With Stephanie Benedetto, Co-Founder of Queen of Raw
The world is becoming more aware of the negative impact of fashion, and social entrepreneurs are making major moves to turn fast fashion into a sustainable, circular industry.
We’ve talked about the human cost of apparel production and the Rana Plaza disaster, how individuals can avoid fast fashion and responsibly dispose of old clothes, sustainable business, and the circular fashion economy, and more through our Impact of Fashion series.
Today we’re taking a step back in the production process and talking all about textiles.
Stephanie Benedetto is tackling textile waste through her sustainable deadstock textile marketplace, Queen of Raw. She spoke with Cory on The Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast about the magnitude of textile waste and how technology can reroute unused textiles from the landfill to new customers.
What is Textile Waste, and What Can We do About It?
Textiles are materials made of interlacing fibers, and they’re the fabric of our clothes.
Textiles are everywhere. They show up in home decor, car upholstery, medical supplies, toys, and even weapons. But the majority of textiles are used in the fashion industry, and most will eventually end up as waste. In 2018, the EPA estimated that the United States alone produced 17 million tons of textiles and discarded 14 million tons.
Here are a few essential textile waste facts:
- The textile industry uses 98 million tons of non-renewable resources every year.
- People are discarding finished textile goods faster than ever before.
- Less than 15% of textiles are ever effectively recycled
What are Textiles?
To understand textile waste, we first need to know what it’s made of.
Textile fibers fall into two categories: natural and synthetic.
Natural fibers come directly from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources. Their cells are already arranged in a string-like shape when nature gives them to us.
Common plant fibers include cotton, hemp, and flax. Wool, silk, and cashmere are popular animal fibers.
Synthetic fibers are man-made through chemical processes.
Plant-derived, or semi-synthetic fibers like rayon, are made through a chemical process that breaks down raw material and reconstitutes it as a durable thread. Most popular synthetics, like polyester, nylon, and spandex, are usually made from petroleum.
Synthetic fibers have a lot of appeal—stretch, softness, durability—and are often blended with natural fibers to make commercial textiles. So much so that they constitute 60% of clothing worldwide.
These materials matter when we’re talking about waste. Natural fibers eventually biodegrade back into their natural components. Synthetics will eventually break down, but only into their constituent microplastics that pollute the water supply and never truly disappear.
What are the Different Types of Textile Waste?
Textile waste comes in the form of raw materials and finished goods. Let’s dive deeper into each category.
Clothing production continues to increase worldwide while clothing utilization (the number of times an item is worn) continues to fall. That’s a recipe for more and more textile waste in the form of finished goods (most often clothes and shoes).
Old clothes cannot always be resold. Most donated clothes are sold to recyclers, where only about half are actually recycled. The rest are exported overseas. More than 9 million tons of clothes go into landfills every year, and 2.2 million tons are incinerated.
The industry itself trashes a significant amount of finished goods, too. Brands from H&M to Nike and Burberry have made headlines for destroying millions of dollars worth of their own unsold clothes, which insiders say is a common industry practice.
This is textile waste that never made it to the fashion supply chain—it was produced but never used.
Deadstock is a term used for unsellable inventory. Businesses across industries end up with deadstock when they produce or order more than they can sell. It’s a result of flawed inventory management, which is especially challenging in fashion where supply chains are long, and trends change daily.
With old-fashioned record-keeping still the norm in the fashion industry, Stephanie says it’s hard for businesses to identify and understand the waste in their supply chains.
It’s often cheaper to overproduce than underproduce, incentivizing mass production and raising the risk of waste.
Without strict or consistent reporting standards or efficient inventory tracking systems, it’s hard to know how many textiles are wasted before they become clothes.
Since textile recycling is often labor-intensive, material-dependent, and not economically viable, brands are left to deal with textiles and finished goods often in undesirable or unethical ways.
Why is Textile Waste a Problem?
Textile waste is a problem because of the environmental impact of production, wasted money, lost business, and the eventual volume added to incinerators and landfills.
Between chemicals, energy, water use, and contamination, fashion is one of the planet’s most polluting and resource-intensive industries.
Textile production uses nearly 800 billion gallons of water every year, and dyeing and treatment of textiles account for 20% of industrial water pollution, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Circular Fashion Initiative report “A New Textiles Economy.”
That’s a problem when 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and it will only get worse if we don’t drastically change consumption on a global scale.
Raw materials, water, chemicals, energy, and labor go into producing textiles that may never even get used.
Stephanie notes the industry wastes $120 billion worth of unused textiles every year.
That’s bad news for the planet, but it’s also bad for business. As Stephanie says, this waste is both environmentally and fiscally irresponsible.
To recap—the negative effects of textile waste:
- Water use and pollution
- Landfill volume
- Lost business
As Stephanie tells Cory on the podcast, “Obviously there is a problem, but in that a huge opportunity and solution.”
How to Reduce Textile Waste
The impact of textile waste spans the entire lifecycle of production in a massive industry, and it will take an army of solutions to tackle it from every angle. Luckily, there are folks (like Stephanie) heading in that direction.
Stephanie founded the New York City-based Queen of Raw as a textile marketplace and technology partner. They use tracking and analytics, machine learning, and blockchain technology to find waste in the supply chain, pull it into the Queen of Raw marketplace, and give businesses a chance to decide if they want to reuse, resell, or recycle textiles responsibly.
