Crafted for the Common Good: A Q&A with Boll & Branch Founder and CEO Scott Tannen
Brands x Better is a coalition of like-minded companies fostering stability in a time of crisis. We asked 10 members of the Brands x Better family a few questions about what they do, why they were drawn to BxB, and what this pandemic has meant to their company. Next up is luxury bedding company, Boll & Branch. We caught up with Founder and CEO Scott Tannen to hear more about the importance of using Fair Trade Organic Cotton, advice to live by, and their favorite product to date. Here's what he had to say.
Tell us how Boll and Branch came to be. What is your origin story?
When we went shopping back in 2013, we weren’t planning to start a new company. We had recently bought our first king-sized bed, and we needed sheets. As we drove to different stores and looked at the sheet sets on offer, we saw hundreds of choices. The trouble is, we didn’t feel good about any one of them. They all seemed similar and offered no information about where and how they were made. If you’re going to spend every night with something, we thought, it helps to know a little something about it.
There had just been a devastating collapse at a textile factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people. As we wandered through aisle after aisle of bedding, we were confronted with the supply chains we unwittingly support every day. Who had farmed the plants and made the products we were looking at, and under what conditions? Who was profiting from it all? And how good, really, can a product be if it endangers the life of the people who make it?
Soon afterward, we made a decision that took our lives in a wildly different direction. We decided to start a new textile company. One that did right by people. Thousands of products, prototypes, and decisions later, it all boils down to that one choice: to do what’s right.
What are Boll and Branch’s core values? Do you have a mission statement? If so, what is it?
At Boll & Branch, we make luxury soft goods by doing what’s best for the planet and everyone on it. By creating a transparent and fair supply chain and opting for a positive impact at every step of the way, we’re changing the textile industry for good. Every product we make is an invitation to choose good so that tonight, we can all sleep soundly.
Boll & Branch: Crafted for the Common Good.
At Boll & Branch we act every day with:
Humanity. We have built our business on the radically human principles of safe, respectful work environments and a fair wage.
Responsibility. We are conscientious stewards of our planet, and always choose what’s right for it.
Intention. We make products with purpose, thought, and relentless attention to detail.
At Rhone we talk a lot about our customer’s pursuit of progress. How do you feel like you as a company help your customer progress?
It’s awfully hard to progress without first getting a good night’s sleep!
Boll & Branch aims to not only drive our customers to think about the forward and backward implications of the products they purchase and use but to also drive our industry to progress archaic practices for everyone’s benefit. By producing products of immense quality and an attainable price point where we can trace and be absolutely certain that all those who have come in contact with those products are treated and paid fairly, not to mention the planet, we hope that our customers will demand the same—to demand better—from all of the companies from which they shop. And, to hopefully encourage others in the textile industry to find ways to pay a sewer a bit more, to make sure their raw materials are sourced ethically, to use just a bit less water, and to try just a bit harder to preserve our incredible planet. For any of us to progress, we must all do so together.
What motivated you to join Brands x Better?
Through this critical time, when acting for the common good is more important than anything else, it's on us to help where we can. It's imperative that we lead our companies with empathy and compassion, show up for our customers and be the brand they want to continue supporting, and do what we can to keep the economy turning. We are proud to take part in this modern coalition of brands working to set a new standard for how businesses should be run for good.
As a member of Brands x Better, you have pledged to donate 10% of your proceeds until May 1. What charity are you donating to and how and why did you choose that charity?
We decided to donate mattresses and pillows toward emergency needs in the fight against COVID-19. We have provided New York State with 1,000 mattresses and 5,000 pillows for emergency medical facilities and we have begun donating mattresses to emergency shelters for homeless veterans in Pennsylvania. We hope to be able to fund more production in the days and weeks ahead as we all face the uncertain future of this crisis.
Through this critical time, when acting for the common good is more important than anything else, it's on us to help where we can. Boll & Branch was built around a supply chain rooted in ethics; one which prioritizes people and intentional decision-making. When the pandemic struck we took that same approach in deciding to give back in the most deliberate of ways, one that would have a tangible impact where it was needed most and with lines of traceability that we could be confident in. We evaluated PPE options but recognized we didn't have the infrastructure or proper supplies to be able to support the front lines in the most impactful way. So we looked to our US supply chain and found that our mattress and pillow suppliers met the tangible needs of the state and could produce within a short time frame. With this approach, we were also able to keep our partner's facilities running and staff employed while giving back.
If you had one piece of advice to give to young entrepreneurs what would you say to them?
