Environmental Justice & Your Laundry: Update on the GenCo Program

One of the projects I’ve been working on as a Zero-Waste intern at the Zilkha Center is the “Williams Initiative for Student Hygiene Security and Professional Development”—but most of us just call it the “GenCo Program.” GenCo, short for Generation Conscious, is a startup company specializing in the retail of sustainable personal hygiene products and dedicated to advancing environmental justice.  Woman wearing mask uses touchscreen on box to receive GenCo products

Studies have shown that many low-income students spend less on other essentials to afford personal hygiene maintenance such as laundry. Williams has already taken steps to eliminate the costs of hygiene maintenance for all students by ending laundry fees.  The GenCo program eliminates the remaining costs of laundry for Pell Grant recipients, improving hygiene security for a large proportion of the underserved members of our community. 

Initial Pilot Program: Summer 2021

In the summer of 2021, ZC summer interns Jacob Chen ‘23.5 and Simon Kissam ‘23 coordinated the first small GenCo pilot program providing free detergent sheets, a more sustainable version of TidePods, to 100 students on campus, and that initial pilot was quite successful. This year, the ZC hopes to partner with other groups on campus to take it one step further by installing GenCo’s refill station—like a vending machine for detergent sheets—in Paresky and providing Pell Grant recipients enough free sheets to meet their laundry needs for the academic year. 

How the program works

The refill station, a compact machine with an intuitive interface and the capability to store and distribute sustainably-sourced detergent sheets, is installed in a widely-accessible location on campus. Pell-Grant recipients are each given a unique code they can input into the machine to easily obtain sheets and a reusable container in which to store those sheets. Generation Conscious provides a backend dashboard that collects data on interactions with the machine, enabling the college to adjust for potential future iterations of the program. 

Following this initial purchase, Generation Conscious hires first-generation, low-income (FGLI) and DACA students on campus paying $20 per hour as part of the company’s multi-year Professional Development Program (these students are hired as GenCo employees). In the first two semesters, participants learn skills pertaining to the maintenance, servicing, and quality-assurance engineering of sustainably-sourced goods. In the subsequent two semesters, participants gain experience in marketing, communications, and business development.

My Work this Spring

This spring, I have been reaching out to other campus departments and student groups who I thought might be interested in helping to launch this program.  In the last few weeks, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Office of Campus Life have become co-sponsors to help to fund the program.  In addition, the Davis Center Community Engagement Fellows, especially Rika Nakato, have been great advisors and thinking partners.  

Square GenCo dispenser box sits mounted on a wallI have also been working with staff in OIT, Planning Design and Construction, and the Office of Campus Life on the logistical details and learning a lot about what it takes to launch a program like this.  In recent weeks, a couple of other enthusiastic students—Petra Hinds and Nick Stefanelli—have helped tackle these logistical challenges.

By providing equitable access to basic hygiene products and installing zero-waste infrastructure on campus, we’re making sure Williams is moving toward a greener future in a way that’s environmentally just. 

-Written by Ali Hashim ‘25, Zilkha Center Zero Waste Intern.  

 

Here are a few fast facts about GenCo 

  • GenCo’s sheets embody 97% fewer carbon emissions than TidePods, 
  • They’re 20% cheaper than TidePods
  • With the refill station on campus, detergent sheets will also produce less plastic waste – eliminating the plastic waste normally associated with laundry products.
  • GenCo is up and running at a number of other colleges and universities including: Rice University, Amherst College, Connecticut College, and Wesleyan University
  • GenCo also offers toothpaste tabs, which eliminate the plastic waste of toothpaste tubes, but in the initial testing in last summer’s pilot, the tabs weren’t well received.  We’ll wait for the next generation of GenCo’s tabs…

The GenCo project is a collaborative effort between the Zilkha Center, the Davis Center, and the Office of Campus Life.