School Uniforms: Sustainable Garb for the Under-17 Crowd

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Perhaps the most compelling argument you can make to your teenage daughter about wearing a school uniform is that the pleated skirt looks totally amazing with Uggs. “Your legs look sooo long, honey!” Tell your son girls have always had a weakness for the classics. Google Gregory Peck.

Naturally, there’s a more substantive argument new generations will surely learn soon enough. Doing one’s part in the collaborative effort to reduce consumption outweighs the fleeting thrill of showing up looking ravishing in something new.

From a mom who can’t seem to pry her two fashion beauties away from the bathroom mirror in the morning, those navy blue uniforms associated with prep academies and no-nonsense parochial schools would be a godsend! I repeat, a godsend! I’m as much a fan of fashion as anyone (perhaps even more as a stylist), but it is not the end-all of self-expression. And don’t forget, there’s always the weekend.

While simplicity is my main motivation, public school systems across the country are instituting school uniforms for other reasons. In 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary in Baltimore, MD, was the first public school to institute a uniform policy. In 1994, the Long Beach Unified School District in California followed sailor suit, the first urban district to do so. The driving force was getting kids to concentrate on lessons, not labels.

In 1996, when state laws were being passed to give public schools the latitude to insist upon blazers, khakis and those adorable jumpers, President Bill Clinton applauded the notion in a speech, saying: “If it means that the school rooms will be more orderly and more disciplined, and that our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside, instead of what they’re wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

Three years later, the New York City district, the largest school district in the U.S, adopted school uniforms for its half-million elementary-school students. In a PBS report, the president of the NYC school board was quoted saying the policy is “important to diminish peer pressure and promote school pride.” You go, school board guy. I like the way you think.


Perhaps more U.S. schools need a uniform mentality like the one they have in Japan, where many public schools have boys clad in black pants and gold-button jackets and girls in skirts with sailor tops and matching vests. Sure, those Harjuku teens tweak the ensembles by hiking up the skirts or choosing the baggiest black pants. They go nutty with the shoes and Edward Scissorhands haircuts and knee socks. Meantime, nothing gets lost in translation. At the end of the day, you’re still in a low-maintenance uniform.

Here in America, going green is a new arsenal in the school uniform debate. So what if it crimps your style, dude. It’s like good for the planet. Almost all schools, public and private, encourage the recycling of uniforms, passing on used garments like other hand-me-downs children outgrow. Considering most students own several sets of uniforms, they often fall into the gently-used category, which is especially great for the K-6 population.


Beyond the reuse and recycle angle, there’s a burgeoning organic and fair trade school uniform market. Tesco makes organic uniforms of cotton shirts, trousers, pinafores and polo shirts (above) that schools can opt for and help school children in Kenya at the same time – children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to school because they can’t afford a uniform. For each pair of Tesco Save the Children Trousers sold, the company will give a Kenyan child either a school skirt, shirt or pair of trousers.

There, doesn’t that feel better than a rack of new Juicy Couture dresses and Abercrombie jeans? Sure it does. Now turn off Gossip Girl and do your homework!

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.