Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap: Embracing Eccentricity

June 6, 2017

“My grandfather came up with the contents to spread his message.” Mike Bronner, Co-owner of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company

Before organic products were trendy, before “hippie chic” was a popular Pinterest search term, there was Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company. For decades, Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile liquid soap was affiliated with counter-culture folks drawn to its simplicity and “We are All-One!” messaging. And while it was founded by a German immigrant in the 1940’s, the generations that came after him — his sons and grandsons — turned a small, loyal following into the $100 million business it is today. Essentially, Dr. Bronner’s has cracked the code for balancing social activism with a command of global business. In this episode, we visit the company’s headquarters in Southern California, to see the close-knit family business in action. And we learn how “the soap that cleans everything” embodies a spirit of invention, and a commitment to ethical business practices, allowing it to stand out in the health and beauty industry.

The Venture is hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This episode features:

Mike, David and Trudy Bronner – family of Dr. Bronner and current heads of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company
Brian Obach – Professor at SUNY New Paltz and author of Organic Struggle
Sarah Lamm – Director of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox
To learn more about The Venture, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure

Transcript:

There’s a photo that made the rounds on the internet of Lady Gaga. It was taken by famous fashion photographer Terry Richardson. In the photo, she’s sitting in a sudsy bathtub with her naked back to the camera.

 

Her hair is pulled to one side and you can see that her neck and back  are marked by dark red circles – this was in 2013 – when cupping, a celebrity health fad – was all the rage. The snapshot is raw and voyeuristic.

 

Besides Lady Gaga there’s one other thing that stands out in the photo:

 

A big green bottle of soap sitting on the corner of the tub…It’s Dr Bronner’s.

And it has that unmistakable label. Every inch is covered in tiny writing…

 

STEVIE: Dr Bronner’s pure Castillo is the very best soap for body home and

Spaceship Earth…

 

There’s a message on each bottle, and it makes for some interesting bathroom reading…

 

ALVIN: To do my work to love and live to see it I grow and give and give…

KAYLEE: Never to look behind me for an hour…nor walk in power

BRITTANY: Help build the brotherhood of man..all man one god faith

ALVIN: This is really intense

 

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. A soap company that built an empire on eccentricity and ethics.  And was one of the pioneers in the natural and organic movement.  

 

—–

 

This is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative, about pioneering businesses and the people who made them possible.  

 

Each week we’re meeting innovators, artists, and risk takers who prove that business is an adventure. Visionaries and makers who changed the face of their industries.

 

I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. We’re taking this journey alongside Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s transatlantic airline. A company that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates challenging the status quo.

 

This week.. We bring you the remarkable story of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. And its founder – Emil Bronner, whose eccentric vision and epic desire to save the earth became the backbone of this 100 million dollar company.

 

Dr Bronner’s is a soap that sparks conversation and questions, so many questions.

 

STEVIE: Who’s Dr. Bronner? This is like my biggest question….

KAYLEE: Mostly I’m just like what does this label mean?

ALVIN: Is he a doctor?

BRITTANY: It’s entertaining to me but it is bizarre.  Like what is the point? Why are they doing this?

 

The label claims the soap has eighteen uses….

 

STEVIE: Ready? Shave, shampoo, shower, bath, mop, launder, degrease.

CHRIS: One tablespoon in one quart of water to spray plants for bugs. Dash of cayenne optional

KAYLEE: Wash Dog by wetting fur, massage soap for good lather. Rinse well

STEVIE: So like how do we know it’s cleaning anything? Because still it’s just oils!

 

That’s right. Dr. Bronner’s soap is made up of plant-based oils which are 100% organic, fair-trade and biodegradable. Dr. Bronner’s has built a name for itself…by embracing a specific worldview.

 

DAVID: We are a company that is both about really great soap and about uniting

spaceship earth.

 

This is David Bronner the grandson of the founder of Dr. Bronner’s soap And Also the C.E.O.  Which stands for:

 

DAVID: Cosmic Engagement Officer for Dr. Bronner’s….

 

Cosmic Engagement Officer, spaceship earth..this is the company’s lingo – words you’ll hear multiple times in the hallways of its corporate headquarters outside San Diego – and it all sprouted from the mind of the company’s founder, Emanuel Bronner.

 

Emanuel  Bronner was born in 1908 to a Jewish family in Heilbron, Germany. His father and his two uncles owned a soap factory under the family name Heilbronner.

 

Traditionally, soap was made from animal fats, but the Heilbronners sold the first-ever liquid, olive oil soap starting back in the mid-1800’s. That family recipe is the prototype for Dr. Bronner’s soap today.

