Stevan Brenner couldn’t think of what to do for his English composition course project.
Brenner, a sophomore majoring in business, emailed his professor, Haili Vinson, seeking advice for the project, which asked students to identify a pressing social issue, write about it and design a project around the paper to combat the problem.
Vinson replied with one sentence, instructing Brenner to check out “factory farming,” and from there an idea for Brenner’s startup clothing line company, which donates upwards of 9 percent of all sales to environmental charities, was born.
Brenner searched for a YouTube clip and saw animals being bred in dense indoor factory conditions.
“I don’t think I’ve ever watched a clip that has had such a profound impact on my life, ever.”
He immediately began researching topics about the environment, farming and sustainability. As part of his project, Brenner decided to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle and visited Fry Farms in Plant City, a local farm that raises cattle through humane and sustainable means.
After presenting his report to his class, Brenner brought his professor on a second trip to Fry Farms to interview and speak with Marie Fry, who owns the farm.
Brenner said the sight of cows walking on grass and drinking fresh water stood in stark contrast to the images he had seen when researching about factory farming. Vinson said, after speaking to Fry, she and Brenner toured much of the property.
“The cows were beautiful and roaming around and we got to feed them as well,” Vinson said. “I could tell Stevan was getting a lot out of it.”
After finishing the class project, Brenner said he decided to take it further. He started his clothing line, “.RAW,” an acronym for “Restoring America and the World.”
“After my project, the idea evolved into ‘Hey, I can make this the antithesis of all the big businesses that really aggravate me,’” he said.
Brenner said his research of factory farming had turned him off to wanting to do business because he saw corporations as being greedy and only concerned with profits.
“I looked at business and I hated it,” he said. “It made me think that people didn’t care about anything but profit. At one point I honestly thought of dropping out of school and moving elsewhere, but thankfully the light bulb hit me in the face and I realized I could make .RAW as a response to what I think is wrong with business.”
Brenner said he drew more inspiration for the values for his company after a lecture in March, when Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company spoke to students as part of the University Lecture Series about the importance of eco-friendly, sustainable business models. Brenner drew inspiration from Greenfield’s three-part bottom line — people, planet, profit — and decided to implement the idea into .RAW.
“I wanted .RAW to be something tangible people can unite under,” Brenner said. “You know, you put on the shirt and you’re part of the movement of clean, ethical and responsible business that doesn’t care for only profit.”
Initially, Brenner had the images on his apparel produced by outside eco-friendly sources, but said the new products will feature pieces produced and pressed by himself.
The company only sources eco-friendly and recycled products made in America, Brenner said. He said he only purchases his materials from American companies who do not participate in inhumane labor practices and only use recycled cotton. When he can’t purchase materials made with recycled materials, he said he makes larger donations to charities.
“I hope to have tank tops and hats out this summer,” he said. “Currently, there are no raw recycled hats or tank tops available for purchase. In that case I will be donating about 20 to 30 percent of profits to non-profits instead of the standard 9 percent.”
Brenner started .RAW with $1,000 and a single product design. Since then, he said .RAW has sold roughly 300 apparel items, including a special edition crew neck sweatshirt, with portions of the proceeds going to the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 12,500 square feet of forest.
To date, Brenner said he has made about $3,000 in profits while continuing to donate about 9 percent of all profits to environmentally-conscious charities. He has also been logging the shipping distances in the hopes that once .RAW has some footing, he can donate more funds to non-profits like The Carbon Fund to help offset his carbon footprint.
For Vinson, Brenner’s story embodies the goals and aspirations of the class project.
“This is beyond anything I could have expected,” Vinson said. “Most students, they do the action, write the paper and then they might stay involved with it a little bit, but at the end of the day, for most students it’s just a requirement. But for Stevan, he found something he was passionate about and stuck with it. He is a good example of what the project is meant to do,” Vinson said.
Brenner, who said .RAW made its way through the first round of entries for Forbes magazine’s most promising companies of 2012, said he hopes his brand and his movement will eventually make it to the national scale.
“Every great business started in an apartment or a college dorm room and I’m just hoping to be like that one day, but with my business and my message,” Brenner said. “I’ve been doing a lot of networking and I hope it will pay off.”