Higher Education, Small Business & Startups, and Sustainability

Greener Grads expands its partnerships

Grand Rapids firm is sending gowns down the aisle a second time.

May 8, 2015
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Greener Grads
Seth Yon said each repurposed gown is available to rent for $33.95 and includes a cap, tassel and return postage. Courtesy Greener Grads

A Grand Rapids-based initiative has expanded its footprint across the nation in its first 12 months of operations while on a mission to reduce waste.

Greener Grads, a national sustainability initiative that diverts graduation gowns from entering the waste stream, announced last month it had kept 12,000 pounds of polyester from landfills and expanded its partnerships to more than 100 academic institutions, sustainability organizations and community nonprofits in more than 20 states during its first year of operations.

Greener Grads was established on April 22, 2014, with a mission to recycle, reuse and repurpose graduation gowns in an effort to reduce the negative impact the polyester fabric has on the environment. In one year, Greener Grads has diverted more than 12,000 pounds of graduation gowns into its recycling program, allowing students and organizations to rent the gowns at future commencement ceremonies at a lower cost, according to a press release.

Launched with collaborative partners Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University, Aquinas College, Berea College and the University of Louisville, Greener Grads has expanded its affiliations to a number of community and sustainability organizations, colleges and universities across the country and more than 100 high schools.

Seth Yon, founder of Greener Grads, said the initiative is now in 22 states, with partnerships ranging from K-12 school systems and universities to environmental organizations and Goodwill.

“The support has been amazing in 12 months. We have a partnership with Boston Public Schools and as far west as San Francisco Unified Schools and a number … in between. There has been a lot of work done from coast to coast, but also a lot of work being done in the Midwest,” said Yon.

“We have some amazing partnerships and really this whole process started in West Michigan, and the bulk of the gowns to date have come from West Michigan, as well.”

Recent partnerships include Goodwill of Detroit, Hope College, Recycle Ann Arbor, City High School, River Valley Academy, Hinsdale Central High School, Lakeland Regional, Boston Public Schools, Brookline High School, Oregon Green Schools, San Francisco Unified Schools, San Francisco Goodwill, Phoenix Union High Schools, Mesa Community College, Western Michigan University, University of South Florida, Boulder Valley Schools and Suncoast Goodwill.

Takara Sights, a Zero Waste Fellow at San Francisco Unified School District, said by donating gowns to Greener Grads, graduates are providing other students an opportunity to have a more affordable graduation and make a positive impact on the environment at the same time.

“Why wouldn’t we reuse polyester graduation gowns instead of throwing them away? It is inspiring to offer graduating students the chance to do something positive with a gown they would have worn once, stuffed in the back of their closet and eventually into the dumpster,” said Sights in a press release.

Through Greener Grads’ recycling program, donated graduation gowns are steamed, sanitized and barcoded in preparation for rental. Each repurposed gown is available to rent for $33.95, which also includes a cap, tassel and return postage. When ordering two or more gowns, the price is $28.95.

“We build a communication and collection plan for each school. We have a general version we start with and then we modify it according to what things look like on that campus,” said Yon. “We will generally have collections the day of graduations following the ceremony in a high-traffic area. We promote it across campus for weeks prior to the actual ceremony.”

Yon said the gowns then are taken away to be prepped for reuse and are matched with either a bulk or individual order. For orders across country, the gowns are shipped through a partnership with UPS using its certified carbon-neutral shipping option. Graduation gowns can also be donated to participating Goodwill locations.

Greener Grads announced last month a partnership with Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids City High/Middle School. Gowns from the GVSU graduation ceremony held at Van Andel Arena April 25 will be reused by the class of 2015 GRPS City High/Middle graduation.

“We created a partnership that took things full circle. When I first met with City High School last fall, we discussed the idea of collecting gowns after graduation. They said they would like to take part as one of the first groups to re-use the material that has been collected,” said Yon. “We collected gowns at Grand Valley State’s graduation down at Van Andel, and those gowns that were recovered will go through the process and be worn just weeks later at City High’s graduation.”

As the high school students work toward a carbon-neutral graduation, E-Club Advisor Kathleen Vande Gevel said wearing the recycled gowns is one of the steps supporting the mission to create a more sustainable future.

“They have calculated the carbon footprint of every aspect of their graduation ceremony from each family’s travel to and from the ceremony, each program to be printed and each cupcake to be eaten,” said Vande Gevel in a press release. “The students, as well as GRPS, want to be a part of making an environmental difference. The administration, staff and students are proud, honored and inspired to wear gowns that have walked once before.”

As the organization quickly approaches the 20,000 mark for gowns recycled, Greener Grads has a goal to collect between 75,000 and 100,000 gowns, or 50,000 pounds of polyester, by this spring. The initiative also hopes to recycle 1 million gowns by the end of 2016, which would keep more than 580,000 gallons of oil from being used to produce more, according to the press release.

Currently in the process of moving its headquarters, Yon said the team would like to remain in downtown Grand Rapids and anticipates hiring two or three new employees by the summer, based on the results of collections this spring.

“We have four folks helping us process orders, but from the marketing side and awareness side, we hope to grow that this summer,” said Yon. “If we recover that type of number this spring, we would need a few more people to help on the street side of things to help manage all of the investors from the school side and the student side.”

Although the success of Greener Grads has exceeded expectations with participation between 10 and 55 percent at a given ceremony, and collecting more than 7,000 gowns at Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids last year, Yon said one of the challenges the initiative faces is the paradigm shift of doing things differently than in the past.

“We are certainly up against some industry giants in the business of selling stuff and not reusing stuff, where we are in the business of reusing materials. We are not always welcome with open arms,” said Yon. “The thing that has been so refreshing from the people within West Michigan … is they think it is a better way to serve not only the environment but also address the social piece of it, as well. Cost for graduation has really skyrocketed for graduates, and by renting a gown versus purchasing it really helps to reduce that cost to students and families alike.”

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