University of Michigan: Sustainably made honors cords adorned by 281 U-M graduates this year

In support of ongoing sustainability efforts across the University of Michigan, this year the Excellence in Sustainability Honors Cord Program offers special graduation cords for those who have excelled in areas of sustainability.

Led by Stamps School of Art & Design professor Joseph Trumpey, director of the Sustainable Living Experience, and Alex Bryan, program manager for sustainable living in the Office of Student Life, the interest in these sustainable cords has almost tripled since they piloted the program last year with 281 students wearing these special cords for 2021-22 commencement.

“Most of the fibers in the world have polyester or nylon in them which are fossil fuel-derived materials,” Trumpey said. “We really wanted to steer clear of anything that had any sort of deep fossil fuel footprint or was manufactured overseas.”

Trumpey had a longstanding relationship with Zeilinger Wool Co. in Frankenmuth, Michigan, who milled and spun wool from local sheep into yarn utilized for the program. The yarn was dyed with goldenrod harvested from Matthaei Botanical Gardens and indigo grown at the campus farm as part of a dye garden project between the Botanical Gardens and the fiber studio at the U-M Art & Design school. Students came together to create these cords by hand over the course of several sessions.

The creation process begins almost a full year ahead of graduation, starting with the harvesting of goldenrod in the fall. Looking ahead, Trumpey and Bryan have plans to take the process even one step further, utilizing laser cut drop spindles created at the art school for their newly procured spinning wheels.

They will take raw wool, spin it in-house, and then proceed to hand-dye and braid the cords. There is even talk of bringing in a few sheep to the campus farm to keep the process as local as possible. They also hope to hire four arts and cultural organizers within student life sustainability to further integrate the humanities into what is typically an environmental science-heavy space.

Bryan is also looking for ways to utilize buckthorn, an invasive species that grows prolifically, as an additional dye source. Buckthorn leaves and berries can be harvested to create a blue or green color dye; using this process as an opportunity to cut down on an invasive species while creating something meaningful adds another layer of importance to the program.

“This program is really about engaging in sustainability that shows up and takes place in lots of different ways,” Bryan said. “For some that’s a heavy focus on environmental sustainability, for others that might be more focused on social sustainability, making sure that our communities are whole in addition to the planet. We try to take that broad approach.”

To apply for the cord program, students fill out a questionnaire with background data and accrue points for completing activities in school or their spare time that are connected to sustainability. Point values vary across things like attending a sustainability conference or participating in volunteer work in the community, to having a year-long internship or a major or minor in sustainability. Each student needs 10 points to qualify for a cord.

“I think our interest in trying to build the cord program is really about showing the breadth, depth and diversity of students that are interested in sustainability and doing sustainability work,” Bryan said.

As one might expect, a large percentage of honorees come from the School for Environment and Sustainability, but more than 100 students from the School of Literature, Science, and the Arts will receive their sustainability cord, along with others across Taubman College of Architecture; School of Music, Theatre and Dance; Stamps School of Art & Design; College of Engineering; Ross School of Business; and several others.

“Hands-on experiential learning is always great, but it’s an added bonus when we can have students actually making things with other students in mind as they create it,” Trumpey said. “They’re sort of reflecting on their experiences and thinking about other students that are a lot like them entering the world, and visualizing themselves in that kind role in the future. It is a lot different than placing an order for some yellow nylon cords from overseas.”