How do you get a multibillion-dollar industry interested in saving the planet? Save it money. Greenwich native STEPHANIE BENEDETTO has got a high-tech plan, and the fashion world is listening
Not all wonders of the world are beautiful. Consider, for instance, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling wasteland of plastic flotsam twice the size of Texas. Or the Russian city of Dzerzhinsk, a chemical weapons mecca turned toxic city where life expectancy is forty-seven for women and forty-two for men. Or the textile mountains of Accra, Ghana, composed mainly of clothing that we in the affluent West donate to charity.
It is this last “wonder” that we want to focus on for a moment. Ghana is home to perhaps the largest clothing resale hub in the world, the Kantamanto Market in downtown Accra. Every day, huge cargo ships from Europe and America heave into port, unloading bales and bales of castoff garments that the locals call “dead white man’s clothing.” Kantamanto merchants purchase the bales not knowing the clothing’s condition; increasingly, much of it is too damaged to sell and must be discarded.
But discarded where? Accra’s official landfills reached capacity years ago (and a major landfill opened to address the problem caught fire in 2019 and is still burning). The result: tons of unsalable garments are swept daily into the city’s gutters and wind up choking creeks, riverbeds and sewers. Or they wash up half-buried on the beach in huge, knotty tangles that are difficult to extract. Or they come to rest in mounds on the banks of the Korle Lagoon, next to the Old Fadama slum—heaping, filthy mounds atop which children frolic and cattle graze in a scene of nightmarish despoliation.
Still, in the very big picture, as the planet warms, as oceans rise, as superstorms rage and wildfires roar, as the fossil fuels that drive it all continue to burn and belch, can we really afford to worry about the castoff clothing problem in Ghana?
Let’s put it another way. Ghana is but a tiny snapshot of a global problem—fashion pollution—that is hiding in plain sight. The fashion industry accounts for 10 percent of global emissions annually, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and second only to the oil industry. At the present pace, the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will rise 50 percent by 2030, making fashion the planet’s single major industry hurtling backward in the fight against climate change. The industry also consumes a staggering 25 percent of the world’s annual chemical output. And it is the second biggest polluter (again, after oil) of the world’s water.
Stephanie Joy Benedetto is a Greenwich native and green entrepreneur. We met her recently at a coffee shop in Rye, where she lives with her husband, Joshua Apfelroth, a lawyer, and their young sons Jacob and Jeremy.
Benedetto, forty-one, has a long, high-cheekboned face not unlike those painted by Modigliani, and a quick, boldly expressive way of talking. “A little coffee and we’re off to the races,” she says with a laugh. And then she launches into the complex problem and her role in solving it.
Benedetto begins with a lesson we can all understand: the improbable life cycle of a single T-shirt. “One T-shirt takes 700 gallons of water to produce and another 700 gallons to wash over the course of its life,” she says. Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop. Worse, it uses more insecticides and pesticides than any other crop, and the poisonous runoff (especially in China and India, the world’s top growers) infiltrates surrounding ecosystems. More chemicals are needed to soften and whiten the fabric, and yet more to color it—some of them toxic. “We are so careful with the food we put in our bodies,” Benedetto observes, “but we forget about the things that are touching our skin 24/7.” (For now, organic cotton represents only 0.4 percent of the market.)
Our single T-shirt is astonishingly well- traveled. One possible journey would have the cotton grown in Texas, milled in China, stitched in Bangladesh, sold as a finished product in New York, worn in Greenwich, dropped into a Goodwill bin on Holly Hill Lane, and resold in Ghana. All that global crisscrossing—by ship, by air, by truck—gives the T-shirt a staggering carbon footprint. What about synthetic fabrics? Don’t they cut out the agriculture and much of the hauling to and fro? Well, polyester, nylon, acrylic and Spandex are made from fossil fuels. Further, these fabrics do not decay like natural ones, but rather, with each washing, they shed microplastic fibers that migrate to rivers and seas, into food chains and our bodies. “We’re eating and drinking them right now,” Benedetto informs us. They’re in our bottled water, our sea salt, our fish; they’re in the fishmeal used to feed cattle, pigs and poultry.
So far, Benedetto has shown us fashion pollution from two sources: discarded clothing and the process of making clothing. Now she draws our attention to a third source: fabric that has never been used. Several years ago, in her first entrepreneurial venture, she cofounded a small company called Paper No. 9, which made an all-natural leather alternative invented by her business partner, Rebecca Cole Marshall. The business gave Benedetto an inside view of factories, mills and warehouses—and of the unused fabric piled up in them.
