Higher Education, Small Business & Startups, and Sustainability

Startup capitalizes on graduation gowns

May 12, 2014
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Sustainability startup aims to reduce grad gown waste
Recycling graduation gowns keeps them out of the landfill. Photo via fb.com

The story of the traveling graduation gown is about to unfold, as a startup seeks to reduce the scholastic footprint in landfills — and sell to grads in the process.

Greener Grads, a sustainability company headquartered at 678 Front Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, announced recently it has launched an initiative across the nation to recycle, re-use and re-purpose graduation gowns in an effort to cut down on the negative effect the fabric has on the environment. Through the organization’s partnerships with academic institutions and nonprofit organizations, Greener Grads aims to become an environmentally-conscience leader in the graduation industry.

Seth Yon, founder of Greener Grads, said with more than 5 million gowns worn each year by graduates, the detrimental impact on the environment can no longer be ignored since the fabric is usually non-biodegradable.

“When considering the manufacturing process, how briefly the gowns are worn, and the environmental impact the chemicals cause if sent to a landfill, it becomes more difficult to justify buying new product as you realize what a big difference one person can make,” said Yon.

The sustainability company is partnering with academic institutions in West Michigan and Kentucky, including Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University, Aquinas College, Berea College and the University of Louisville.

Greener Grads also is collaborating with several nonprofit organizations: Michigan Green Schools, an organization dedicated to assisting all Michigan schools in achieving environmental goals; Susan G. Komen of West Michigan, an affiliate of the national program funding breast cancer research; West Michigan Environmental Action Council, a regional resource for environmental education and advocacy; and Goodwill Industries of West Michigan.

Yon said he initially he reached out to individuals within the sustainability community in West Michigan and was subsequently introduced to organizations that might be interested in collaboration.

“It has been amazing in West Michigan,” said Yon. “The sustainability community has been really helpful in sharing their knowledge.”

Through collection events hosted at the local colleges and all Goodwill stores in the Greater Grand Rapids area, Greener Grads will collect used gowns to prevent them from being introduced into the waste stream cycle. When a gown is dropped off at a charity partner’s location, students can receive a tax-deductible receipt. Green Grads then will barcode each gown and sell them to students in need of graduation gowns at a discounted price. A portion of all sale proceeds will be contributed to Susan G. Komen of West Michigan.

“We will know where the gowns are travelling,” said Yon. “It will be a travelling story of where that gown has gone.”

Graduation gowns are manufactured from acetate and polyester, and the dyes are extremely toxic to the environment.

Kristine Moffett, president of Michigan Green Schools, said the option of recycling the gowns is an opportunity for schools to be a leader in preventing the material ending up in a landfill.

“This is an activity that can help Michigan boost its recycling volume and also save schools some disposal weight dollars,” said Moffett.

Jill Wallace, chief marketing and communications officer at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, said the focus on maximizing renewal of graduation apparel, while keeping costs at a minimum for the consumer also aligns with Goodwill’s own sustainability efforts.

Greener Grads plans to expand nationally in 2015 and online ordering will be available this fall.

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