By Maria Bermudez Pizano
Innovative ideas often come true when they are a solution to a problem hitting close to home. Having a recurring problem without an existing solution is a powerful driver of inspiration and it is likely to occupy one’s thoughts for long hours a day. At least this was the case for the founders of Boll & Branch, a home-textile company that has managed to disrupt the industry by imposing their own rules and creating sustainable luxury.
It all started in their home. For Scott and Missy Tannen, choosing bed sheets turned into a long journey. Tracing the cotton back to its origin was not as easy as they expected and their questions on whether or not the process was ethical went unanswered, so they decided to answer the questions themselves. At the so-called “retail level” of the luxury bedding industry, they found an opportunity to become a company completely built on ethical practices. They spent countless hours researching every single step, trying to trace back every cotton strand they could find. The Tannen’s commitment to using responsible farming and labor practices in their products automatically became their main differentiator in a mature market full of established competitors; they saw their company grow into an unbelievable source of impact.
The Business Model
Through every step of the process, the founders of Boll & Branch found signs of alarm and they were determined to make changes in their own business model to make it more humane. After vast amounts of research, they realized sourcing cotton from India was cheap, but dealing with GMOs, pesticide use, child labor, and poor working conditions was not an option for them. In turn, they reformed the traditional business model for home-textile manufacturers by examining every step of the process.
As a provider of a specialty product, their core strategy had to be different. Their niche of customers was not only looking for a high-quality product, but one that was ethical from the beginning to the end of the supply chain. The first step was cotton sourcing. After another round of research, they decided to source it from a non-profit organization certified by FairTrade USA, the Global Organic Textile Standard, and Fairtrade International: Chetna Organic (Gelles, 2016). Working with cotton farmers in central and southern India, this was a good way to ensure genetically modified seeds and pesticides were not used in the process. Looking for a manufacturer was a similar story; wanting to ensure humane working conditions in factories, Boll & Branch chose to work with one of the partners of Chetna: Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills, an organic and Fair Trade certified textile factory in Kolkata, India (Geller, 2016). Of course, this meant higher costs for the company, but Mr. and Mrs. Tannen were confident that their target market would be willing to pay for an ethical brand. They were soon to discover that they were right.
Impact by the Numbers
According to an article in Forbes, since their launch in 2014, Boll & Branch has re-imagined the production of home textiles, managing to create a huge impact in factories they partner with abroad and at home (Moore, 2016). Working directly with the farmers and factory workers that source their cotton and manufacture their products, they have managed to incorporate the community and achieve one of the key pillars of becoming a social enterprise. Their reported impact in a few key aspects is noted below:
- Number of factory workers employed: 1,000 (Moore, 2016)
- Reported increase wages compared to the average wage for textile workers in India: 3x (Moore, 2016)
- Additional benefits for factory workers: medical benefits, ethical working conditions, reasonable hours (Moore, 2016)
- Individuals supported above the poverty-line (including factory workers, farmers and their families): around 11,000 (Boll & Branch, 2016)
- Number of victims of human trafficking that have been rescued through their partnership with Not For Sale (an anti-human trafficking organization that receives a percentage of every sale of Boll & Branch): 9,388 (Boll & Branch, 2016)
- Number of farms in India where 100% of the cotton grown has been consumed: 116 (Boll & Branch, 2016).
As previously mentioned, Boll & Branch’s biggest differentiator from other luxury brands in the industry is their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, which paid off when they became the only bedding company with a Fair Trade certification (Moore, 2016). Apparently unsatisfied with that threshold, the company also acquired a certification by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), described by Forbes as “the gold standard for independent certification of product safety and organic material composition” (Moore, 2016).
Since 2013, Boll & Branch has become a well-established brand in the home-textile industry. Surpassing sales expectations at an unbelievable rate ($1.7 million in 2004 to $13.5 million in 2015), they have managed to establish a symbiotic relationship with the farmers and manufacturers they work with (Geller, 2016). Going from low, seasonal demand to cash advances (needed to ensure that the company has enough cotton to produce their products), both parties found a mutually-benefiting situation.
From a purely consumer perspective, the brand offers prices much more affordable that other competitors in the luxury sector. Further, they provide free-shipping and “hassle-free returns with a 30-night trial” (Moore, 2016). For the ecological consumer, they can rest assured that the company works to reduce their use of water in product manufacturing and that their packaging comes from 100% recycled board (produced by a “socially and environmentally conscious factory that is certified for social accountability in the workplace”) (Boll & Branch, 2016).
With their products sold directly through their website, it seems like the company has figured out the perfect combination for an organic, sustainable, and ethically-sourced product that is accessible and affordable to their customers. Thoroughly certified and incredibly transparent, the customers of Boll & Branch can rest assured that it is a brand that holds true to its promise of “making better bed sheets to make a better company” (Moore, 2016).