“I remember seeing all of this fabric in mint condition, millions of yards in each location, still sealed in rolls, collecting dust. And they were going to burn or landfill it,” she says. “I thought, You know, it’s great that we invented this leather alternative and that we’re selling it, but we’re still making something new. The world doesn’t need more new stuff. There’s all this perfectly good stuff out there, ready to go.”
Benedetto found it impossible to believe the idle fabric, known as deadstock, wouldn’t have ready purchasers, if only they knew how to buy the stuff. “It’s just a supply and demand mismatch,” she says. “And I wondered, how can I use technology to provide the bridge?”
That light bulb moment occurred in 2014; four years later Benedetto launched a textiles marketplace where businesses could unload their deadstock and where brands, designers and even beginning crafters could buy as much or as little as they needed at discounted rates. (If you’re imagining odd fabric that nobody would want, imagine again: Here were gorgeous French silks, Italian linens, Turkish shearlings, cashmere, lace, mohair, a wealth of cottons.) Benedetto called her new company “Queen of Raw”—she being the queen in question, though anyone who knows her would detect the wit in that lofty title.
But how big a marketplace could it be? Industry data on deadstock was frustratingly “dark”—unknown—since record-keeping was antiquated and the problem was assumed to be minor. “We polled thousands of factories, mills and brands, and we asked them one question: ‘How much of what you make a year winds up as waste?’ Some were as low as 10 percent and some as high as 40. But the average was 15 percent.”
Which meant billions of dollars in waste. The global textile market totaled about $800 billion, of which Benedetto estimated $120 billion was deadstock, taking up valuable warehouse space and destined for the incinerator or the landfill. “Through Covid, that number has only grown,” she says. Now the market is over a $1 trillion and the waste heading toward $150 billion.
Meanwhile, there were signs that Benedetto’s timing was auspicious. The fashion resale market was blossoming, led by companies like TheRealReal (which sells used luxury goods), ThredUp (used casual clothing) and StockX (sneakers, streetwear, e-games). That market now totals about $24 billion—huge, but only a fraction of the potential market that Benedetto had identified. Could all that raw fabric be transformed into a market as vital as the one for finished resale goods? Benedetto believed it could. “Deadstock is not dead,” she says. “It’s very much alive.”
IT’S IN THE GENES
Not just anyone can see the value in supposedly worthless things. For Benedetto, that talent runs in the blood. Her great-grandfather, Morris Gross, a native of Austria, landed at Ellis Island as a boy in 1896 and settled on New York’s Lower East Side, home of the original Jewish garment district. “He came over with his father and nothing,” Benedetto says. “He had to make a living, so he started working in the handkerchief factories. Eventually he wanted to do his own thing. He’d take in old fabric that the immigrants brought over on ships but weren’t using anymore, and he would repurpose it by hand into the most beautiful fashion garments.”
Some of those garments—bolero coats and stole jackets with Gross’s label stitched in—were passed down to Benedetto through her grandmother and mother.
“The quality just shows—this old-school way of doing things, the handmade, artisanal nature of it.” Gross settled in Greenwich, on the quiet, tree-shaded Brook Drive, near Belle Haven, and lived to the fantastic age of 104—plenty old enough for Stephanie to grow up listening to his tales of the trade. Many years later it dawned on her that her great-grandfather was what we now call a “sustainable” entrepreneur.
“I laugh because he didn’t talk about it as sustainability. But at the end of the day, that’s what it was: Find what’s available nearby, make things by hand with minimal waste and minimal toxins, sell to local customers. This is the inspiration for what I’m doing today.”
Benedetto’s other great-grandfather, Barney Tunick, was also what we might call a “sustainability maverick.” “He was the first Greenwich junkman, with his horse and wagon and cows and chickens,” Roberta Tunick, Stephanie’s mother, reports. “He’d go around picking up old things and resell them.” One of Barney’s sons went to Harvard Law School and became a judge; another went to Cornell and became a doctor; a third, Stephanie’s grandfather David H. Tunick, did a brisk business in Army surplus goods and built a world-class antique car collection. “The family trait I see in Stephanie is that she’s inspired and driven,” Roberta says. “I always knew she’d be a leader.” Stefani Munsky, Benedetto’s best friend from law school, echoes this view: “She’s one of the smartest people I know, both in an academic and a practical sense,” says Munsky. “She’s also fearless. I thought she was destined to be somewhere she could really shine.”
Benedetto’s route to Queen of Raw, however, was decidedly oblique. After graduating from Greenwich Academy in 1998, she went to University of Pennsylvania, where she studied philosophy, political science and economics, and then to Emory University School of Law. She intended her lawyering career to focus on women and minorities—“to empower the unempowered”—but the booming aughts lured her instead into corporate law and Wall Street.
