N.J. organic bedding brands help here and abroad

By Kimberly L. Jackson | For The Star-Ledger 

When it comes to pesticide use on the nation's farms, few people realize that the chemical mix can include herbicides for weeds, insecticides for insects, fungicides for plant pathogens, nematicides for parasitic worms, rodenticides for rodents as well as soil fumigants, growth regulators, defoliants and desiccants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps records of pesticide use, and each year has listed cotton among the most pesticide-intensive crops, requiring millions of pounds to be sprayed annually. At least 15 different pesticides are commonly used for conventionally grown cotton. Beyond the use of cotton for textiles, "more than 6 billion pounds of cottonseed and cottonseed meal are used in livestock feed, and more than 90 million gallons of cottonseed oil are used for human foods such as salad dressing or margarine," according to USDA.gov.

Potential health threats linked to pesticide use have become a growing concern, prompting many to seek alternatives for not only food, but fabrics. According to the USDA, consumer demand is creating a larger market for organic cotton, with the farmers who grow it receiving premium prices.

At least two New Jersey companies are among those helping to meet what appears to also be a growing demand for bedding made of cotton grown without synthetic pesticides or chemical finishes. 

Boll & Branch of Summit is an internet-based startup that has created fair-wage jobs in India with the manufacture of its organic cotton luxury bedding. White Lotus Home of Highland Park is a decades-old "green" company relying on American-grown organic cotton and New Jersey workers who make many of its products by hand.

The companies have different approaches, but both have customers who seek organic cotton products to support pesticide-free agriculture or to avoid products processed with commonly used chemicals such as formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Formaldehyde is used in some bedding to help it resist wrinkling or shrinkage. Many other chemical processes reduce the flammability of bedding materials, as required by law. 

The presence of some chemical finishes is reduced by washing and off-gassing over time, while others are designed to permanently bond with fabrics. Whether these substances pose a toxic health threat at levels found in mattresses and bed linens continues to be debated. Still, many, including those with chemical sensitivity, are opting to play it safe with organic alternatives. 

White Lotus Home

The company began producing eco-friendly sheets and handmade mattresses in Highland Park in 1981. Located near a more open-minded academic population in the vicinity of Rutgers University, the company began when "green" was still a fringy, outsider concept in New Jersey. Fast-forward 34 years, and owner Marlon Pando notes that White Lotus Home now benefits from the more widespread desire, particularly among younger consumers, for "clean" products and those made locally in the United States. 

White Lotus Home, which now has stores in Brooklyn and Miami, also sells eco-friendly American-made furniture. The company makes products for other brands and sells its own lines through various retailers and online at whitelotushome.com. Additionally, they accept orders for custom work.

The company is among those vying for a Martha Stewart American Made Audience Choice Award, which allows online voting for finalists recognized for quality craftsmanship in categories including design, food and crafts. 

White Lotus Home offers USDA-certified organic cotton sheets and pillows as well as 17 different options for non-toxic "green" or organic mattresses. Made by hand with layered fibers, the mattresses with toppers can reach a 14-inch thickness without coils. The company incorporates wool, a naturally flame-resistant fiber, to meet fire retardancy requirements. 

Pando, formerly the company's creative director, purchased what he said was a struggling brand in 2015. His goal has been to become and remain the nation's top organic bedding maker, he says, and he is proud to support the U.S. economy.

"Every single product that we sell in Highland Park - all the soft goods, all the furniture – is made in America," he said. "All the covers, pillows, custom work – all made here." 

Pando's family moved to the U.S. from Peru when he was 7 years old. When asked how he manages to be globally competitive in a shop where he says no worker earns less than $10 an hour, he cites his MBA from Metropolitan College of New York as well as his experiences making ties by hand in a company started by his parents. "It's strategically getting the right people on board to do what they are best at."

Boll & Branch

As founders Scott and Missy Tannen approach the two-year mark in January for their company recently relocated to Summit from Chatham, they are expanding their luxury bedding to include towels and patterned crib sheets. Scott Tannen describes the company as a "disruptive" start-up, challenging the model for how high-end bedding has traditionally been produced and sold. Organic cotton bedding by Boll & Branch is available only through bollandbranch.com, streamlining what is traditionally a long supply chain. 

"We go directly to the source," says Scott Tannen, who has a background in marketing and the development of online gaming websites. "We manufacture it ourselves." For its Fair Trade certification, the company pays a higher price in India to the farmers who grow its organic cotton, while offering higher wages and health insurance to factory workers and their families, including parents. The cotton used is certified as 100-percent organic by the Global Organic Textile Standard, which prohibits use of heavy metals, genetically modified substances, toxins and carcinogens.

The price of Boll & Branch sheet sets, including flat and fitted sheets and two pillow cases, ranges from $200 for twin to $260 for the larger California king size. Those accustomed to paying much more for luxury bedding might quibble with the looser sateen weave, material that's not as thick or the need to iron untreated sheets, but the markup is significantly lower for those who are focused on getting 100-percent certified organic bedding where the producers are paid fair-trade wages.

Missy Tannen, a former third-grade teacher, designed the sheets that are hand-finished with deep hems, pleats, intricately stitched trim or contrasting borders. She recently worked with a Brooklyn artist to design an upcoming line of organic cotton crib sheets. The brand's dyes also are GOTS-certified organic, she said. 

"I wanted our patterns to be a visual representation of our brand," she said. "It was important to me that you could see that an actual artist made our patterns." 

With growing demand, organic sheets are becoming more readily available, even sold through mass retailers such as Target and Walmart. But Scott Tannen notes that "organic" on the label doesn't always bring the same quality, even with GOTS certification. 

"GOTS certification most certainly does not signify that an ethical price was paid for the cotton, that's where fair-trade certification is crucial," he says. "Further, while GOTS does ensure that the factories are safe, they do not evaluate pay levels, work standards, etc." 

At a time when many are promoting American-made products, Scott Tannen says the company is looking into ways to have some of its products made here. However, the impact Boll & Branch is making in India also matters, he says. 

"Yes, we want to support the American economy, and we believe we are in a number of ways," he said, citing the brand's Los Angeles distribution warehouse. "But I don't know that we would have an impact to the extent here that we are having overseas," he said. "We are literally changing lives."

MasterCard Visa Dicover American Express PayPal Barters Cash Checks