eschew color all together. Too much stress on the earth tones doesn’t make you look more “environmental” — Al Gore could tell you about this. Orange is my favorite color. I wear it occasionally because, when I walk on stage or in a crowded room, people spot and remember me — and that’s half the battle.

7. Be comfortable with your choices. If you aren’t happy with it, it’s going to show and you won’t be as confident as you need to be. You must like what you wear.

8. Don’t dress so well that you raise doubts in your audience or your prospective donor about whether or not you really do need the money you are asking for.

9. Some branding is good, DEHE, through logos and repetition. As much as we might loathe thinking about our outfits, if you stick to a theme, it’s much more likely to be noticed. It’s why Jack Hannah looks like he just stepped out of the hippo pen and why Steve Irwin (whether diving after crocodiles or appearing on the TODAY Show) stuck to his khaki shorts and shirt. It might look stupid…but people remember.

10. Finally, give the fleece a break — especially fleece vests. They scream your green credentials a little too loudly. (Besides, do you really want to wear something so temptingly flammable?)

So are you going to be successful as a conservationist just because you dress the part? Maybe…or maybe not. But in a field where we need all the help we can get, it would be foolish to ignore how we look or dismiss it as not important to conservation.

Our jobs are about winning the hearts and minds of people to care about the things we care about — and they will do so more easily if they can identify with us, remember us and have confidence in what we have to say. All things influenced by how we might look.

The foundation president I mentioned at the beginning of this piece looked great the next day. And though his message was attracted people initially, how he looked on stage did not detract from that message. In fact, his look might have even given people a little more confidence in what he had to say — a small price to pay for cultivating the distinctly Aspen look (designer jeans, work boots and dark sports coat).

(Image: Sanjayan. Credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. I agree with this!! The “hippie days” of enviromentalism are GONE!! And if you want to be taken seriously, appearance is 3/4 of the battle.

  2. Good points. I think too many people try to “look the part.” Where I live, being green seems to mean that you have to stop shaving, shower infrequently, and start playing a percussion instrument crafted by a culture from an underdeveloped world that has no relation to you–other than you own one of their drums.
    Thank you for saying jeans were all right, and we will try to make sure they cover my socks when I stand up. (At 6’3″, that’s a bit of a challenge.)

  3. Death to the oxford blue cotton shirt and khaki wardrobe for conservationists!

    You lead by sartorial example, Sanjayan, and it is one of things I admire most about you.

    Rock on.

  4. And please: Men, learn to wear a tie now and then. Women, learn to wear a dress now and then. It’s not going to kill you and depending on the situation, it’s a compliment to your audience that you thought enough of them to dress well.

  5. You failed to mention the “content” of the clothing…if one is truly an environmentalist, then it’s an obvious call that no wool or leather be included in the wardrobe!

  6. Cool. I’ll just throw this Nature Conservancy fleece in the garbage then.

  7. @TruNorth
    “start playing a percussion instrument crafted by a culture from an underdeveloped world that has no relation to you–other than you own one of their drums.” LOL

  8. I guess all the hip conservationists are men??

  9. You might want to consider the content of your wardrobe and all the kids who likely made those “dress” jeans if you really want to be true to the mission. This guy is a joke!

  10. Not new ideas, but worth repeating for a new generation: Athletic shoes are still too casual for many situations, new-looking jeans work broadly, and a jacket can give you presence. Key points in a workshop I did nearly twenty years ago.
    Lozier L. 1990. Making Contact: Working with people who aren’t like you. Yosemite Centenial Symposium Proceedings. 17th Annual Natural Areas Conference. 259-271

  11. Great article, thoughtful, and insightful

  12. I would like to add that equally important to how you look is where the clothes came from. In the past year it has become much easier to find “green” dress clothes – made from organically grown materials, made to last, and even made under fair labor conditions. Patagonia is a good company to start with, but if you Google “ethical fashion” you can find tons more – most is overseas still, but there are some US companies stepping up to the plate. Conservationists need to help push this trend!

  13. Sanjayan is spot on. Those who live and breathe in the Greenosphere (think Portland, Seattle, San Fran, Boulder), might not know that people in Phoenix could care less whether the clothes you own have legitimate green street cred. It is human nature to make snap judgements about appearace and move on quickly to content.

    I think this is what Sanjayan is trying to convey here. Don’t let your look distract from your message.

    By the way, I live in wool.

  14. This is embarrassing.

  15. Interesting article; doesn’t go far enough. What about women living in tropical climates with global warming? No way I’m wearing jeans, boots & jackets.

  16. Athletic shoes are still too casual for many situations, new-looking jeans work broadly, and a jacket can give you presence.

    Great Article,

    Thank you


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