Meet the Volleyball Player Shaking Up the College Uniform Industry

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Ellie Ezekiel was not satisfied. As a student representative on Franklin & Marshall College’s Sustainability Committee and intern for the school’s Center for the Sustainable Environment, she and her team of co-workers had checked all the standard boxes on efforts to green the school’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus and wondered what more could be done.

A leader on the women’s volleyball team, Ellie had learned that Nike made jerseys from recycled materials for some of their Division I teams as part of a promotional night. But the company wasn’t interested in doing the same for her Division III team, so she continued to look elsewhere.

She looked for a while. No luck. Finally she found Atayne, a high-performance clothing manufacturer in Brunswick, Maine that makes all of their shirts from recycled plastic bottles and creates good paying jobs here, manufacturing 100% of their line in the USA.

Image Credit: Deb Grove

Ellie Ezekiel serves in the new jersey. Image Credit: Deb Grove

“We had no idea what to expect. We were kind of the guinea pigs since Atayne had not done collegiate sports before,” Ellie explained. “Would they hold up in an industrial washer? Can we play in the material?”

Ellie explained the looming questions to her teammates and asked if they were on-board. The team unanimously backed her.

Ellie secured funding from her school’s Sustainability Committee and placed the order. The jerseys arrived and Ellie breathed a sigh of relief.

“The colors are bright. The material is breathable,” Ellie said. “I went for a run when they first came in — it was a humid 80 degree day and the warm-ups are black. It wasn’t smothering or too heavy – it passed the test. The campus loves them. They think the jersey looks really nice and my team especially loves them.”

Ellie’s action attracted the attention of others. An additional five teams at F&M are now planning to order their own sustainable jerseys. As far as they know, the school is the first college to wear recycled uniforms, and the first (professional or collegiate) to utilize them on a full-time basis.

“Its such an easy thing that can create a lot of change,” Ellie explained. “One jersey is equal to the equivalent of ten, 16 ounce plastic bottles. With our team of 20, that’s 200 bottles recycled and repurposed.”

This adding up is not insignificant. Behind oil and gas, the fashion industry is the world’s second largest polluter. Worker conditions and pay could also benefit from groups making more mindful choices when placing bulk orders. According to The Guardian, the fashion industry could take a staggering 125 million people out of poverty by adding only 1% of its profits to workers’ wages.

The City of Madison, Wisconsin took similar action by requiring manufacturers of uniforms for city workers agreed to a sweatfree procurement policy. College students affiliated with United Students Against Sweatshops are now on 150 campuses, organizing to ensure their alma mater’s street clothes are made in a way that adheres to a strict code of conduct.  Churches and non-profits are contacting Ethix Merch, a supplier of ethically made t-shirts, to ensure their orders are causing no harm.

And now Ellie may be igniting the spark that gets college athletics to follow suit. At a recent state environmental conference, Ellie’s story inspired interest from other campus leaders. She was asked to lead a break-out session and talk about how she was able to help her team win at making the world better just by making a good choice when buying the uniforms they needed to get anyway.

“People don’t know that there are other options,” Ellie explained. “We need to inspire people and let them know that they can make a difference.”

There are over 420,000 college athletes in the United States. Thanks to one person who cared, twenty are now wearing American-made jerseys from recycled plastic bottles, with hundreds more looking likely to follow. Imagine if Ellie is successful in inspiring a couple thousand—or a couple hundred thousand—others to do the same.

The college jersey industry will never be the same. And the world will be better for it.

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