David Bronner: Soap to Save the World

Balanced food for body-mind-soul-spirit is our medicine!
. . . hard work our salvation, unity our goal, free speech our weapon.
Whatever unites mankind is better than whatever divides us!

The labels on Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure-Castile Soap—even the name is arcane—seem to belong to the ultimate niche product. Indeed, the soaps’ inscrutable slogans, some in type so small that a magnifying glass is practically required, first found fame as a counterculture icon in the late 1960s.

For many years the small soap company with unique labels remained under the radar but enjoyed a steady, moderate success doing things the old-fashioned way. By the late nineties, when founder Emanuel Bronner passed away, sales had reached $5 million annually; yet bottling was still done by hand, via hoses connected to three-thousand-gallon tanks on the roof.

Fast forward seventeen years. Under the leadership of David and Michael Bronner, grandsons of the founder, the company has grown almost 1,300 percent since 1997, doing $63 million in sales last year. How did a counterculture company become a naturals behemoth by, instead of turning away from its origins, embracing its past and taking an activist stance on a host of new causes from fair trade and cannabis reform to organics and GMOs?

The answer, really, is David Bronner, the company’s current chief executive officer and president, who shares his grandfather’s intensity, drive and desire for a better planet and has figured out how to use activism as advertising, standing up for causes that his grandfather would likely have espoused.

Recently, I had a long conversation with David Bronner to learn more about where the company came from, where it’s headed, and how its unique approach has given it both credibility and financial success.

Bronner’s Beginnings

I have a confession to make: I have been on the Bronner’s bandwagon for thirty years now. In college, when I first started shopping in natural foods stores, the product that fascinated me most was Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Peppermint was my go-to scent, and I used it for everything—even brushing my teeth with it on a few cross-country road trips. The peppermint left my hair and skin tingly and clean, but the contents of the bottle played second fiddle to the label, which I read endlessly.

Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One! ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH. 

Each day, like a bird, perfect thyself first, to have courage & smile my friend! 

Who was this Dr. Bronner? What was his “Moral ABC,” and what kind of faith called out to “Buddha-Bethlehem-Mohammed”?

As it turns out, the company’s founder, Emanuel Bronner, has a story as fascinating as the labels he created. He was born in 1908 in Heilbronn, Germany, to the Heilbronner family of soap makers. “My grandfather came out of a deeply traumatic situation,” David Bronner tells Calmful Living.

As a teen, Emanuel Bronner was concerned about the rise of Nazism, but also clashed with his family over his support of the Zionist movement and the best way to run the business. “He had newfangled ideas about making soap, and he wanted to shake things up in the family business,” David Bronner says.

In 1929 Bronner immigrated to the United States, dropping the “Heil” from his name. He was already formulating his religious ideas about human brotherhood that later became the core teachings of his soap labels, but soon personal tragedy pushed him deeper into this viewpoint.

In 1936, fearing Hitler’s growing anti-Semitism, he tried to convince his parents to emigrate, but they refused; though two younger sisters managed to get out. In 1940 the family soap business was nationalized by the Nazis, and his parents were eventually sent to the camps and killed. Bronner’s last communication from his parents was a censored postcard that simply read: “You were right. —Your loving father.”

While working as a soap industry consultant in the Milwaukee area, Emanuel Bronner met his first wife. “My grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a Catholic nun,” relates David Bronner. “They had three children together, but she was mentally unstable and had health issues. When she got sick and died, my grandfather had a mystical break, maybe with a certain level of psychosis involved. [pullquote]He saw that his life mission was to communicate this truth, that we’re all children of the same divine source and that we need to realize our transcendent unity[/pullquote]. He believed that we would all kill ourselves with nuclear weapons if he failed in his mission.”

The Birth of Magic Soaps

Emanuel Bronner’s commitment to his message of All-One-God-Faith was absolute, and soon his whole life focused on his teaching. “He put my dad and uncle into foster homes in the Milwaukee area while he was out preaching and sermonizing,” David Bronner says. “He financially sponsored them, but he was more or less absent.”

In 1945, when preaching his Moral ABC in Chicago, Bronner was arrested and placed in a mental institution. Following shock treatments, he escaped and caught a ride to California, where he continued his mission in the Pershing Square area. “He was mixing his soap in a tenement hotel in Los Angeles, and business was taking off,” David Bronner continues. “Soon he realized that more people were coming to buy his soap than to hear his message, so he had the insight to put the message on the bottle.” Thus, in 1948, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps was born.

Rifts in the family, however, remained—especially between Dr. Bronner and his youngest son, Jim, David’s father, who subsequently went into the navy, then came back to Los Angeles and began a successful career as an industrial chemist.

“My dad and grandpa reconciled later in life, but usually their visits ended in a shouting match,” David Bronner reports. “My dad had a fair amount of anger over his childhood, and he associated the whole All-One-God-Faith thing with his dad skipping out on him.” Later, when the elder Bronner moved to San Diego, Jim stayed behind in Los Angeles to oversee the soap manufacture and start his own chemical consulting firm, and this was where David was raised.

Joining the Fold

David eventually went east for school, completing a BA in biology at Harvard in 1995. He had been brought up in a relatively conservative Reaganite household, but at Harvard David says he became more open minded and started to realize that his grandfather was onto something.

“After college, I didn’t want to go work for my dad or granddad, so I got a Europass and ended up in Amsterdam,” David recalls. “I got really into the squatting scene, which was very international, activist and artistic.”