This radical, new-tech tool is bringing the fashion industry closer to circularity—the ideal closed-loop future that requires no new raw materials and releases zero waste—but it won’t happen overnight.
Inertia is one of the biggest obstacles to a circular fashion economy, and new-tech adoption moves slowly. The benefits for businesses really do outweigh the costs, but it takes buy-in from the top.
“This is about the CEOs setting the corporate agendas, the CMOS doing marketing and storytelling around the good work companies are doing, the CFOs who are dealing with these financial liabilities every day, the CIOs and CEOs who manage this information supply chain procurement. We need all of these parties engaged in order to have transformational change,” Stephanie says.
Queen of Raw’s work rescuing and reselling unused fabric serves the triple bottom line: people, the planet, and profits. Businesses save money and open new revenue streams. The marketplace keeps textiles (and all the resources that went into them) out of the landfill, makes recycling textiles easier, and allows producers to use existing textiles instead of continuing to build demand for brand new ones.
Queen of Raw collects data—quantifying water use, toxins, carbon emissions, and dollars saved with every action taken. This data helps companies make good decisions now, and it will also identify inefficiencies and inform systemic improvements going forward.
“Now that we’ve unearthed this dark data, we can leverage tools that are only available today, things like advancements in machine learning, AI, and blockchain technology that I believe truly revolutionize how supply chains are run,” Stephanie says.
Stephanie sees the future of fashion as on-demand, local and sustainable. Much of the overproduction and waste stems from the disconnect between supply and demand. In a transparent, circular-minded world, production would only happen once a purchase was made, eliminating much of the guesswork, and closing the margin of error.
And progress is already happening within the fashion industry.
Much of our individual fashion waste comes from impulse buys that just aren’t right for our bodies or tastes. We buy an outfit with the best of intentions, then toss it after realizing it doesn’t really fit right. Custom production ends waste by only creating garments that fill a need and truly fit.
Direct-to-consumer business models, like Dhana’s D Sphere, a Queen of Raw partner, invites users to design their own garments with their personalities and choices literally in the fabric.
Frilly, a Los Angeles-based apparel brand, lets shoppers customize every piece of their new sustainable wardrobe.
The men’s clothing company, Trumaker, takes customization offline and combines the traditional tailored experience with cutting-edge technology to create only the best-fitting button-down shirts.
Dessarte Paris is bringing couture online, with style, design, and tailoring catered to an individual’s unique needs and desires. Fame & Partners is another women’s retailer taking the guesswork out of apparel for occasions that deserve the best, specializing in wedding and bridesmaids’ gowns.
New developments in natural textiles that don’t require chemical processing and can biodegrade reduce the environmental impact of production and waste.
Bananatex is a technical fiber made entirely from organically raised banana plants by the bag-maker Qwstion.
Dr. Carmen Hijosa, the founder of Certified B-Corp Ananas Anam, developed Piñatex as a solution to the environmental harm of leather manufacturing and the lack of sustainable alternatives. Made entirely of pineapple leaf fiber waste, Piñatex is replacing leather in fine goods from shoes to jewelry and even upholstery.
Chemical recycling startup Circ is developing a new textile recycling process to break down blended fabrics into their constituents, maintaining the integrity and quality of both natural and synthetic fibers. This technology could revolutionize the textile recycling industry—making it possible to truly recycle post-consumer textile waste like old clothes and household textiles.
Small-scale startups with sustainability baked in are the vanguard of the fashion revolution. Queen of Raw is bringing that energy to the corporate space, charting the course for the fashion industry to do better business while serving people and the planet along the way.
Queen of Raw: Turning Pollution into Profit
Queen of Raw is a marketplace to buy and sell unused textiles, keeping them out of landfills and turning pollution into profit.
They use technology to find and rescue excess fabric sitting in warehouses around the world and make it available for resale not only to students, crafters, and quilters but also to the biggest brands and retailers in the world. Queen of Raw stocks everything from organic cotton to fur and leather, providing sustainable materials for large and small businesses and slowing down the overall rate of textile production.
Stephanie Benedetto, Co-founder, Queen of Raw
With a family history in fashion, a mind for business, and a drive to make the world a better place for her children, Stephanie Benedetto saw the untapped opportunity in textile waste that could set companies large and small on a meaningful path to impact reduction.
Before starting Queen of Raw, Stephanie worked as a lawyer in the fashion, media/entertainment, start-up, and technology industries and co-founded a sustainable textile manufacturing facility.
“As much as we’re all part of the problem, we’re all part of the solution.“ — Stephanie Benedetto
Closing: Recycling Our Way to a Circular Economy
Stephanie won’t be mad if Queen of Raw solves itself out of business. How great would it be to run out of warehouses full of wasted textiles?
The future is circular, and brands big and small are setting admirable goals to get there. Waste is the perfect place to start. Queen of Raw is helping companies take that first step—identify, interrupt, and monetize waste to reinvest in building a sustainable business.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Thread Up
- New York Circular City Initiative
- Complex Challenges. Circular Solutions. Circular City White Paper
- Kering EP&L (environmental profit and loss) resources
- Good on You
- The True Cost
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Katie O’Dell is an acquisitions editor with Falcon Guides where she works with authors to publish outdoor recreation guidebooks on everything from hiking with dogs to yoga and van life. She holds a master’s degree in public relations from Quinnipiac University.