$1,200 for prom, but what does it cost the earth?

How do you remember your high school prom?

Perhaps as a rite of passage, an elegant celebration to cap off four years of high school to gather with friends and classmates one last time before embarking on adult life.

Perhaps as a romantic evening with that special someone, or maybe as a fun evening for “just friends.”

Perhaps as a chance to look back at photographs and laugh, and think to yourself: “How did I find a date with that haircut?”

When today’s teens look back on their prom a decade from now, they may share these memories, but they’ll also be thinking of something else—the astronomical sum of money spent on the event.

According to a USA Today piece, the average cost to attend prom in 2013 was $1,139, and trends show it will be close to $1,200 this year. The cost of attending prom has skyrocketed in the past decade, as it costs just $556 in 2008. What can this spike in spending be attributed to, and, from an environmental standpoint, what else is prom costing us?

Financial burden

According to Linda Korman, advertising director for Seventeen Prom and Teen Prom, today’s teens view prom as a “red-carpet moment” and are “heavily influenced” by celebrity culture and fashions.

The desire to live like an A-list celebrity for a night drives girls to spend upwards of $400 on a dress they’ll only wear once. Guys spend a little over $200 on their tuxedo and accessories, but unlike the dress, this is the price for a one-day rental. Add in the cost of transportation (you need a stretch limousine if you’re a true red carpet-er), hair, manicure and makeup (why spend hundreds on a dress only to skimp on the rest?), and professional photography (you don’t want to risk Dad leaving the lens cap on and spoiling the memories), and it’s hardly shocking to see how today’s teens spend a small fortune on prom.

With the cost of prom escalating so quickly, teens have been unable to afford everything themselves. According to USA Today, parents cover 59 percent of the cost to attend. Although the average student pays less than half of his or her prom experience, that amount is close to $500—no small amount for a student working part time.

The Environmental Cost

Prom dresses are made from a variety of high-end fabrics, most of which are silk-based. Silk is an organic fiber, but due to its high cost and fragility, many prom dresses are made from combinations of silk and synthetic fibers.

Satin, for example, is a blend of silk and polyester. The polyester needed to produce satin requires a great deal of petroleum, and because polyester is a fossil fuel, polyester is not sustainable. The petroleum industry is a major contributor to global warming as both the extraction and use of petroleum emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. Also, according to Green Choices, the production of synthetic fabric emits a nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 298 times more global warming potential than CO2.

Let’s not leave the young men out of this; tuxedos made from wool and polyester carry environmental impacts, too. Although wool comes from sheep and therefore is organic, wool cultivation places strain on the environment via the raising and breeding of sheep, water consumption for livestock and irrigation, and the use of chemicals and dyes during the fabric treatment process.

As sheep consume water and graze, which can destroy grassland ecosystems, they emit methane, which has 25 times more global warming potential than CO2. The environmental impact of wool is most visibly illustrated in the case of New Zealand, where it’s estimated 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions are a result of sheep.

With prom season approaching, teens and families should try to take a look at what they’re consuming and find ways to reduce both financially and environmentally.

Many cities have locations where girls can obtain gently used or like-new prom dresses for free or low cost, like Chicago’s Prom Goes Green and New York’s Operation Prom. These events keep beautiful dresses in use and reduce the need to produce new ones, as well as giving financial relief to families who’d otherwise have trouble affording prom. Wearing a used prom dress or tuxedo from an older friend or relative is another option for teens looking to save money and reduce environmental impact.

When today’s teens look back on their prom experience, they have the option to remember more than the money they spent—by reusing a dress or tuxedo, they can remember the good they did for the environment.

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