COMMENTARY: Fighting Words

A Connecticut sister and brother launch ZeroOout, a fashion-forward anti-global warming campaign

Brother and sister Sam and Phoebe Allen of ZeroOout.© photos

During the school week, Sam Allen will sometimes skip his classes at Connecticut’s Weston High School and walk to the elementary or middle school down the street. One morning in February, he made his way into Weston Elementary School struggling with a green bag and six poster boards all while listening to music on his iPhone and answering calls. When he reached the second floor, he introduced himself to a class of fourth-graders and proceeded to tell them how they can help to save the planet.

"You can take a juice bottle and cut off the top and then use it as a container to hold pencils instead of going out to buy a new one and hurting the environment," Sam said, pointing to a diagram on one of the poster boards. The presentation lasted for 30 minutes.

"I didn’t expect somebody [his age] to be doing so much already. And to be using his talents for fashion and designing is wonderful," said 14-year teacher Mark Tangarone, who invited Sam to speak. "I think it’s fabulous."

Sam, 15, and his sister Phoebe, 13, are the founders of ZeroOout, a group of teens based in Weston, Connecticut who are dedicated to educating their peers about global warming. They distribute pamphlets with recycling tips, give presentations to classes and organizations, and sell T-shirts with slogans like "Warm is not Cool" on their website,

"I wanted a catchy item that would draw attention, kind of like a billboard," said Sam, as he walked from the elementary school to meet his sister and his dad, who were giving him a ride to meet a friend. "I chose T-shirts because I believe that’s where people’s eyes go first."

The T-shirts are printed by American Apparel and are sold through their website and in the WishList and Knoyzz stores in Connecticut. Sam and Phoebe hope to expand to other states soon. The teens also direct $1 from each shirt sold toward a scholarship fund.

Sam first thought of the "Warm is not Cool" slogan after he saw Al Gore’s seminal eco-doc, An Inconvenient Truth. Although he knew about global warming through news reports, it wasn’t until after he saw the movie that he realized his town was doing very little to help the environment. "We didn’t even have any recycling bins at school," he said. "I was getting frustrated."

His peers were receptive to his ideas and more than willing to help. Sam began recruiting friends and family to help him lobby school officials for recycling bins and energy efficient light bulbs. Inspired by his success, Sam formed ZeroOout, and Phoebe helped him by creating and managing the group’s website, Soon, Sam had designed the "Warm is not Cool" T-shirt as well as shirts with other slogans like "it’s not About a color" and "Solar Bare Club."

ZeroOout"s signature shirt.

"Fashion is a huge part of the economy," said Sam. "If you’re going to spend so much money on clothes, why not make it good for the environment?"

In January, ZeroOout held their first benefit concert featuring The Poster Boys, whose members all attend Weston High School. The concert sold out and the group raised $200 for their scholarship fund. The band wrote a special song about global warming which they performed during the event.

The teens" parents encourage their interests in fashion, business and environmentalism. "I"m proud that they’ve taken this initiative, I’m proud that they’ve taken this responsibility," their father, Lloyd Allen, said. "This is a revolution—I feel it happening and them getting caught up in it."

Lloyd has faith that the "Warm is not Cool" slogan will make ZeroOout the Smokey Bear of global warming. The father, who calls his kids "fashion activists," says Sam has been in love with fashion since he was only was two years old, "ever since he saw Dorothy turn her ankle sideways when she put on the red shoe." Lloyd has had various careers in the arts and his wife, Leslie, is a successful interior designer. They say their children were raised in an environment of "complete self-expression."

Phoebe spends most of her free time working on her digital designs, baking from recipes, "hanging out" with her friends or taking care of her cat, Lucky. Sam also has a cat ("Sassy"). He works out with a trainer every week, eats out with his friends and shops whenever possible, funding his self-described addiction through a retail job at Dovecote, an interior design store in Westport. Even at 10 years old, Sam would walk into stores and ask for jobs as a salesperson. "He couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t hire him," said Lloyd. "Sam was a networking, enterprising kid from day one."

And Phoebe has started her own environmental programs at Weston Middle School, where she is an eighth grader. She presented her idea for the school’s first Global Warming Awareness Week which would include a cell phone recycling drive, guest speakers and "a day in the dark" during which the school would spend an entire day without using electricity.

The sister-brother team is also planning a larger event which will include bands and high-profile speakers. They have already written a letter to Al Gore inviting him to speak.

"In the beginning, people thought it was kind of weird, you know? Like, "What is this kid doing?"" said Sam. "But you have to take the initiative. It’s our world, our environment. We’re living in it."

NATALIE RIOS is a writer based in New York City.