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How to Turn a Mountain Dew into a Graduation Robe

| Friday September 18th, 2009 | 4 Comments

startup-friday.jpg

Greenweaver recycled plastic bottle graduation robe This is a story about a 120 year old start up. Or re-start up, as it were. Oak Hall Cap & Gown is a US based company doing what, for the most part, has been moved overseas: Making what we use in our graduations. Often by hand.

They’re one of those rare companies that eschews laying off people in seasonal lulls, treats people as family, and has a dedicated workforce as a result. They’ve made many of the gowns for honorary degree ceremonies, and were infamously seen twice in the swearing in of Barack Obama.

They were in search of a way to make their product more current, and apparently on a visit to one of the 1,600 colleges and universities they serve, EVP Joseph D’Angelo was looking at a biodegradable spork while at lunch, and thought, “If a spork can be environmentally friendly, why not a graduation gown?”

After getting “terrible” results trying bamboo, they went with recycled PET (plastic bottle) based fabric that mimics polyester cloth. After thoroughly testing it, Greenweaver robes were created, and will be ready for the December 2009 graduation season.  Graduations can be a source of a tremendous amount of waste, but here are some greener graduation suggestions we shared earlier. With GreenWeaver, each uses the equivalent of 23 bottles.

While only one part of graduation, these robes could serve a larger purpose then just their one time use there:

Universities could sponsor bottle collections, going towards a student getting a free robe at graduation. Or at the actual graduation, both graduates and attendees could be made aware of the contents of the robes, which for many, will be the first time they’ve seen something made from recycled plastic.

This in turn could spark ideas, conversations, and shifts in perspective as a result of seeing something so decidedly part of the fabric of mainstream culture being made from such an unconventional source. Plastic bottles are something many people will then see in their daily lives after graduation, reminding them of this surprising use of what they considered either trash or had no idea what happened to it after they go in the recycle bin.

Readers: Where else have you seen the everyday, the mainstream, the unexpected being made via recycled or otherwise more sustainable materials? What other ways do you see connecting with people about the expanding the possibilities of how their lives can be greener, by meeting them where they are, rather then expecting them to seek out the green option?

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.


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  • Ashwin Seshagiri

    I think the idea of mentioning what the robes are made out of at the ceremony itself is really cool. Often times, commencements are filled with speeches about the potential and possibilities of the future, and are perfect venues to “spark ideas, conversations, and shifts.”

  • Jen Boynton

    How come they are ‘infamous’ for their robe-ing of the president? Sounds like a story there!

    • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

      @Ashwin, agreed. Going beyond big words and having something tangible on your body that’s making a new path, that’s truly inspiring.

      @Jen, it’s not they that are infamous, it’s the contested inauguration and subsequent second one to seal the deal.

  • http://twitter.com/robinbertelsen Robin Bertelsen

    My son graduated from high school in June and I hated the fact that the gown was virgin poly and had NO use afterwards. LOVE this companies re-start plan. They should also know about one of my clients: AirDye (http://airdye.com). They can take the recycled PET and color it without any water. Which would make Oak Hall Cap & Gown even “greener.” Love to see the innovation. My younger son is also in high school, I’ll have to make sure the school is aware of this choice.