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Greener Grads launches cap and gown recycling program

A new company committed to sustainability attempts to shift method of graduation gown industry in an eco friendly fashion.
Seth Yon poses in the sorting warehouse at Goodwill on 29th Street

Seth Yon poses in the sorting warehouse at Goodwill on 29th Street /Eric Tank

Office/Warehouse location

Greener Grads

678 Front Street



/Eric Tank

Goodwill 29th Street

Goodwill 29th Street /Eric Tank

A new Grand Rapids based startup is emphasizing sustainability in an industry that has typically contributed to the throw-away culture of modern America. Graduation gowns, a keepsake item, have a one time purpose. Once the graduation ceremony is over, the parties and pictures, the gown either goes to one of two places: the garbage or the closet. Until now. 

Seth Yon, proprietor of Greener Grads is determined to set a new standard. A West Michigan man, Yon is a graduate of Rockford High who graduated from Grand Valley State University in 1998, majoring in marketing and public relations. He entered the graduation industry immediately out of college where he spent 11 years learning the market. 

Up until about the early '80s, graduation gowns were made primarily of cotton. The shift to polyester has created a product that is much less biodegradable. Yon began to question what impact the industry was having on the environment. 

Looking for answers to that question, Yon left his career at the prominent company he was working for and ventured into the entrepreneurial world of recycled graduation gowns. The idea was to create a gown from recycled plastic bottles. Yon did just that with Michigan Grads Company for the past three years. 

Everything changed though, when Yon was attending a graduation and watched a student toss the gown in the trash bin following the ceremony. He asked himself if he was essentially just buying time before those recycled bottles ended up in a landfill. 

So, a shift was made from a method of production to a method of distribution emphasizing reuse. 

"It's our belief that the gown could be used 10-12 times before it turns to something else. There's still value in that product once it's done- whether it's the zipper or the polyester itself - but until then we're going to use it as many times as we can by cleaning it with steam, which again has a very low impact environmentally versus dry cleaning or other process using chemicals," says Yon.

Greener Grads launched on Earth Day 2014 and currently is collecting gowns from this year's spring graduates for a fall collection. 

"Our goal from just now until the end of this spring- graduation season 2014- is 10,000 gowns. And so far we're on track to do that," says Yon.

According to Yon, the standard pipeline for gowns has been through the schools. He is changing that model by creating partnerships with schools and with Goodwill. Participating schools include Kendall College of Art and Design, Aquinas College, Berea College in Kentucky and University of Louisville. Yon is also considering opportunities on the West Coast. 

Greener Grads sets up tents at graduation ceremonies where students can drop off their gown. Let's say you want to keep the gown for pictures, say the graduation party. You can always come back and drop off the gown in a container located outside of the campus sustainability office. In addition to that, any retail Goodwill of greater Grand Rapids will have bins to collect and sort gowns. 

"Goodwill is a great fit for us here in West Michigan. They have so many retail stores here in town. Their sustainability mission is amazing. For those who really know Goodwill they do it as well as anybody across the state."

Yon says that according to a poll, 18 to 21-year-olds are more likely to turn in their gowns if they know they are going to be reused and less likely if they think it will just be recycled. Equipped with this knowledge, Yon has devised an inventory strategy that tracks the use of the gown. By using barcoded tags, Yon can archive the history of the gown in a computer database accessible to customers. This serves a two-fold purpose. First, it tells a story. Who wore it, when and what school.

"That was really important that we told the story of where it originated from and then where it's traveled since," says Yon.

Second, it determines the price point. 

According to Yon, graduation gown pricing varies wildly across the country with ranges from as low as $30 to over $100. The more times a gown is worn, the less it will cost. This will in effect create a measurement to help stabilize the cost. 

"Not only do we want to recover and reuse gowns as many time as we can, but we're going to do that and create a significant savings to graduates as well," say Yon.

Greener Grads will initially operate as an e-commerce site that will be set up in this fall.

"I want to give people the option to order anytime, anywhere and still have the gown arrive to their home in time for graduation," says Yon.

Yon had more reasons to choose Grand Rapids than staying in the region of his childhood.

"[Grand Rapids is] such a good fit given the sustainability vision of the mayor and the community as a whole. There's so much positive going on and it's recognized across the country as one the most sustainable communities anywhere in the United States. To say that we're excited to be in West Michigan is truly an understatement."

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