Sororities at Wake Forest University are notorious for the number of shirts that bear their letters. Each spring, hundreds of underclass women join Greek organizations and, as part of a campus wide tradition, are gifted previous semesters’ t-shirts. In a way, this “passing down” of t-shirts can be viewed as a sustainable ritual. On the other hand, it does not quell the flow of ordering among these groups.
The global impact of the perpetual purchasing of t-shirts is often lost on the women who are placing the orders. The average conventional cotton t-shirt requires about 700 gallons of water and a half pound of pesticide and herbicide for production. Between the growing, manufacturing, and transporting processes, each shirt is also responsible for a significant amount of energy use.
Last fall, Greeks Go Green, a network of peer-to-peer educators for sustainability, started an initiative to increase conscious consumerism throughout the Greek community at Wake Forest. The effort encourages individuals to incorporate measures of environmental and social impacts into purchasing decisions. Greeks Go Green interns Bridget Keeler (’15) and Emily Pence (’15) identified purchasing among Greek organizations as a primary contributor to members’ ecological footprints. They worked to teach representatives of each organization how to identify the ecological and social impacts of their purchases so that they could guide their organizations.
At the end of the annual January sorority recruitment period, each chapter gives out new t-shirts to their members. This equates to roughly 1,400 t-shirts distributed in a single day. The impact of the t-shirts distributed on bid day at Wake Forest equates to about 980,000 gallons of water used and 700 pounds of herbicides/pesticides used. The effects of the excessive use of water and herbicides for these shirts are enormously detrimental to the global environment.
Cotton is a fragile and resource intensive crop, and while there is no simple solution to reducing the excessive amount of water and chemicals required to produce these shirts, there are ways to lessen the environmental impacts of an individual cotton t-shirt. In the fall of 2014, the Greeks Go Green representatives presented information to their chapters on ways to order t-shirts in (un)conventional ways—ways that would be less environmentally resource intensive and that may have beneficial financial impacts in the regional economy. Options included buying locally sewn and printed shirts, shirts made from regionally and/or organically grown cotton, as well as garments printed with water-based dyes. The interns suggested that the sororities on campus aim to use organic cotton or recycled fabric t-shirts as a minimum baseline for the shirts they would be ordering for the January 12th bid day.
Four of the sororities chose to participate in the initiative, adding up to approximately 732 t-shirts. These sororities were Chi Omega, Delta Delta Delta, Kappa Beta Gamma, and Kappa Delta. Their purchases included garments from Port and Company, Royal Apparel, and Alternative Earth’s environmentally preferable lines.
The campaign aims to support a growing trend of environmentally and socially preferable purchasing among Greek organizations throughout the spring of 2015, with an ongoing push to reduce the volume of purchasing overall.