Boll & Branch CEO talks fair trade, ethical sourcing

The bedding company says it sources 54% of all fair-trade cotton in the US.
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Frank Scialabba

· 4 min read

Despite sustainability becoming increasingly important to retailers and consumers alike, Boll & Branch founder and CEO Scott Tannen believes the human element of sourcing is often forgotten.

“We’re trained as consumers; we don’t ever think about people when it comes to the things that we buy,” Tannen told Retail Brew. “We think about maybe the company, maybe the fact that there is a factory, but you don’t break it down as an individual to say, ‘There’s somebody just like me that sewed this.’”

So, one way that retailers, like the New Jersey-based bedding company, ensure their products are sourced ethically is through fair-trade organizations.

  • It’s meant to ensure that workers have safe working conditions and can earn livable wages, among other set standards.
  • Fair Trade USA (which is partnered with Boll & Branch) and Fairtrade International are a couple organizations that oversee the certification of products and facilities.

It’s been a difference maker for Boll & Branch, which has woven fair trade into its identity since 2014. The company says it now sources more than half—or 54%—of the fair trade cotton made for the US.

  • Last year, that amounted to ~500,000 units of fair-trade cotton.
  • Compare that to the roughly 26 million tons produced annually by the global cotton industry.

“We found that the ethical story is a huge driver, and word-of-mouth drives 50% of our business,” Tannen said. “When a lot of companies are seeing challenges from a customer-acquisition standpoint, we have a reputation that is still our biggest driver, and I think fair-trade plays a small part in that.”

High standards: Boll & Branch works with Fair Trade USA to maintain its certification; Tannen said that the bedding brand’s factories are frequently audited by Fair Trade USA to ensure compliance, issuing quarterly reports to the company.

  • Tannen said that Boll & Branch leans on Fair Trade USA to understand what compliance standards to look for, noting that Boll & Branch has its own representatives on the ground as well.

Data suggests that an overwhelming majority of consumers want to buy products that are sourced ethically: 88% of shoppers surveyed said that they prioritize buying products that are ethically sourced and/or produced, according to a survey of 27,000 people worldwide, conducted by OpenText, an information management platform.

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What’s the rub? Well, fair-trade certification requires much more oversight and costs a retailer more, Tannen said, although he didn’t disclose specific numbers.

Ram Murugesan, managing director of fair-trade certified Paramount Textile Mills in Thirali, India, which works with Boll & Branch, shared some of what’s inside the facility:

  • A highly regulated humification air-conditioning system to maintain comfortable working temperatures
  • Twenty one restrooms for women and 9 for men, roughly 12–15 workers per restroom
  • Factories that are built out on a single floor
  • A doctor on call

“The pros are that you don’t have to really worry about getting a talented workforce because of the environment that you created,”' Murugesan said. “Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s expensive for good.”

Rounding the corner: Isabella Pacheco Morun, senior development manager of coffee and retail partnerships at Fairtrade America, told us that there are signs that fair-trade certification is slowly gaining recognition. 

  • Awareness of the Fairtrade mark among US consumers was at 41% last summer, up from 28% in 2019, according to a survey conducted by GlobeScan.
  • Sales of products certified by Fairtrade America were estimated to be $1.4 billion in 2020, an 18% YoY increase, per the organization.

That said, Pachero Morun noted there’s a lot more that can be done to raise awareness of fair-trade and improve the overall sourcing of retail products.

“We designed a system that works for what we designed it to do, which was to mass-produce things the cheapest and the fastest way,” Pacheco Morun said. “Now we want this system that produces cheap and fast to also be sustainable, and it’s not correlating.”

Correction 04/25/22: A previous version of this article stated awareness for the term fair-trade stood at 41%, rather than awareness for the Fairtrade America mark; Fairtrade America sales were $1.4 billion in 2020, not 2021; and Fairtrade America is part of Fairtrade International. This has been updated to reflect those changes.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.