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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Green gowns?
May 17, 2009 - 4:12pm

I attended another commencement this weekend. After the ceremony, I was chatting with one of the graduates. The subject of academic gowns came up, and I was surprised to learn that the students had been required to purchase their own bachelor's costumes. No rentals. No options. Not wearing a gown? Don't bother to show up.

My first thought was of financially-strapped students with already dim employment prospects being required to pony up an additional hundred dollars or so, just to be allowed to celebrate one of their life's major accomplishments. Truth be told, though, the school has established a fund to provide academic regalia to graduating seniors who are truly unable to afford their own. Not a great solution, perhaps, but at least a nod in the right direction.

Then I looked at the garments in question. Only somewhat overpriced, if you look at materials, workmanship, complexity of design and manufacture. But grossly overpriced (both financially and in terms of carbon budget) when you realize that 99% of them are never going to be worn again. I mean, you can't wear your bachelor's gown again as a choir member, or a minister, or a judge; much less for your weekly shopping. It will likely go into some closet in a plastic bag, hang forgotten for decades, and eventually be thrown out during some move or by your (eventual) surviving heirs. What a waste of perfectly good (if such a term can be used) polyester.

I know that many schools require that gowns be purchased through the campus bookstore (to enforce uniformity), and that they're doubtless an item with a relatively high profit margin. But as schools strive to present a "green" image to incoming first year students, I wonder how long they can continue to close the undergraduate experience with something so grossly unsustainable.

At Greenback, I'd like to see the alumni association establish a reuse center for bachelors' (and perhaps masters') lightly used academic costumery. Get graduates to donate their caps, gowns, cowls, stoles, whatever. (Tassels are often date-specific these days, and so might need to be purchased new each year.) Then rent the outfits to graduates each year, and donate the net proceeds to a worthy cause. Students would save money, while still wearing matching gowns trimmed in colors for their school and (perhaps) program. Their final act on campus would be one which contributes to sustainability and the greater good. And an initial link of some substance could be forged between the alumni association and its newest members.


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