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Graduation gowns, landfills and another greenwashing story in the Press

December 13, 2010

On Saturday, the Grand Rapids Press ran a short article on new “sustainability” effort at GVSU.

The university now offers to provide “eco-friendly” graduation gowns for students to buy. According to the article the gown “is made of wood pulp and the zippers of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic commonly used in beverage containers.

Interestingly, the GVSU bookstore manager states in the next paragraph that “most of the gowns may still end up in landfills, at least they’re made of material designed to disintegrate quickly.” He goes on to say that the eco-friendly gowns in the landfill are better than the old ones made with polyester.

What the bookstore manager fails to acknowledge or be aware of is how ridiculous this green consumer scam really is. First, there is no discussion about why graduates need to wear any kind of gown in order to participate in a brief ceremony upon graduation. Not wearing a gown would not detract from the ceremony itself and it would eliminate the waste of millions of gowns every year across the country.

Second, the lack of any critical assessment of this so-called sustainable initiative on the part of GVSU and the bookstore manager is that it’s primarily driven by the company that makes the gowns, Jostens. Indeed, the bookstore manager even puts in a plug for the company in the Press story by saying that Jostens will donate $1 to an environmental sustainability project when student who use their gowns contact them.

This whole effort by Jostens seems like a clear campaign to convince people that they should keep buying their products because now they have some sort of commitment to environmental responsibility. The truth is that what the company has a commitment to is making a profit and justifying what it is that they do.

Jostens is the largest “graduation” products based company, which sells gowns, yearbooks, rings and other items through high schools and colleges across the country.

Jostens has a “sustainability” section on their website, which has all kinds of lofting language about commitment to the environment, but it seems that reasonable people would be able to see through all of this greenwashing.

Would high school and college graduate feel slighted if they didn’t wear a gown on graduation day? And how many people actually wear their high school graduation ring? Jostens, however, assures us that they buy gems for their rings from companies that engages in environmentally and socially responsible mining activity. The Jostens website doesn’t post the names of companies they buy their gems from, which if course should make us all suspect as to the integrity of their claims.

However, even if the mining of gold and other gems for their products do not harm the environment (a claim I find implausible) the bottom line is do they even need to be selling and marketing products, which have no intrinsic value to improving the quality of human life? Unfortunately, the Press reporter didn’t bother to ask such questions, but instead treated the claims of sustainability as fact.


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