Greening Graduation

It’s amazing how cheap. diposable products and waste have crept into even our oldest traditions. It’s insidious. I’m talking about the commencement ceremonies that are happening at every high school, college and university at this time of year. Even my own graduation, a ceremony meant to celebrate the achievement of people dedicated to sustainability and building a world that works for future generations, was rife with single-use items that were never intended to be that way.
I don’t blame the institutions, which, by necessity, are obligated to provide their students and their loved ones with a ceremony befitting of their hard work and investments in time and money. I don’t blame the students, faculty, family and staff who have these expectations either. We certainly should not be in the business of sacrificing the things that mean the most to us in the process of achieving a sustainable world.
It all comes down to a matter of perceived cost. Most of the items currently used are very cheaply made because graduation is seen as a very rare occurrence: why spend a lot of money on something that will only happen once a year for the institution, and only a handful of times for the graduate?
Not to mention the fact that the regalia is not exactly everyday wear. Even a bridesmaid’s dress might be remade into a cocktail dress that might get worn after the big day, but graduation gowns are never seen outside of a graduation ceremony.
So…how do we make graduation more sustainable?

I can see two possible ways to go with this: convince institutions to start buying well-made, durable items that are reused year after year, or convince companies to provide these types of items on a rental basis. The most obvious examples:
– Caps & Gowns: While these wizard robes used to be de rigeur for the academic set (so they could stay warm in their drafty halls of knowledge), they are currently never worn outside commencement ceremonies. The most widely-used models are made of nylon taffeta that will rip if you look at it too closely.
I would suggest that colleges purchase super high quality robes that can be used year after year, much in the same way that schools purchase marching band uniforms. Trust me when I tell you from personal experience that band uniforms can be reused for decades, and rarely get replaced except when they go out of fashion. Graduation attire isn’t going out of style any time soon, and it only gets worn once a year.
Making them out of organic materials is icing on the cake.
– Diploma Folios: If you tried to just hand out diplomas without putting them in something, they probably wouldn’t make it to the cocktail hour without getting folded, spindled or mutilated. Rolling the diploma up with a ribbon might be a nice way to go, but I suspect that it’s a logistical nightmare (It’s pretty easy to open up a folio and check to make sure the name is correct, right before you hand it to someone…hard to do if it’s wrapped up).
I think that most people are going to take the diploma right out of the folder and put it into a frame on their wall. There are two ways to deal with this: make the folio out of sustainable and compostable materials, or make it durable enough to last for years, and give the students a way to send it back to the college to be reused. Including a postage-paid return envelope is a great way to do this.
– Tassels and Hoods: Many people like to keep these items as mementos. The best way to deal with these is to make them out of organic and sustainable materials. If they are also made to be durable, graduates could be given the option to turn them in to be reused.
The biggest hurdle to adoption of durable and reusable graduation attire will be the cost. The cost of investing in high-quality reusables is sure to be much greater than disposables. It would need to be borne by either the school or the graduates. However, The costs will ultimately be much lower if you consider them over time. While no-one wants to make getting an education any more expensive, I would suggest that we are already paying these costs. We are paying for these conveniences with degradation to our environment and with our children’s futures, instead of in dollars and cents.
This is hardly the message that you want to send with a commencement ceremony.
But, what about the benefits? Besides the obvious environmental benefits, which are huge, there are many other benefits to this approach: ; colleges would save time and money by not having to orchestrate, order and ship new attire every year; students will be able to celebrate their achievement in high-quality clothing befitting the moment, instead of something that feels like it was purchased from a dollar store; there may even be a nostalgia factor of wearing a robe that been worn by others before you.
We should, however use these high-profile opportunities to show what can be achieved, with a little effort. Even the current taffeta caps and gowns are reusable for several occasions, and diploma folios would probably last many more times. To that end, I would like to call for a nationwide effort to begin recycling commencement attire.
If you have recently graduated, please consider returning your graduation attire to your college and university. Dont’ forget to send them the diploma folio once you’ve hung up your pride and joy. Be sure to tell them why you are doing it. If you are feeling really motivated, organize a drive amongst your graduating class to collect up these items and return them en masse, making it easier and cheaper for everyone while providing a little extra motivation.
Oh…I almost forgot…congratulations on graduating! What’s your opinion on all of this?
Steve Puma is a sustainability and strategy consultant and technologist. He currently writes for 3p as well as on his personal blog,, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can contact Steve through email or LinkedIn, or follow him on twitter.

Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.

7 responses

  1. Rather than caps and gowns made from more sustainable materials, how about none at all? I fail to see why we should continue the useless tradition of caps and gowns. They’re unnecessary and only serve a tradition of waste. If we want to unify the class in appearance or call-out the graduates (currently it only really serves photo-ops during the ceremony itself), then how about other methods: leis, flowers, pins, sashes, etc.?
    It never fails to confound me why programs cling to the past when it doesn’t serve the future–especially those who taught how they teach their students to innovate and think differently.

  2. Nathan,
    While I agree with the general idea of reducing waste as much as possible, I have to disagree that the only purpose of caps + gowns are to unify the class, and that they are “useless”.
    I truly believe in the sentiments espoused in “Cradle to Cradle”, where we should not focus solely on efficiency. According to McDonough & Braungart: “…efficiency isn’t much fun. In a world dominated by efficiency…Beauty, creativity, fantasy, enjoyment, inspiration and poetry would fall by the wayside, creating an unappealing world indeed. Imagine a fully efficient world: an Italian dinner would be a red pill and a glass of water with an artificial aroma. Mozart would hit a piano with a two-by-four…and what about efficient sex? An efficient world is not one we envision as delightful. In contrast to nature, it is downright parsimonious.”
    If we do away with the graduation gown, we might as well do away with tuxedos, wedding dresses and all other clothing which we wear little yet signify great value to us. We should not loose those things that makes those occasions special.
    Not to mention the fact that these garments are currently meeting a large customer need, and that need is still going to exist, otherwise people would have give up commencement garb long ago.
    What we need to do is design systems which meet these needs, provide us with these services, yet still manage to nurture the natural environment.
    It is a problem of systems design, not a problem of less vs. more.

  3. Steve,
    Not sure I agree that giving up the graduation cap/gown is the same as giving up other traditions to get dressed for special occasions. Getting dressed up is a way to commemorate a special occasion. I can see doing that without wearing a black gown – and black’s not my best color, anyway.
    Having schools keep an entire stock of gowns for reuse also means that they have to keep an excess of sizes to accommodate all those who would wear them each year. That’s storage space. Band uniforms get worn regularly through at least a season. No easy way to share gowns across schools when graduations happen all in a cluster.
    If the purpose is to continue the tradition, I say go with rentals of well-made gowns, and caps that can actually be cleaned, as well. (Mine for college graduation in 1984 were rented.)
    Rethinking the purpose of the cap & gown from a systems perspective might result in a different – and more meaningful and sustainable – tradition for dress at graduations altogether.
    Also, FYI – I happen to have kept my diploma in its folder, not framed.

  4. Food for thought: could you see getting married without a wedding dress? Most people can’t. I think that humans, whatever their culture, are very attached to the specific form that their “dressing up” uniforms come in.
    Dressing up in a graduation gown signifies that this day is different and more special than all of the other occasions that I would dress nice. There’s not that many of them: weddings and graduations are the only 2 that I can think of.
    My suggestions definitely doesn’t have to be “the” solution. I’m merely trying to provoke debate.
    I don’t, however, believe that being environmentally responsible means having to be minimalist in all possible areas.

  5. The same companies that provide the inexpensive one time wear gowns also offer the more expensive rental cap & gowns. The collection of the rentals cause more work for the bookstore or university. That is why the majority use the inexpensive alternative.

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