“I always did think she’d be a lawyer, but when she told me she was going into corporate law, I was surprised,” her mother says. “She sort of apologized as she said it. Because I thought she’d be a public defender or an advocate for the downtrodden.” Between the mergers and acquisitions, Benedetto did do not-for-profit work—largely immigration and asylum cases for people who had been persecuted in their own countries. She says, “This was what really spoke to me.”
Benedetto looks back appreciatively to Greenwich Academy, where she served as student body president. The esteemed private girls’ school instilled in her not only the desire to achieve, but to do social good in the process. “It taught us to be different, to be independent, to be empowered to go build great things and change the world,” she says. “It taught us that there are issues to be solved, and we could be instrumental in solving them. It’s something I carry with me to this day.”
With the Great Recession of 2008, Benedetto looked at the world around her—people losing jobs, companies falling apart, an age of greed and excess brought up short—and saw it as her cue to change course. It was time to fully reclaim her youthful idealism and marry it to her business expertise.
“I wanted to build something that was going to make a difference and change the world. I believed we had to do something about this planet and its people.” After she had her first son, those ambitions crystallized. “It wasn’t just about me anymore,” she says. “It was about my child and, God willing, my children’s children. And I had to do something about it today.”
Benedetto teamed with Phil Derasmo, a software developer and all-round tech savant, and Queen of Raw was born. “It was fateful connection in the heart of Manhattan’s Silicon Alley,” Derasmo says. “She was looking for a technology partner, and I was looking for a meaningful project that would help improve the world.”
TURNING THE PROBLEM INTO THE SOLUTION
Early on, Queen of Raw faced a lot of rejection. “I can’t tell you how many no’s there were,” Benedetto says. “We’d go to these big brands in the fashion district near where our office is. ‘Oh, that’s so nice, go talk to our sustainability officer,’ they’d say. And, of course, those were newly created positions at the time. They didn’t have a budget, and they weren’t respected. And I’d go, ‘No, no, no, this is so valuable, you’re going to save so much time and money, and your consumers are going to love that you’re doing good.’ But it just wasn’t top of mind.”
McKinsey & Co. noted as much in its 2020 “State of Fashion” report: “Despite some modest progress, fashion hasn’t yet taken its environmental responsibilities seriously enough. Next year, fashion players need to swap platitudes and promotional noise for meaningful action …”
But Benedetto sensed the wave building. On one hand, millennials and Gen Z’s were questioning the planet-harming practices of big fashion brands and looking to alternatives like recycled apparel and thrifting as a brake on runaway consumption. “They’re amazingly conscious about the environment,” Benedetto says. “They have to be, because of the planet we’re leaving them. They’re demanding to know, ‘What is the story of this T-shirt, who made it, do they stand for what I believe in?’”
On the other hand, clothing sales exploded by 60 percent in the present century, driven largely by behemoths like Forever 21, H&M and Zara. These brands’ chic but inexpensive garments ushered in an era of “fast” or “disposable” fashion. By 2018 real clothing prices had dropped by half, and Americans were throwing out twice as many clothes as they did in 2000.
“People who think retail is dead, that fashion is dead—it’s booming,” Benedetto says. This despite the death or decline of brick-and-mortar stalwarts such as Lord & Taylor, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers. E-savvy fast-fashion companies like Asos and Shein more than picked up the slack, particularly during the pandemic. In the process, they splintered the traditional four fashion seasons into “microseasons,” offering anyone with a few spare dollars a continuous stream of trends to chase.
The demand for ethical change is no match—not yet—for the flood tide of cheap clothing. That flood tide signifies a proportional overflow of deadstock. The reasons for this are various, starting with the fact that forecasting clothing sales is famously difficult, and it’s cheaper to make too much fabric rather than too little. Also, more rapidly than ever, new colors and styles come into vogue as others retreat, creating yet more deadstock. And many designs will simply miss the mark. “Maybe the jeans you thought were going to sell well didn’t end up selling so well, so you’ve got to cut back,” Benedetto says. “But you’ve already made the fabric.”
If textile overproduction is a fact of life—and it is—fast-fashion is the universally cited villain. But Benedetto, never predictable, says the issue can’t be boiled down so crudely. “People said for so long, ‘Fast-fashion brands are the evil, bad actors in the fashion industry.” It’s true, she says, that the big fast-fashion brands sharply accelerated clothing’s “make, take, throw away” cycle, and also true that “if a shirt costs three dollars, someone in the supply chain is getting paid nothing.” She does not diminish these critical issues. But missing from that equation, she says, is ourselves: “These brands wouldn’t be making anything if consumers weren’t buying it.”
