The Association of Amherst Students (AAS)-sponsored program to provide a free, sustainable laundry detergent alternative to students has ceased to operate this year due to contract issues the college had with the company that provided the service, Generation Conscious. This comes despite strong demand from students during a brief pilot phase last spring and an allocation of $24,000 from the AAS Rainy Day Fund that would have funded the installation of seven machines across campus.
The program was intended to provide a cleaner, more sustainable alternative to the plastic detergent pods purchased by many students, reducing waste while also alleviating hygiene costs that fall more heavily on low-income students. It was funded as AAS President and former Senator Sirus Wheaton’s ’23 Senate project.
Because the AAS cannot commit the college to infrastructure investments, however, the college had to oversee the contract with Generation Conscious. Wheaton claims that last spring, the college abruptly walked away from contract talks on an agreement to fund seven laundry detergent sheet dispensers, one in Keefe Campus Center and one in each of the first-year laundry rooms (with James and Stearns sharing one). Liz Agosto, dean of students and chief student affairs officer, denied this version of events, saying a “revised and simplified contract” was in fact sent back.
Then, this fall, the company turned down the college’s offer for an informal agreement to continue to operate just the Keefe location installed for the pilot phase, saying they wanted a permanent contract, said Blair Chase ’24, who is employed by Generation Conscious, doing maintenance for the machines and lobbying the administration and student body on behalf of the company.
Wheaton believes that the administration used the errors in the contract — which he suggested were minor and could have been easily fixed — as an excuse to delay committing to a program it did not fully believe in. He said the administration never gave Generation Conscious a chance to fix the errors, which he characterized as a major departure from the way that contract negotiations usually work.
That said, Wheaton and Generation Conscious were never told that the college was entirely opposed to continuing the program in some form. Monica Soto, the student activities coordinator and business manager, wrote to The Student that the contract “is still in the process of being reviewed by legal counsel.” She said that there might be further “updates” and “an announcement” about the initiative in the future, but offered no details about what those might entail.
The recent confusion was not the first time that the initiative has been snagged in administrative red tape. Wheaton has been working on a proposal for the program since his time working with #ReclaimAmherst, a pandemic-era open letter to the administration that sought to address inequities at the college against Black students. The letter cited the cost of laundry detergent as one of the unspoken “wages of Amherst” that students must bear.
Wheaton worked to secure college funding for Generation Conscious’ detergent dispensers for most of last year, but could never get the administration to make a commitment. He eventually grew frustrated at the college’s hesitancy and turned to the AAS, where he was a senator at the time.
The $24,000 allocation was intended to pay for the licensing of the seven machines, and would cover one year of service, with the idea that that year would serve as a proof-of-concept and convince the administration to cover the cost of administering the machines and expanding their presence on an ongoing basis.
The proposal laid out the program’s merits, writing that Generation Conscious “was founded by two 2011 Amherst alums,” that it is “the most CO2-efficient product on the current market,” and that the program would “reduce the burden and financial stress of additional costs associated with attending and working at the college for people of marginalized, low-income, and first-generation communities.”
Though he felt closer to making his vision a reality than ever before after securing the AAS funds, Wheaton said that Soto told him toward the end of last year that the college’s general counsel had found too many errors in the company’s contract to move forward. He was led to believe that these were small errors — “issues that I would think are typical of a new company,” he said.
He was told that the errors included the inconsistent naming. “Sometimes they called themselves vendor, or dealer, or Generation Conscious,” he said.
Wheaton also said that he was told that the company’s proposal “to employ FLI students and students of color wasn’t worded correctly and could be seen as discrimination,” even though “this idea had been brought up so many times and the school was totally OK with it before.”
Wheaton said that the contract that the company sent to Amherst was almost identical to the one it sent to Williams College, which ultimately signed a permanent deal with Generation Conscious, indicating to him that the issue was not actually legal in nature.
He claims that the administration never gave the company a chance to correct the errors, which he took issue with. Agosto, who was not directly involved in the contract talks, disagreed with his version of events.
“The contract that we were provided had errors and needed to be scaled for the smaller launch,” she said. “We sent a revised and simplified contract back and did not receive a response.”
No further details were offered regarding why the contract “needed to be scaled down.”
Reached again for comment, Wheaton again maintained that the company had never received a response.
Either way, because no agreement was reached, only a single dispenser was installed using the AAS funds, which ran on a pilot-program basis without a formal agreement. It was placed outside the Class & Access Resource Center in Keefe.
It saw massive demand throughout the contract confusions — Chase said he and other Generation Conscious employees had to restock it almost every day.
Chase said that the administration approached Generation Conscious in hopes of re-upping just the machine in Keefe toward the beginning of this semester, but only on the basis of a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) — an informal agreement — rather than a permanent contract.
“That was not what we were looking for,” he said, because MOUs have “the possibility of being abused by the side that has more power.”
Amid the contract confusion, Generation Conscious stopped restocking its machine in Keefe, eventually removing it entirely at the beginning of this semester.
The change has confused students, many of whom came to rely on the free service.
Ariana Rodriguez ’24 enjoyed using the service a few times last semester. “Sometimes you don’t realize how much of a relief [free detergent] is until you get it,” she said. However, Rodriguez said that “when it’s unreliable, it’s a bit stressful — you can’t really depend on it.”
She said that it’s “important that if the college offers it, they commit to it.”
The chaotic course of negotiations has also confused the Generation Conscious team. Chase said he was frustrated by what seemed to the team to be a rapid reversal in the initiative’s prospects. After Wheaton secured funding and Generation Conscious sent the college a contract, Chase felt that the company was on track to establish its presence across campus. Six months later, the sheets are nowhere to be found, as the dispenser sits dormant in Chase’s dorm room.
Chase said he was surprised that the administration was not more committed to the program, seeing as it was founded by Amherst alumni and seeks to employ first-generation and low-income students on campus.
“We just felt as though the optics of that would be great [for the college],” he said. “They’re able to give back to the people who grew up at the school, but also able to give back to the future people at the school.”
In an interview with The Student, Agosto said that her main concern is implementation, but that her goal “is to work with students to figure out how to move this forward in a way that is sustainable in terms of being able to last beyond the graduation of one student.”
Nevertheless, the administration’s posture on the issue has convinced Chase and Generation Conscious employees on campus that they need to take a more aggressive role in promoting the initiative.
On Sept. 19, just a few weeks after removing the machine from Keefe, Chase posted a picture in AmherstBussin, the campus-wide GroupMe, of a handwritten note that read “Missing our laundry detergent sheets? Plastic-free refill stations will return when the administration allows the program to return.”
The message encouraged students to email Director of Sustainability Wes Dripps “to let them know you support” the initiative.
Chase and the other Generation Conscious employees on campus hope that a large outcry from the student body, showing that there is an appetite for expanded service, would put pressure on the administration to sign a permanent contract, whether for one machine or more.
In interviews with The Student, students expressed their desire to see the service return. Matthew Chun ’24 wrote that he “loved and needed” the detergent sheets. Seemingly addressing the administration, he asked, “please bring them back.”
Hyun Won ’25 said that “the laundry detergent sheets were amazing both environmentally and in that they were the product of a student-led effort.”
“[M]yself and many other students are waiting for the school to step up and show its support for making this campus a more conscious one,” said Won.
Chase said that a continued relationship and a permanent contract between Generation Conscious and the college is not yet off the table. Both Agosto and Soto made it clear that the discussion remains open, and Chase predicted that “in the next month, things will be happening.”
“There’s a lot of acceleration, a lot of conversation,” he said. “It either happens or it doesn’t, but there’s not going to be much more ambiguity for much longer.”