Kempis: Climate change and the problem with ‘free swag’


Nicole Kempis, Columnist

When I reflect on Wildcat Welcome, my enduring memory is not of Purple Pride at Millennium Park, that awkward frat house hookup, or even the March Through the Arch. My clearest memory is the complete confusion I felt at being given four purple T-shirts by my peer advisor on day one. I remember thinking, “Who needs this many purple T-shirts?” It seemed wasteful and completely unnecessary, especially because I had arrived with plenty of my own clothing and I was pretty sure most of the students donning their T-shirts around me were in a similar, fortunate position.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes about 713 gallons of water to make a single T-shirt. Considering that there are about 1,100 students per incoming Weinberg class, each receiving four free T-shirts during Wildcat Welcome, that would bring the annual water expenditure up to more than 3 million gallons, enough to provide the minimum daily water requirement (about 6 gallons) for more than 1,400 people for an entire year.

The fact that the United States wastes a lot of water is not big news. It has topped the charts in gallons per capita water expenditure for years, with recent estimates as high as 100 gallons per person per day, more than twice as much as the average British citizen.

Unfortunately, the T-shirt’s impact doesn’t end there. What about when we consider the circumstances in which the cotton was grown? Or the factory conditions under which it was produced? Ironically, the people who produce these goods in subtropical and agricultural regions, not those of us who consume them, will be most affected by climate change. If you read the label on our class T-shirts, you will see that they are comprised of 50 percent cotton, 50 percent polystyrene. They are produced in El Salvador by Jerzees, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, Inc.

Fruit of the Loom states on its website, “We are committed to ensuring that our company conducts business in a socially responsible fashion.” Although I am glad Northwestern’s chosen supplier is committed to environmental responsibility, I maintain that it would be much more environmentally effective to do away with our “free stuff” culture entirely, because the issue is so much bigger than the T-shirts we receive during Wildcat Welcome. It’s the football game shirts, the Norris plastic cups and the Kellogg magnets. I know that I can’t personally claim to need these things, and I think others feel the same way. They are clutter, and they produce a significant carbon footprint.

We should be proud to attend NU, but we do not need more purple-colored “swag” to become a cohesive community, we do need shared ideals and an awareness of our goals as an institution. I strongly believe that one of these ideals should be a respect for the environment and that we should promote this goal to the extent that we promote other, equally important community ideals, such as diversity and respect for different ideas and perspectives.

Giving students free water bottles and then claiming to be an ecologically responsible campus teaches us that we can slow and even reverse ecological damage with little personal and communal sacrifice. I wish it were that simple, but if we consider the rate at which climate change is occurring, we have to recognize that we must adjust more than a few small habits. We need to drastically alter the way we view consumption and that starts by ceasing to consume items that we neither want nor need. “Free” stuff — really paid for by our tuition — reinforces the incorrect belief that we can consume without incurring any personal or social cost.

There are many other environmental issues we could potentially address at NU, such as food waste or the amount of energy we expend on heating dorms and poorly insulated buildings. I focus on free apparel here because I believe it symbolizes our tendency toward unnecessary consumption. We may think we can produce cheap goods without wasting significant resources, but in truth only 15 percent of discarded clothing is recycled or donated.

We could create a sign-up system for free NU apparel where students would have to consciously choose to receive a free good. This would permit individuals to claim personal responsibility for their waste while simultaneously limiting the superfluous production goods. In this way, we could markedly change our culture of automatic consumption. Only after we claim personal responsibility for our choices and their ecological damage can we honestly say we are making real attempts at reducing our environmental impact.

Nicole Kempis is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at nicolekempis20[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.