So, what to do? Here Benedetto’s views are controversial among the hardcore sustainable crowd. While she, too, would like to see the whole fashion industry practice fair trade and pay living wages, and she, too, would like to see toxins vanish, she knows that cheap clothing is not going away. As fashion writer Cintra Wilson put it, “Zara exists because cost trumps ethics, for most people.” Ever pragmatic, Benedetto chooses to grapple with fast fashion’s unpleasant realities.
“If they are such a big part of the problem, it also means they’re a big part of the solution,” she says. “So where some of the sustainability people, my colleagues, refuse to work with fast-fashion companies, to me they are the most important people to work with. Because if you could change one percent of the way they do business, imagine what they could do for people and the planet.”
The Chinese giant Shein is particularly reviled among sustainable diehards. But here again Benedetto takes an unexpected stance: “They’re fascinating—fascinating.” Shein is faster than fast fashion, she explains; they’re very nearly “real-time” fashion. Why is this important? “By controlling their entire supply chain from start to finish, they can actually make what you want when you want it. The theory is that that will minimize the amount of waste and inefficiency. That theory is now being tested.” (A loose parallel would be on-demand publishing: there’s no deluge of unsold books to send back to a publisher’s warehouse.) At the far end of this theory, Benedetto adds, real-time fashion will evolve toward local manufacturing using local resources: a revolution back to old ways, though on a grand scale. But we are not there yet.
TECHNOLOGY THAT CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
Queen of Raw’s marketplace is, to be sure, a novel idea. But its technology is the potential world-changer. Working with MIT Solve, a philanthropic venture fund, Benedetto and her team built a software engine that enables businesses to instantly map, measure and trace all movement within their complex global supply chains.
The software engine, christened MateriaMX and unveiled to customers just this year, makes ingenious use of blockchain, best known as the technology behind bitcoin. In essence, blockchain is a digital record-keeping system of vast capability, offering a clear view into supply chains that might include hundreds of suppliers and factories. This transparency allows one to see concretely the benefits of buying and selling existing material on Queen of Raw—the water, toxins, carbon emissions and waste saved. Benedetto says, “Very large brands that shall remain nameless thought they had X amount of waste, but since working with us, they discovered they have fifteen times X waste.”
The cold, hard numbers left them sobered, Benedetto says. They had no idea of the problem’s scope. “That was the shocking thing—the sheer economic value of the waste. Waste is really bad for people and planet, obviously, but I hope the world wakes up to how bad waste is for our profit and for economics.”
Only when businesses saw they could turn pollution into profit, losses into gains, did their behavior change. “We can’t change behavior just for the sake of ‘the good,’ but we can talk to a company about their dollars. So we lead with economics. It has to make economic sense or nothing will happen.”
Doing well by doing good: This is how the future will work, Benedetto believes. Queen of Raw, for its part, has already saved well over a billion gallons of water and expects that figure to rise to four billion in the next four years. Its efforts are gaining extravagant notice.
In 2019 Queen of Raw won a major global competition, the WeWork Creator Award and its prize of $360,000, presented by the actor and venture capitalist Ashton Kutcher. Queen of Raw meanwhile raised $1.5 million in investments from True Wealth Ventures, which stresses women-led companies with an environmental bent, and MIT Solve, which focuses on social-impact innovation. And it has begun garnering attention in national news media—the New York Times, NPR, Good Morning America, Forbes, WWD, Elle and Vogue, among others.
Not long ago, “sustainability” was more PR strategy than business model. (A few brands, like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, were exceptions.) This is changing. Even fast-fashion brands now embrace sustainability in some form, such as H&M’s line of organic cotton fashions. “According to the latest McKinsey report, it’s a top-three priority for every C-suite—for every CEO, CFO, CMO,” Benedetto says. “It’s core to their mission, and it’s what consumers are demanding.”
Newer brands are leading sustainable innovation, whether by planting trees for every item sold, using nontoxic dyes, adhering to fair labor practices—or making ample use of deadstock. Deadstock is suddenly hip. Noting this, some people ask Benedetto a mischievous question: What happens when there’s no deadstock left to sell? She says, “Well, hopefully, someday we will write ourselves out of the marketplace business, because we’ll have solved the waste problem.” And then? The beauty of Queen of Raw’s technology is that it can apply beyond textiles—“to any raw material category, any unfinished good, across industries and around the world,” because waste is inherent in creating things. A world of green efficiency is waiting to be born.
“So, when everybody’s on our software, we’ll solve the world’s water crisis,” she says with a laugh, though she might well be serious.
“And then we’ll go on to the next challenge.”