Seniors may have noticed the "mandatory" attached to the $72 bill for new graduation caps and gowns. The entire ensemble, plus packaging, comes from recycled plastic bottles that would have otherwise sat rotting in a landfill.
There is a question, however, that has to be asked: Aren't the "greenest" materials the ones already made?
Gonzaga University does not have the best track record for reusing old graduation apparel. About five years ago, a group of students started a movement to store donated gowns throughout the year. But they eventually graduated, and the idea fell through.
"The administration fell to Student Life," Susie Prusch, manager of student events, said. "And they're not paid to do that."
If students want to reuse old graduation gowns, the effort has to come from them. Some organization, preferably one made not solely of seniors, would have to get the word out, try to convince seniors to donate their robes to future classes rather than keep them stored in the back of their closets for 20 years, organize a collection service after the graduation ceremony and find adequate storage. Gowns cannot be shoved or even folded into a box. They resemble most delicate fabrics; they need to hang in storage, followed by a good cleaning.
Starting this year, Comprehensive Leadership Program (CLP) students want to take this effort on again, but leave more directives for future student groups.
"The university has been awesome in helping us," senior CLP member Rachael Bany said.
Each year, CLP has a legacy project requirement. The annual "Wine into Water, Hops into Hope" program is one of many examples. CLP is composed of around 40 students, from different classes and different majors or focuses. Not all study leadership. Some, such as Bany, specialize in public relations and networking. All CLP members use what talents and passions they have to learn through trial what leadership means. CLP, along with the help of the GU Environmental Club and Senior Events, want to spearhead a way to reuse recycled gowns.
"If we're going to be sustainable, why make everyone buy a new gown each time?" Bany asked. "Why not let somebody else use it, especially when I'm only going to use it for three hours?"
GU has used C.E. Ward-National, the Washington organization that sells gowns and caps manufactured by Oak Hall, for years now, but GU has waited to offer these green gowns until they went down in price. Last summer, the school and GSBA decided that the price had decreased enough for students to buy.
It takes only 23 recycled plastic bottles to make each gown, cap, hood, tassel, and embroidered hood. They are tag-less, only stamped with a soy-based ink. The plastic wrapping comes from recycled plastic. The box comes from recycled cardboard. The fabric is softer and more breathable than previous years — matte instead of shiny — and a subtler blue instead of "day-glow blue," as Prusch put it.
Colleges are starting to support GreenWeaver, the recycled gown product line. Five percent of colleges support Oak Hall. To date, the GreenWeaver program has recycled 9-million plastic bottles into gowns.
Green Weaver has for decades tried to perfect the green graduation gowns. They have tried using bamboo and wood pulp and, three years ago, they found that plastic bottles worked best. As part of their dedication to sustainability, they donate 25 cents to the college's sustainability programs for each gown students purchased. And 100 percent of their products are manufactured in the U.S. — Austin, Texas, specifically.
"The truly sustainable thing closes the consumption gap," senior CLP member David Dunphy said. "And it would be a cool tradition to wear the same gowns that Zags have walked in before."
GreenWeaver focuses on the three R's when producing and selling their product: reduce, reuse and recycle. They reduce the number of plastic bottles rotting in the landfills. This process of recycling plastic bottles into fabric reduces CO2 output by 54 percent compared to new polyester. They reuse these bottles and energy. GreenWeaver suggests recycling the gowns year after year by donating them to other graduating students.
The organizers for this reusing project realize they must first convince seniors to shell out $72 and then give away their purchased product.
"What I look at is ‘pay it forward,'" Prusch said. "For any environmental program, there's always one group who has to pay for it. And it's always going to be unfair to those who start it off."
In previous years when gowns were reused, the student group wanted to offer these gowns to students who financially needed it. So, without becoming privy to a student's financial status, they asked Student Financial Services to compile a list of students and send them emails, offering those students a chance to obtain parts of the graduation ensemble. CLP is still working out the kinks of what will happen this time. It all depends on how many robes are donated.
"Will we get all those gowns back? Heck no!" Prusch said with a laugh. "But this [program of giving back] is our thing, and this is what we do."
At Senior Fest, there was a tentative list for seniors to sign who thought they would donate their robes after the ceremony. According to Bany, around 300 signed it.
The CLP's main concern involves finding someone else to pick up the project when the graduating class has left. CLP members have discussed GSBA or Knights and Setons, but it certainly has to come from the students. Some money will be necessary, so CLP is looking to establish a Green Fund, according to Dunphy. The program is simple enough, and the school wants to help. Students just need to be dedicated to it, like every other green action.
There is a Facebook page to show support for reusing these new but expensive gowns called "Gonzaga Graduation Gown Hand Down."
This effort is worth it. The fact that GU wants to be more sustainable in so many aspects of campus life is laudable. Buying gowns and caps made from plastic bottles, which had a destination of landfills, deserves commendation. GU faculty and GSBA staff did their part. And now it is the students' turn; the next step to living green on campus is to reuse all that the community can. Even if that means putting some money toward it.