 

Emmanuel or Emil – as he was called – grew up working in the family business, and eventually learned the trade.

 

Emil wanted to get away from Germany – he was Jewish and this was 1929 – but he also wanted to escape his own family. He clashed with his parents constantly. He dreamed of going to America.  

 

Sarah Lamm is a filmmaker who made a documentary about Dr. Bronner’s life.

 

SARAH: There were disagreements between father and son, and that part of

it was coming to America to create a new space for himself, and be in his own world.

 

At the age of 21, without his family.  He left for the United States.  

 

In America, Emil dropped the “HEIL” from his last name “HEILBRONNER” because of its association with Hitler.

 

And like many new immigrants, he turned to the skills he’d brought with him from home: making soap. But Emil didn’t come to America just to make soap….

 

SARAH:  He was really sort of taken with making — making pamphlets and stuff.

 

These pamphlets contained Emil’s list of MORAL ABC’S – directives he’d been writing on how to live a moral & meaningful life – while preserving the planet.

 

SARAH: I guess you would call them, the building blocks and the basics. This is the bedrock of what it is to be a moral person.

 

Over the next decade, while Emil was refining his philosophy, things in Germany were getting worse. The Nazis had taken over the family’s soap business. War broke out in 1939.

 

For years, Emil pleaded with his parents to come to America but they never did. They eventually died in concentration camps.

 

Back in America, Emil was building a life for himself, making soap to support his wife and 3 young children.  In 1944, his wife got sick and died after a long illness. Leaving him alone with the kids.

 

SARAH: I think it was a very dark time for him. And I think it continued to affect him for the rest of his life. And that it was sort of a combination of all of those things, that he — his behavior became erratic.

 

He became obsessively focused on how to unite the human race.   So much so, that Emil felt he could no longer care for his children. So, he made a difficult decision – to put all three into foster care.  

 

SARAH: He was an evangelist. He was incredibly determined. His family, several of them had been killed in the Holocaust. And so the stakes were very high for him, and it was very clear to him that he needed people to understand that we were interdependent as human beings, on Spaceship Earth. That if we didn’t take care of ourselves and of the planet, that none of us would be here. And he understood that very deeply at a visceral level, and he wanted all of us to understand that as well.

 

Dr Bronner would often record his thoughts and ideas on tape. This is from an album of his home recordings.

 

DR BRONNER: Uniting all in one god faith. Our Health. Listen children, eternal father, eternal one! We are all one! All one!

 

SARAH: Because you know, when we talk about Dr. Bronner, it’s easy to sort of laugh it off and say, oh Dr. Bronner he — you know, he was so crazy, but I think you have to put it in the context of the time, that he was responding to something that was crazy, and he was responding with great energy. He had experienced extreme trauma, and was responding to that. And he was also a visionary. And that you can be both things. You can be sort of suffering the mental health effects of trauma, and also be a visionary at the same time — that you don’t have to decide.

 

By 1946, Emil had started preaching the Moral ABC’s wherever he could. Standing on a soapbox, literally, on street corners and college campuses.  His sister – who had joined him in America – was so concerned about him that she had him committed to a mental hospital. Family legend has it that after 2 years there, Emil escaped the hospital through a bathroom window and hitchhiked to California.

 

SARAH: And when he got there, he was met with all manner of people who were

politically engaged and preaching, and sharing their ideas. And he joined them and

began standing on a soap box and sharing his opinion.

 

  1. BRONNER: Have courage and smile my friend think then years ahead… get work get hard. Get done. Then teach friend and enemy how to work and how to love. For God is love. Love is god.”

MIKE: My grandfather had a mission.

 

Here’s Mike Bronner – Co-owner of  Dr Bronner’s and grandson of Emil :

MIKE:  For the people who came to listen to him, he either sold them or handed out bottles of soap. And word got out that this product was really darn good. And so people started coming, taking soap and leaving — not listening to him. So that’s when he put his — his philosophy on the bottle. Most people come up with a label to sell the contents. My grandfather came up with the contents to spread his message.

 

  1. BRONNER: United all One God Faith. Our Health. Our Only Eternal Wealth. Exceptions. Absolute None.

 

Emil was creating a religion – one he called All-One Faith. He added the title of Dr. to his name.  And his pulpit was the label.   

 

SARAH: And he drew from all the world religions…

 

Again, Sarah Lamm:

 

SARAH: Including thinkers that he admired. I think by the end he might have had a quote on the label from Oprah Winfrey. But he also admired Rudyard Kipling and he pulled from Hillel, and he loved the term spaceship Earth, which was taken from Buckminster Fuller.

