At H&M at Briarwood Mall, two nearly identical button-up shirts present a question that socially-conscious college students are finding harder to ignore: To buy organic — at $24.90 — or not to buy organic — for $16.90?
For LSA sophomore J.P. Dingens, that extra $8 could pay for dinner and a coffee, put gas in his car or be another drop in the bucket toward paying rent. But like rising numbers of young people have decided, Dingens will pay more to harm the environment less.
“(The) shirts seem to hold up better, and they’re definitely more comfortable,” he said. “The only drawback is that it costs a little more, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run. It seems like a new thing for the environmental era, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
More college students make the switch to environmentally friendly brands every year. A study by Harris Interactive, an online market research firm, found that 41 percent of students polled in 2008 prefer socially responsible products compared to 37 percent in 2007 and 24 percent in 2006.
But while students try to satisfy their sense of ecological responsibility with organic backpacks and recycled notebooks, the University’s paper-dependent academic culture still chafes against the need to be green.
A survey by Aramark, the facility management firm that helped the Dana Building earn its LEED Gold certification for sustainability, found that last year, 9 percent of college-aged people preferred organic food. But many University students are going beyond fruits and vegetables to work environmental consciousness into every aspect of their lives.
Organic Bliss, which opened on Liberty Street this year, offers everything from biodegradable coffee cups, to cream that lessens post-pregnancy swelling. Melissa Bryant, the store’s owner, said she worried before opening the shop that buying organic would prove to be too trendy to develop a store around. But on a campus where Meijer is frequently snubbed for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, Bryant has found a market for her non-toxic dish soap.
“One of the reasons I hesitated to open the store was that I didn’t want to be part of a trend,” Bryant said. “I’ve been interested in organic products for a long time, and I’ve even been a little put off by the way that it’s become trendy now. But honestly, if that’s what it takes to increase awareness, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.”
LSA junior Ethan Barnes said he cares about buying organic products more than organic food because the production of synthetic materials like plastic and nylon requires destructive chemicals.
“I don’t even know what a backpack is made of, but it’s chemicals that are synthetically created at a plant, which requires a huge energy input,” Barnes said. “I’m not saying that organic products don’t require the energy, but they don’t require the raw materials that in their creation process do destroy the environment.”
But Barnes said the biggest change he’s made in his purchasing habits is simply buying less.
“I wouldn’t buy (organic products) unless I needed to replace something,” he said. “The best thing I can do is to not buy anything. The best form of environmentalism is reducing your consumption.”
Students are acting on their concerns about the environment because they understand global climate change will affect them before their parents, said Johannes Foufopoulos, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
“I think (young people) are increasingly aware of the urgency and the severity of the problems, especially when it comes to global climate change,” Foufopoulos said. “(They) are realizing that, ‘Hey this is our world, and all you guys are fucking it up.’ ”
But cash-strapped college students have to sacrifice more to adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle than settled Ann Arborites. On top of a limited budget, a lot of the challenge comes from being a student. While academia espouses environmentalism as a philosophy, classroom customs don’t follow suit.
Professors ask students to purchase the newest edition of a text to ensure that class discussion revolves around the same material and page numbers. Course syllabuses prohibit essays from being printed double sided to make room for in-depth comments on the back of pages. Classes require several different books as well as a course pack.
“I’m very bound to using a lot of paper … because I teach writing,” said LSA lecturer Keith Taylor, who teaches English and Biology. “What I do to get rid of all my guilt is to plant trees in the fall. I’ve been doing that every year now for ten years in one of the parks or in my own back lot.”
For School of Art & Design junior Megan Touhey, the conflict of interests rings especially true while watching the Fishbowl printers spit out the hundreds of sheets of paper making up her class course packs, syllabuses and additional reading.
To keep her paper use to a minimum, Touhey said she tries to read all course materials online. But she finds that her computer’s glaring screen strains her eyes and its association with time-wasting activities leads her to distraction.
“The problem that reading online presents is the other stimulations that the brain associates with the computer, like Facebook and e-mail,” Touhey said. “It’s a lot harder to be distracted when you have a hard copy that you’re taking notes on.”
Foufopoulos, the SNRE professor, has also found that education and environmentalism conflict. But he said the awareness his students gain in class will have a more lasting impact on the environment than a few hundred course pack pages.
“If you are in the classroom, you are somewhat limited in the amount of green you can be,” Foufopoulos said. “You have to do what you have to do. We do what we can do, but what is more important is what we discuss and that we address these issues in class.”
But even the most traditional professors are realizing that their paper wasting ways can’t go on forever. At the beginning of the semester, the English department sent out an e-mail asking lecturers to curb their printing after the department used 1.1 million pieces of standard white paper in the 2008 fiscal year.
“To make this amount of paper, English has consumed 85 trees, 35,000 gallons of water, and 20 barrels of oil,” the e-mail said.
The list of suggestions included in the e-mail — reducing margins and font size, printing double-sided and reusing sheets — have been making their way into the classes of professors in every field even without a departmental mandate.
“I really get overwhelmed by the amount of paper that is wasted at this university,” said Olga Lopez-Cotin, a Spanish lecturer in the Residential College. “When my students have to print, I ask them to print on papers that people have already used.”
Lopez-Cotin also encourages students to purchase used and outdated editions of texts.
Many professors encourage students to read material online by making their course packs available only online rather than sending them to local printers.
“I try to move away from paper, and although we do use a text book, we used to have a course pack and now we put it on Course Tools so people can download it and view it onscreen,” Foufopoulos said. “If need be, they can print it out, but we’re not going to print it out for them.”
Foufopoulos decided to put course materials online after students pressured him to print less.
“When I suggest that we present information in a digital format instead of a printing out a course syllabus, I’ve done this because I think this is important and because I’ve gotten pressure from the students to do this,” he said.
Lopez-Cotin goes even further, making a point to encourage students to be more environmentally responsible in their own lives. Meeting mostly with freshmen for lunch and Spanish tutoring, she said she likes to make students think about the ecological implications of their daily decisions.
“A couple times a week I have lunch with students and we talk about how much they waste and why they eat in such large portions,” Lopez said.
Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, a lecturer in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said she tries to reach out to students in disciplines that don’t involve environmental education.
“I love to teach Engineering students who wouldn’t normally know about the environment,” she said.
Since one of Adlerstein-Gonzalez’s passions is art, she has taken it upon herself to help art students become more environmentally conscious and thoughtful.
“I teach a class at the art school called Art Eco and the point of the class was to inspire students who would normally do art without considering the environment to get inspired with various artwork, to not only change themselves but to also change the people who look at their work,” Adlerstein-Gonzalez said. “It’s double teaching.”
But regardless of what professors teach in class, the University can’t fully take up the environmentalism banner until expectations of students are drastically altered. Until the English department can limit its printing to less than 1 million sheets, campus’s sustainable Dana Building won’t be more than a superficial showcase.

Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen

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