"I didn't set out to create a sustainable supply chain," says Scott Tannen. But in 2013, he was on the hunt for new bed linens, and he couldn't stop thinking about the Rana Plaza disaster--the Bangladeshi garment-factory collapse that left 1,127 workers dead.
He began to wonder about the origins of a rather innocuous sleep accessory: Where did manufacturers get the cotton to produce sheets and pillowcases? How did the fabric get milled? Were the factory workers treated well? But answers were elusive. So Scott and his wife decided to create a luxury-bedsheet company that could answer those questions.
Three years later, Boll & Branch, based in Summit, New Jersey, is profitable, with annual sales of more than $40 million and a supply chain that is entirely traceable.
Trying to clean up a supply chain is nothing new--big corporations have been at it for years, mainly as a way to mitigate risks and dodge the next big scandal. But startups, says Steven Swartz, a partner at McKinsey and a supply chain expert, are now realizing that building a better one can provide a competitive edge, particularly among consumers demanding to know where their stuff comes from.
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Supply chain experts might spot more than you, but "it doesn't take a Harvard MBA to go into a shoe factory and see if those people are treated fairly," says Michael Burnette, a director at the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee. When Tannen set up the supply chain for Boll & Branch, he considered factories in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, asking for webcam tours of any he couldn't visit in person. A blocked fire exit or a vague labor policy was an immediate red flag. "When we found the right factories in India, we knew it: They were completely open with us, and they let us put our own people on the factory floor," he says. Today, their mill workers receive medical insurance and are not required to work more than eight hours a day, with the option to earn overtime.