While sustainability is becoming an increasingly important concern for retailers and consumers alike, Boll & Branch Founder and CEO Scott Tannen believes that the human component of sourcing is often forgotten.
“We are educated as consumers; We never think about people when it comes to the things we buy,” Tannen told Retail Brew. “We might think about the company, maybe the fact that there’s a factory, but you don’t break it down as an individual to say, ‘There’s someone like me who sewed this.'”
One way retailers like the New Jersey-based bedding company can ensure their products are ethically sourced is through fair trade organizations.
- It aims to ensure that workers have safe working conditions and can earn viable wages, among other things.
- Fair Trade USA (which works with Boll & Branch), Fairtrade America and Fairtrade International are some organizations that oversee the certification of products and facilities.
Boll & Branch, which has woven fair trade into its identity since 2014, is a key factor. The company says it now sources more than half – or 54% – of the fair trade cotton made for the US.
- Last year that was around 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 big driver and that word of mouth is 50% of our business,” said Tannen. “When many companies see challenges in terms of customer acquisition, we have a good reputation, which 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 the bedding brand’s factories are audited frequently by Fair Trade USA to ensure compliance and provide the company with quarterly reports.
- Tannen said Boll & Branch relies on Fair Trade USA to understand what compliance standards to look for, noting that Boll & Branch also has its own local representatives.
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The data suggests that an overwhelming majority of consumers want to buy products that are ethically sourced: 88% of shoppers surveyed said they prioritize it purchase Products that are sourced and/or manufactured ethically, according to a survey of 27,000 people worldwide conducted by OpenText, an information management platform.
What’s happening? Well, fair trade certification requires a lot more oversight and costs a retailer more, Tannen said, although he didn’t give specific numbers.
Ram Murugesan, Managing Director of Fair Trade certified Paramount Textile Mills in Thirali, India, which works with Boll & Branch shared what is at the facility:
- A highly regulated humidifying air conditioner to maintain comfortable working temperatures
- Twenty-one women’s and 9 men’s toilets, approximately 12-15 workers per toilet
- Factories built on one floor
- A doctor on call
“The benefits are that you don’t really have to worry about getting talented workers because of the environment you’ve created,” Murugesan said. “Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s forever expensive.”
Around the corner: Isabella Pacheco Morun, senior development manager of coffee and retail partnerships at Fairtrade America, told us that there are signs that Fairtrade certification is beginning to gain recognition.
- Awareness of the term among US consumers was low 41% up from 28% in 2019, according to a survey conducted by GlobeScan last summer.
- Sales of Fairtrade America certified products were estimated to reach $1.4 billion in 2021, according to the organization, an 18% year-over-year increase.
However, Pachero Morun noted that much more can be done to raise awareness of fair trade and improve sourcing of retail products overall.
“We designed a system that works for what we designed it for, which is to mass produce things in the cheapest and fastest way,” said Pacheco Morun. “Now we want this system, which produces cheaply and quickly, to also be sustainable and non-correlated.”