Grassroots Change – A Middle School Robotics Team’s Efforts to Decrease Overconsumption

While visiting family outside Boston during the holidays, I got to catch up with my cousin about her robotics team project to reduce t-shirt consumption in Lincoln, Massachusetts. They had consulted me as an expert for their project back in October and I was anxious to hear if they were able to persuade their town to stop automatically handing out t-shirts for events.

After spending a semester researching large scale multi-stakeholder initiatives to drive change in the fashion industry, it was refreshing to hear about a successful grassroots campaign led by a 6th grade robotics team.

When I jumped on a call with the team back in October, I was excited to hear what kinds of questions they would ask about sustainable fashion. At 11 and 12 years old, I wondered what would resonate with them, and how they would think of solving the problem.

For their robotics competition they were tasked with conducting a research project to decrease water consumption. After doing some research, the team was startled by the 2,700 liters of water needed to produce a t-shirt, and decided to focus on how to reduce this waste. Understandably, a lot of their questions revolved around what I think we can do to reduce water consumption, as well as what I thought of their solution. They had come up with a plan to work with local organizations that give out a lot of t-shirts for events to instead encourage people to reuse their t-shirts and add appliques for subsequent years.

The team reached out to the principle of the local school, Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, Parent Teacher Organization and the Lincoln School Foundation. Their pitch was well received at all groups, but the most impactful connections were with the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department and the Lincoln School Foundation. Both groups committed include messaging to encourage people to reuse their t-shirts from previous years, and opt to add an applique. The concept reminded me a lot of earning badges in girl scouts or adding stickers on luggage for different cities visited.

The Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department gives out a lot of t-shirts for sports competitions and camps, and the Lincoln School Foundation runs the town spelling bee, which also generates a lot of new t-shirts. Not only was the idea to prolong the use of each t-shirt attractive to help make the town greener, buying less t-shirts meant saving money as well.

After describing their solution, questions on the call soon turned to how best to promote their idea and encourage people to choose the appliques over the new t-shirts. I laughed and said, “well now that’s a marketing problem.” The team is lucky that they are promoting their idea in a tight knit community that cares about environmental issues. Yet, even in a town like Lincoln there are barriers for a project like this to get off the ground. When people expect a t-shirt for every event, activity or competition they participate in, it could potentially be a turn off if they are pressured to then not accept the free t-shirt.

The key to promoting a sustainable fashion choice is a mix between offering good design and informing the customer. People are naturally going to gravitate to a free or cheap product, but if you show them the impact that even one t-shirt can have on the environment, they are likely to rethink their choices. As seen in Fashion Revolution’s 2 Euro t-shirt social experiment, once people know the harm they are creating with their fast fashion choices they are likely to shift their behavior.

I look forward to seeing how this project plays out in Lincoln and how people react to their idea. They have the first step of getting the big players on board. Now it’s all about how they tell their story with their community and grow the movement.

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