Once at a high school graduation ceremony, Seth Yon watched student after student take off their gown and throw it away before leaving the auditorium.
“At that point I was like, ‘We’ve missed the mark, this isn’t a solution. This is ultimately a new problem,’” said Yon, founder of Greener Grads, which reuses, repurposes, and recycles gently used graduation gowns.
Knowing that students didn’t really have a use for the gown after the ceremony anyway, Yon started to do some exploratory work with some schools to see if they had any interest in doing collection events.
“After the eye-opening experience of watching kids cross the stage and pitch their gowns, I knew that they were ending up in one of two places,” Yon said, “either the landfill or in the back of a closet. Ultimately, that closet was being cleaned and they were still ending up in the landfill.”
The schools, through their sustainability office, “really embraced the idea and were wonderful” in working with them to see the collection side of it take off.
And take off it did.
In its first year, during the spring of 2014, Greener Grads worked with two schools in Michigan and two schools in Kentucky. The following year, the company had expanded to over 100 schools in 24 states, forming partnerships with Goodwill as well.
“It’s pretty interesting to watch,” Yon said. “One day we’ll get gowns in from Phoenix, Arizona and the next day they’re coming in from New Hampshire, and everywhere in between that. People have really embraced the idea of seeing these gowns get to somebody else.”
Including Yon, whose own gowns from high school and college are among the thousands Greener Grads has in stock.
“Oddly enough, my gowns were in the back of a closet,” he said. “I had both that I kept, and now they’re in our inventory, which is kind of cool.”
Currently, Greener Grads has 21 Goodwill locations in Grand Rapids along with numerous locations in Greater Detroit with 24-hour drop-off containers.
Its goal is to reuse a gown up to 10 to 12 times before it recycles the polyester as fill, lining, or the production of another product.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a high school graduate, college graduate, or have a kid who just graduated from elementary school, all types of graduation gowns are accepted. As Yon always says, “all gowns are created equal.”
“Graduations are occurring at a kindergarten level, a fifth-grade level, eighth grade, high school, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and so on,” he said. “All of those gowns I just mentioned are all identical. The only thing that’s changing is the measurement for the height and weight, but the gown is the same. For us that’s really encouraging because that just means there’s a greater likelihood that it can get reused, knowing that there’s so many ceremonies that exist.”
“It just opens it up. It’s been positioned as only an eighth-grade gown or only a high school gown, and it’s only good for one use. Obviously, as we know, that just simply isn’t true.”
While gowns are the bulk of what Greener Grads collects, Yon and his staff accept caps as well. But numbers wise, they get about 63 gowns for every one cap, which tells them that there is some sentimental value to the cap and tassel that graduates want to keep.
Most of the gowns Greener Grads rent out are for high school and college students. Unlike in high school, though, there are many college students who choose not to walk at graduation, with one of the reasons being they don’t feel the need to pay the cap and gown fee on top of what they’re already paying in tuition.
Since Yon started Greener Grads he has always believed that there are two fundamental problems, the environmental impact of the traditional gown and the social impact of the cost of graduation.
“(The cost) just skyrocketed, especially in the last five to ten years,” Yon said. “People always say, ‘Why so much in the last few years?’ My belief is that all of the products that centered on graduation have kind of fallen off in the way of sales. That can be graduation announcements, diploma frames … All the things they sold with the cap and gown have really declined, so as a result, that money has to get made up somewhere. That somewhere happens to be in the product that students have to purchase in order to participate in graduation.
“So it’s not uncommon now for students to pay $100 to $300 for a cap and gown that they’re ultimately going to wear for 90 minutes. That to me is crazy.”
Renting from Greener Grads is significantly cheaper than ordering from in-school gown providers, such as Jostens.
However, one of the challenges Greener Grads is facing is competing with these businesses that already have a longstanding relationship with bookstores and the schools themselves. Yon has received hundreds of thousands of gowns since Greener Grads started, but the challenge is getting these gowns to graduates.
“Now that we have all this inventory, our hope is that we can get schools to embrace the idea of the reuse of it as much as they did at the recovery of it,” Yon said. “We want to see schools in bulk go back to the rental model, allowing for a more sustainable approach but also a much more affordable approach for students as well.”
If you have a gown you would like to donate but are outside of the West Michigan area, you can mail them directly to Greener Grads at 300 W Forest Avenue, Ypsilanti, MI 48197. And if you need a dumpster rental in Grand Rapids to help clean up after your graduation blowout, we can help with that!