College graduation to go green with eco-friendly caps and gowns

A small but growing number of colleges are going green by offering eco-friendly caps and gowns for college graduation.

A growing number of colleges are substituting 'green' college graduation gowns for the traditional cloth ones, shown here, that have been used for generations. Some of the new gowns are made from recycled plastic bottles.

As colleges strive to go green, it’s getting harder to justify the waste generated amid the pomp and circumstance of commencement. Now they can walk the walk by ordering eco-friendly caps and gowns.

When Rachel Rohatgi dons her black gown Monday to graduate from California Western School of Law, she’ll be reusing the equivalent of about two dozen plastic bottles. Aside from it being “really cool” to have a gown that helps the environment, she says, the fabric is literally cooler than her “heavy and itchy” undergraduate gown.

“Since we live in San Diego ... I’m really excited to not sweat all over my dress,” she says.

The school has already greened past graduations by using recycled paper and soy ink for its programs and serving paper-wrapped cupcakes instead of cake on plastic plates. Its December degree recipients were the first law school graduates in the country to wear the GreenWeaver recycled-bottle gowns made by Oak Hall Cap & Gown in Salem, Va.

A small but growing trend

“I hope a lot of other schools move in this direction,” says assistant dean Kathleen Seibel. “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the students, it’s cost effective, and, for us, it’s part of our overall commitment to sustainability.”

At least three major suppliers are offering “green” gowns this year:

  • Oak Hall says its GreenWeaver line has already reclaimed 3.5 million plastic bottles.

  • University Cap & Gown in Lawrence, Mass., also offers gowns made from recycled plastic bottles. They can be returned and processed for use by future graduates.
    • Jostens’ Elements Collection is made from fiber harvested in renewable forests, and the gowns are compostable. If graduates enter a code on the Jostens website, the company will donate $1 to a sustainability project.

    Just a small fraction of the more than 3 million students earning undergraduate and graduate degrees this school year will be wearing the eco-friendly regalia, but schools ranging from the University of Texas in Austin to Harper College near Chicago are jumping onboard.

    “It’s a trend that we have seen emerging in the last year,” says Niles Barnes, projects coordinator for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. As part of the goal of zero-waste events on campuses, “graduations are ... an opportunity to raise awareness” among thousands of students and visitors.

    Earth-friendly regalia as part of colleges' environmental efforts

    For tiny Unity College in Maine – where graduates send out e-invitations, receive diplomas made from post-consumer recycled paper, and take a sustainability pledge -- the gowns were the missing link in the quest for an Earth-friendly commencement.

    “Until recently, it was difficult to find any sort of material that was recyclable or sustainable and [not] extraordinarily expensive,” says events coordinator Kate Grenier, who chose the GreenWeaver gowns for this spring’s 87 graduates.

    The Jostens compostable product was “an ideal fit” for Lafayette College because of the campus’s embrace of environmental efforts, says Chuck Corsi, manager of the college store on the Easton, Pa., campus. The cap and gown package costs $52, 18 percent more than last year’s non-green version.

    The University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh also opted for the compostable gowns. Knowing that many graduates are “chucking these gowns” after the ceremony, sustainability director Mike Lizotte says that the next step may be to figure out a way to test the company’s claims that they biodegrade within a year.

    A large composting and energy-producing facility is being built on campus, and perhaps the gowns could be a fed to that, Mr. Lizotte muses. Meanwhile, he says, “it might make a good educational [experiment] ... to give them to the student garden club and .. work them into the flower beds.”

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