You’ve got a ton to learn…and that won’t change, even when you’re an old entrepreneur. We live in a culture where the focus is on the results to a much greater extent than it is the process. Yet the magic and the joy of entrepreneurship truly lies in the process. You don’t change the world with what you’ve already done or with a number on a spreadsheet, you change the world by doing things differently. And it is the doing, after all, that is the most fun!
What’s one of the hardest obstacles you’ve overcome as a company and how did it shape what your company is today?
We bootstrapped Boll & Branch and have committed to fueling our growth with our cashflow since the day we opened our doors. That commitment to highly-disciplined operations and management of growth in the early days is fundamentally why I believe that Boll & Branch will continue to thrive in 50 years. We do not measure our success by a mythical VC-influenced valuation and we do not manage our business with a priority focus on delivering a shareholder return. There’s a certain degree of scrappiness matched with outstanding operating standards that makes Boll & Branch look a lot different than many companies from the inside out…and it is a source of pride!
What’s one takeaway you’ve had as a company during this recent pandemic?
It may seem obvious but our mission, to act on behalf of the common good, has never been more important. We’ve been able to activate it in a tangible way that has brought our team so much closer together and inspired us all to do some of our best work. This pandemic has presented a moment in time where companies truly live their values. In our case, when Governor Cuomo said that there was a need for mattresses, we simply answered the call, and making it happen is something that truly every member of our company played a part in making happen really quickly.
There is nothing I am more proud of in Boll & Branch’s history than seeing our team rise to the occasion and lend a helping hand, together.
Have you found that there are advantages to running a company with your spouse? If so, what are they?
There are tons! I’ve never understood why so many people are shocked to hear that Missy and I work really well together. There’s no one in this world that I trust more than Missy, and no one that knows me better, and vice versa. Missy is a genius and has a truly remarkable eye for detail paired with a work ethic like none other, all wrapped up in one of the biggest and most genuine hearts in the world. She is an absolute dream to work with and I think the whole team feels the same way.
Co-founders’ relationships can often be strained because they want something different out of life. Missy and I first started dating when we were 19 and juniors at Vanderbilt. We got married when we were 23 (yep, almost 20 years ago), so to say that we’ve grown up together is a massive understatement. And, we are blessed to share the identical goals in life, and they’re simple: to be the best parents we can for Sophie, Brooke, and Hailey and to give them the opportunity to chase their own dreams, just as our parents did for us.
Boll & Branch is incredibly important to our family. In fact, I think someone will probably have to drag us out of the office when we’re 80, but we share a similar perspective on where it fits into our lives and into our family. In some ways, if only one of us had started Boll & Branch vs. doing it together, it may have been much more difficult.
Boll and Branch is a leader in the usage of Organic Fair Trade Certified
™ cotton. Why is this practice central to your company’s ethos and why is it important to you that your customer is educated in your fair trade practices?
Organic isn’t a trendy marketing word for us. It is the non-negotiable foundation for our business. By choosing to use 100% organic cotton from our very first day, we have helped pave the way for a better life for tens of thousands of cotton farmers in India. The world of conventional cotton farming is filled with shortcuts and exploitation, and it’s unforgivably dark stuff. In India, the average life expectancy of a cotton farmer is 35 years old because of potent pesticides on the one hand and supplier debt leading to preventable suicides on the other.
We have committed to using 100% organic cotton because it makes a better life for the people who grow it and because it makes a better product for the people who use it. It also saves 90% of the water used in conventional farming methods, and pays premiums to those who plant, ensuring that they remain debt-free.
It’s no secret that conventional textile factories commit some pretty serious workplace abuses. The garment industry drives a demand for low overhead and quick turnaround, leading to dangerous and untenable working conditions. Employees, some of whom are children, work long hours without proper rest, accommodations, or pay.
But accepting the status quo is a choice, and we choose to reject it. Boll & Branch, was founded to do better by people. We manufacture in India, Portugal, and the U.S., and our products are made by adults, who are paid fairly, treated with respect, and who work at will. We do not employ child labor, and frankly, we don’t look too kindly on anyone who does.
Because of these standards we hold, we were proud to become the first Fair Trade Certified™ manufacturer of linens. We’re proud of that honor, but more importantly, we’re proud that many of our factory employees have become like family to us.
What’s your favorite product you’ve ever made and why?
Easy, our Signature Soft Sheets. They’re my favorite because I still remember the first time I slept on them when they were still prototypes. I looked at Missy and just smiled. As a marketer, you’re only as good as the product you sell, and I knew I had something spectacular to sell. It has always been (and probably always will be) our best-selling product. And I’ve still yet to sleep on anything, at any price point, that compares.
And the coolest part about that product? Well, it was designed (down to an insanely detailed spec) by a 3rd-grade teacher who never made a textile product before in her life. With that one product on more than a million beds, I’d say Missy outdid herself!