The gowns are green — at least philosophically


The ceremonial gowns for Animo Venice Charter High School’s graduation will be navy blue, but the philosophy behind them is all green.

The campus is among a number of high schools and colleges around California and the nation that are adopting environmentally friendly graduation garb made from either renewable wood fibers or recycled plastic bottles. The eco-robes being worn at Animo Venice, for example, are designed to decompose quickly if graduates decide to discard them.

“If it ends up in the trash, at least we know we won’t hurt the environment,” said Animo Venice salutatorian Monica Bautista, 18. That’s why her class decided to pay $10 more for the wood-fiber “Elements” gowns from Minnesota-based Jostens Inc. instead of going with the firm’s more traditional polyester graduation robes.

Call it social responsibility or savvy marketing, graduation eco-chic was launched this year by several companies and taken up by such California schools as Mills College in Oakland, the University of San Diego, UC Berkeley and Humboldt State. Elsewhere in the country, the University of Oregon, Michigan State, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Yale University in Connecticut and Smith College in Massachusetts are among those joining in.

Douglas Bolin, recent past president of the North American Assn. of Commencement Officers, said college students’ tastes probably will expand the trend next year. “It seems that a lot of college students are sensitive to the environment, and I do think they are demanding different products,” said Bolin, artistic director of university events at the University of Texas, Austin.

His school last month used the new “GreenWeaver” gown, made of two dozen melted-down plastic water bottles. That robe accounts for about 6% of the graduation gown business this year for Virginia-based manufacturer Oak Hall Cap & Gown Co., and that share will probably double or triple next year, according to its president, Joseph D’Angelo. “Sustainability is something many schools are embracing,” he said.

Another of his customers is Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where bookstore customer service manager Janet Carlstrom said the decision to switch to those gowns for the school’s June 12 commencement “just seemed like the right thing to do.” The price is $36.75 for undergraduate cap, gown and tassel, she said.

Mills College gave graduates a choice for their May 15 commencement. Nearly 70% selected the environmentally themed outfit from Jostens: $28 for the cap, gown and tassel, according to Renee Jadushlever, the college’s vice president for operations. The rest stayed with the traditional polyester, which cost $7 less, she said.

Alissa Chasten of Sacramento, a recent Mills graduate, said she bought an eco-gown even though she suspected it might be a sales stunt. “Regardless if was a marketing tool to accrue a lot more money for the companies, I thought it was still a great idea,” said Chasten, who was involved in recycling projects at school. Other than being a slightly darker black, the new gown did not look or feel different from others. “It was pretty comfortable. It was breathable,” she said.

Older alumni might be surprised that most schools no longer rent cloth gowns that are returned for cleaning and re-used. Companies say that became more difficult as students kept the garb for post-graduation photos and parties and some robes were lost. Also, they say, the dry cleaning and return shipping created extra costs and pollution. So cloth rentals were replaced mainly by polyester gowns, which graduates would buy and then save, toss or donate to a future student.

For this latest generation of robes, Oak Hall stresses that the use of plastic bottles for its GreenWeaver gowns reduces waste and saves trees. D’Angelo said the company will accept used gowns that will also be recycled and made into new ones.

Jostens says the fibers in its Elements gown are from renewable forests and that most of the robe will decompose in a year if buried in the ground. Its advertisements ask: “Helping protect the Earth’s future as your students begin their own? Now that’s a legacy worth leaving.”

At its June 30 ceremony, Animo Venice will be the first high school in Southern California to use the gown, according to Jostens representative Alfredo Martin.

Assistant Principal Samantha Matamoros-Rangel said it fits well with school’s ecologically friendly new building, which features solar panels. “We really wanted to keep the momentum going and teach our kids to be conscious about the environment,” she said.