Can something as
simple as soap change the world?
thinks so. The president of California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps has five
generations of soap-making in his blood, a legacy going back 150 years. With an
old world recipe tweaked by the addition of hemp seed oil, the company’s line
of organic soaps has exploded in popularity in recent years, with worldwide
sales expected to exceed $100 million this year.
Soap isn’t all Bronner
is selling, but the idea of washing away injustice in agriculture and commerce,
of loving the planet and our bodies with environmentally sustainable practices,
of ending prohibition of cannabis and agricultural hemp. And, as the family’s soap labels have touted
for half a century, that we are all one on this “Spaceship Earth.” Bronner
estimates the company gave away $6 million of its $80 million in sales last
year to such causes.
“Soaps from the
beginning were really about the label selling the message rather than the label
selling the soap,” said David Bronner.
years of the family business
For the record, Emanuel
Bronner wasn’t actually a doctor. But with a thick German accent and a wealth
of scientific knowledge, few questioned his credentials.
grandfather, whose family had been making soap in Germany since the 1850s, came
to the U.S. in 1929 to work in the more modern soap industry. With the rise of
Hitler and the Nazi persecution of Jews, many of the family left Germany.
Emanuel’s parents, however, waited too long and the Nazis nationalized their
business and sent them to the concentration camps.
He never saw them
again. Then his wife died in 1944. Something changed in Emanuel.
“In the midst of
this incredible tragedy he had this mystical experience of one-ness and love
and we all need to recognize our unity across religious lines,” said his
grandson. “My granddad left his career and began traveling the country
spreading his message of unity and love.”
He landed in jail,
then an insane asylum, but shock treatments couldn’t tame his fervor. He was a
common fixture in California public squares in the 1950s. From the company’s
website: “He sees the need for the world
to unite before it destroys itself, and he exhorts all people to unite as one
and to respect each other and the environment, and he encourages all religions
to recognize their universal similarities inspired by the same divine source.
Dr. Bronner sees planetariums as being the “All-One” temples of the future,
where humanity can realize how vanishingly trivial their differences are on
Spaceship Earth within the celestial majesty of creation.”
If such mysticism
was lost on Eisenhower’s America, the soap he began making and selling on the
side wasn’t. When he noticed people were buying his soap but not staying for
his talks, he began printing his message on labels.
found a more receptive audience in the counter-culture explosion of the
1960s. Though he didn’t indulge in the
drugs that helped fuel the movement, he became an iconic figure, a real person
the hippies could identify with, not some corporate mascot.
By the time organic
foods came in vogue, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps were a fixture at health food
stores across the country. When he died in 1997, the company had 30 employees,
selling $5 million in soaps a year.
The not-so-secret ingredient
David Bronner never
saw himself joining the family business.
Though he had
worked in the factory in summers growing up, he had different designs, maybe a
mental health counsellor. He drifted to Amsterdam in the mid-1990s, at the time
the only place in the Western world where cannabis use was legal. He was no
stranger to cannabis, but amidst the haze of smoke–not to mention other
psychedelic experiences–he found a powerful sense of purpose. He would fight
for the environment, social justice and legalization of cannabis.
When his own father
died in 1998, just a year after Emanuel, he got his chance, as the new
president of the family business.
“I had to grow up
quick,” David said. “I definitely was going to honor my granddad’s vision, that
activist vision to promote environmental and social change.”
His first major change
was to substitute hemp seed oil for olive oil in the line of soaps, for a
smoother lathering effect and to promote what appeared to be a relaxation of
regulations on industrial hemp. Then George W. Bush happened and the company
found itself in a protracted legal battle with the Drug Enforcement
Administration over the legality of hemp seeds. The company prevailed in 2004
in federal court.
David continued to
advocate for legalized hemp, getting himself arrested three times, including
once for locking himself in a cage with hemp plants in front of the White House
to express his disappointment in President Obama’s policies on hemp.
Along the way, the
company adopted new policies in line with its founder’s vision, such as a fixed
pay ratio between executives and employees. The company was certified organic
and Fair Trade, which indicates sustainability and fairness in economic
practices and product sourcing. Dr. Bronner’s also threw financial support for
ballot measures ranging from cannabis legalization to labeling of genetically
modified organisms in food.
Demand for the
expanding line of products skyrocketed, and the company that David inherited
with 30 employees in 1998 has 130 today.
He attributes such dynamic growth to the continued demand for organic
products, the quality of the soap, which is largely the same recipe created by
the elder Dr. Bronner, as well as the hard work of the people who make and sell
it. And there is also the activist mission.
“We walk our talk,
in activism. And I think people resonate with that,” David said.
What would the
company’s founder think of his grandson’s success?
“I think he’d be
pretty psyched. He might be a little, like, ‘You guys aren’t out front on this
unity message as much as I was’ . . . but I think in every other way he’d be
super jazzed and super psyched. He’d be super proud.”