Supply Chain Shakeup   //   May 30, 2024

Why Boll & Branch is betting on traceability in the home and design space

A set of Boll & Branch sheets will pass through multiple facilities across India before it reaches shelves and homes in the United States. The threads may have been woven together at a solar-power facility in Tamil Nadu. Or the weaving might have been completed at a female-founded operation in Madurai that has spent decades helping local women gain financial independence. Then the item might have been finished at a family-owned, zero-waste tailoring operation in Kolkata.

While this information has always been visible to the operators at Boll & Branch, customers can now punch in a seven-digit lot number online in order to see exactly where their products come from.

“What Origin Track is doing is taking the information we’ve had and making it available to the customer,” co-founder and CEO Scott Tannen said. “Any customer can look up the product and see not just where it comes from, but why we work with certain partners and what makes them unique.”

The concept of traceability has already become a buzzword in apparel, food, wellness and beauty. But Boll & Branch is one of the few home and design brands that is proactively showing customers its supply chain. An overview of 18 companies that have a head of traceability from Planet Tracker included multiple overseas agriculture and farming companies, as well as a few large apparel companies like VF Corp and H&M — but no furniture or houseware brands.

While many retail leaders aren’t sharing traceable information with shoppers yet, they may be required to soon. The Digital Product Passport concept slated to roll out in Europe in 2026 will require more companies to track production from source to delivery. About 30 different product categories are included, including batteries and apparel. Those products must provide a mechanism like a QR code to allow customers to see the product’s supply chain journey and environmental impact.

Boll & Branch, which generates an annual revenue of more than $200 million, has built its profitable brand by emphasizing sourcing and materiality. Product description pages, tags and packaging explain how the products use Fair Trade Certified cotton that’s been grown without the use of pesticides or formaldehyde. But Origin Track takes this marketing a step further by allowing customers to learn exactly where the cotton used in their product came from. It also explains where it was woven, dyed and sewed. For some facilities, Boll & Branch created extended profiles that customers can click on to learn more about each particular farm or operation, like how many employees it has and how it is powered.

Tannen acknowledges that not every customer will want to look up a product’s lot number on the website. But by offering the information, he hopes it will help educate customers about where their products come from and get them thinking about how all items — not just linens — are made.

“If you look across the board, customers aren’t asking this and that’s part of the problem. They haven’t been able to get this information from anywhere,” Tannen said.

Origin Track went live in late April and has so far been used by tens of thousands of customers, Tannen said. The tool is linked by name from the main navigation bar, and also accessible from other parts of the site that invite customers to “Trace My Product.”

The home and design industry is notoriously opaque on traceability. Amanda Wyatt, a contractor who runs the design platform Design Insider, said finding out where products come from can be challenging for professionals and customers, who are increasingly looking for information about what they’re buying. “Googling doesn’t give them a broad range of options,” she said.

Wyatt said she typically is able to get better sourcing information from smaller customer companies, or those that have direct ties with their suppliers, compared to large chains or big box stores. “A lot more of our vendors are making furniture themselves, so the pipeline is much shorter,” she said. 

As a customer of Boll & Branch, Wyatt said she appreciates seeing the company open up to shoppers about where its products are sourced from. “It says a lot about a culture of a company to be transparent and say, ‘We’re going to proactively give you that information,’ or at least have the opportunity to have it.”

In the textile world, many companies may buy finished products from an importer that could be created with cotton and threads from multiple farms. Some may unknowingly be supporting child labor or poverty wages. But fast fashion and fast furniture continue to be dominant market forces, wooing consumers with low prices that are made possible due to low operating costs. Shein — which is reportedly mulling an IPO — had its membership bid for the National Retail Federation rejected, according to CNBC, amid allegations of forced labor conditions at some of its manufacturers.

Tannen said he would like to see traceability features on textiles and apparel become as common as food ingredient labels.

“I think that once you expose the information, [customers] can start asking other companies for the same thing in all different categories. And I think that’s really healthy for the consumer,” Tannen said. “I wouldn’t say there’s huge demand yet, but we really hope to create it. “