Upon his return from Europe, he worked briefly as a mental health counselor, but then the family business began to call him. Dr. Bronner had advanced-stage Parkinson’s at that point; however, David says, “When I told him I was coming back, I think he understood and appreciated that I finally got what he was about.”

Emanuel Bronner passed away on March 7, 1997—the very same day that David’s wife gave birth to their first child. Shortly thereafter, David’s father—who, since the early nineties, had been running both Dr. Bronner’s and Bronner Chemical & Technical Consultants—was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

“It was a very intense time,” David Bronner reflects. “We had twelve months together before he died, while he taught me the ropes and I grew up in various ways. He died in June 1998, and suddenly, at age twenty-five, I basically had to run the company. It was very stressful initially. My mom was the CFO, and my uncle Ralph did the marketing, which was essentially him playing guitar in retail stores. He was really a beautiful force, much more on my granddad’s wavelength than my dad had been.”

David finally talked his brother­­­—who was teaching English in Japan at the time—into joining the company, and Michael took over the international marketing and began to grow the brand into new markets. Now the stage was set for the next evolution of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

Hope for Hemp

As a twenty-something CEO with huge enthusiasm for environmental and social causes, David Bronner began to introduce changes in how the company did business. The soaps had always been pure and natural, based on five generations of traditional knowledge. But now he wanted to make them organic, and to ensure that everyone involved in the manufacturing of the soaps was treated fairly.

The first decision, in 1999, was to begin adding hemp oil to the soaps, both for its performance as a skin emollient and because David believed in its potential as a sustainable material for use in paper, textiles, bioplastics and ethanol production and wanted to promote its use. Unfortunately, the DEA didn’t see it that way. In 2001, under the Bush administration, the DEA worked to destroy the nascent industrial hemp industry in the US, seizing hemp seed and oil at the Canadian border and treating these food and cosmetics ingredients as controlled substances.

Dr. Bronner’s was a key player in a protracted litigation with the DEA, which resulted in a defeat of the DEA position. The agency was eventually forced to reimburse Dr. Bronner’s more than $20,000 in legal fees. David Bronner, who has been closely involved with the Hemp Industries Association and Vote Hemp, is still working toward legalization of industrial hemp crops for US farmers. In 2009 he was arrested for planting industrial hemp on the DEA headquarters’ lawn, and in 2012 he staged a Hemp Harvest protest in front of the White House.

Truth and Purity

David has led his company in a similarly confrontational approach on other key issues, including organics in personal care, GMOs, and fair trade. None of these issues were even on the cultural radar when Dr. Bronner founded the company, yet the younger Bronner’s impassioned approach seems a natural outgrowth of his grandfather’s teachings:

Free Speech is man’s only weapon
against half-truth . . .
Government, like fire,
is our most useful servant, if fully
controlled by us, its Citizens . . . 

The company went fully organic in 2003 and has worked to build lasting relationships directly with suppliers, including Sri Lankan coconut oil farmers, mint growers in India and palm farmers in Ghana. “For our olive oil we partnered with a Palestinian organization that supplies 90 percent of our needs,” David Bronner explains. “But to make it clear that we’re not anti-Israel, we source 10 percent of our oil from Israeli farmers, half of them Jewish and half Christian. For the Palestinian farmers, there are all kinds of challenges in bringing olive oil to market, but this approach is very much my granddad’s ethos of All-One.”

Fundamentally, David doesn’t see free trade, organic production, GMO labeling and related issues as discrete problems. “[pullquote]Our commitment to going organic, our work against GMOs, our fair trade initiatives, are all tied together by the modern disaster of the industrial agriculture machine with its petrochemical-intensive approach that depletes and ultimately destroys the soil; it’s not sustainable[/pullquote]. And while organic is great on the environmental side, there’s no guarantee about the social conditions under which ingredients are being produced. For example, in California the migrant work force isn’t paid any better when picking organic.”

The company’s website details all these initiatives under the heading “The Fighting Soap Company,” and at times David has taken the fight to the naturals industry, working for clear standards for organic personal care claims.

Beginning in 2005, Dr. Bronner’s certified its organic lip balms and lotions under the USDA organic rule, which requires that personal care products meet the same standards as organic food products. In 2008, after trying for years to create meaningful self-regulation within the personal care industry, Dr. Bronner’s litigated against companies to certify organic claims for all personal care products according to meaningful organic standards or else drop their claims. In 2010 Whole Foods Market, followed by National Cooperative Grocers Association, imposed a strict policy forcing all brands to certify their claims or drop them.

The Future Looks Bright

Next on the agenda? “We’re opening up an animal rights front and fighting with allies for animal husbandry regulation to stop meat and dairy products from being produced under such poor conditions,” Bronner responds. GMO labeling is also an ongoing concern, but in the long run David believes that the Monsantos of the world will not find success by trying to fight the consumer demand for transparency. “We’re waking up to the fact that the modern world is making us sick,” he remarks. “We’re eating, drinking, bathing in and breathing chemicals that are not tested adequately, and that’s a real problem.”

As for his company’s success, David attributes it equally to ingredients and activism. “Half our customers simply appreciate the cleanliness and simplicity of our products, and the other half really digs our larger mission,” he says. The activist approach is clearly helping the bottom line; with continued growth in both international and mass-market sales, David Bronner predicts the company could hit $80 million in sales this year.

Though the issues may change with time, the commitment to people and the planet has been there since the company’s founding. In the words of Emanuel Bronner, “We are all brothers and sisters, and we should take care of each other and ‘Spaceship Earth’!”


Find out more about Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the company and its activities at www.drbronner.com.