 

The idea is simple…the earth is a ball, with finite resources, hurtling through space.  Humans have to learn to command this Spaceship, protect it and not pollute it. Emil became obsessed with this idea. Here’s grandson David Bronner:

 

DAVID: And my granddad loved that. You know, he was a very cosmic guy. You know, I

mean all these differences we’re fighting over and dying over, I mean, in the cosmic vastness. And so my granddad really dug that metaphor.

 

Dr. Bronner was making soap in the bathtub of his home and struggling to pay the bills.  He was also struggling to get his message across. This was the 1950’s. Post war America was focused on a particular kind of progress. Middle class suburbs with manicured lawns and white picket fences — families eating tv dinners and housewives having tupperware parties.  Caring about  Spaceship Earth – or for that matter — eating and growing organic was definitely not a popular concept.

BRIAN: Organic was very much on the fringe…

 

Brian Obach is the author of Organic Struggle.

 

BRIAN: And in many cases even attacked by government officials by state officials and by the conventional Food and Agriculture industry, which dismissed the whole organic idea as a hoax and something that was you know backward and you know not even healthy.

 

By the 1960’s though, things began to change for Dr Bronner.

 

Twenty years after he first started preaching the Moral ABC’s, he finally found a whole generation who was ready to hear this message.

 

Coming up: The 60’s arrive and Dr. Bronner finds his audience.

 

—-

 

MIDROLL BREAK:

 

You’re listening to The Venture, brought to you by Virgin Atlantic.

And just as the Dr Bronner’s experience starts the second you pick up a bottle, Virgin Atlantic believes the adventure of traveling begins before you even board the plane.

At Virgin Atlantic’s clubhouse spas, travelers can get a manicure, a massage or even a fresh new haircut before taking off.

REBECCA: I think we try and make it an adventure in everything that we do.

Rebecca Creer is the senior spas and styling manager at Virgin Atlantic. It’s her job to make sure travelers relax, unwind and are taken care of throughout the whole journey. From aromatherapy inflight to the Revivals lounge, they make sure to send you on your way feeling refreshed and revived.

REBECCA: I think there are so many things that we do that create a unique experience and more of an adventure for the customer. So they can remember it and be part of the enjoyment of the journey and not just a journey to get from A to B.

Virgin Atlantic…offering little touches that make a BIG difference.

To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure

—–

 

Welcome back to The Venture. I’m your host Ashley Milne-Tyte.

 

At the height of the free love era – Dr Bronner was in his 60’s – and he was the picture of health.  He had a deep dark tan and was a proponent of vigorous exercise and clean living.  He was also selling a lot of soap in health food stores and meditation retreats where he’d speak.

PERSON: Dr Bronner!

  1. BRONNER: From 1937-1970, that is 33 years, every single ounce of any kind of ounce of soluble fluoride must be marked deadly poison.

 

Dr Bronner was connecting with a new, young audience. Here’s filmmaker Sarah Lamm:

 

SARAH: They would come around and they would listen, and they wanted to hear him speak. And so of course, he liked that very much, because he liked to hear himself speak, and he liked to feel like he was affecting change in the world.    

 

Dr. Bronner had created a bible he called the MORAL ABC’S – on how to live a moral and meaningful life – while preserving the planet.

 

TRUDY: My first meeting with Dr. Bronner, it was: “pick a number.”

 

This is Trudy Bronner.  The Chief Financial Officer of Dr Bronner’s and Emil’s daughter in law.  

 

TRUDY::  Pick a number,” and I — I can’t remember what I chose, six or seven. And that

was a number in the moral ABC. And so then for the entire rest of the time we were together, Dr. Bronner told me about the moral ABC…But he was very single minded to unite Spaceship Earth, and you know, that was a — you could say, part of his charm. And then, part of the things that didn’t make him charming. That’s the same — that same thing. He really could never let go of it, he could never let go of it.

 

The people who loved Dr Bronner’s message also loved his product.

 

They’d bring the soap camping, on long road trips and to multi-day, music festivals like Woodstock. People claimed you could use it for anything. To wash your hair, your dishes, your laundry, your floors…even brush your teeth.

 

SARAH:  Yes, the most unusual soap usage that anyone described to me was a woman who did enemas on herself, and used the soap as part of the process. That was — that was the one that I was like wow, ok. Many, many uses for Dr. Bronner’s.

 

Dr. Bronner’s soap became the soap of the counterculture. But Americans in general were becoming more health conscious in the 70’s. Fitness trends like jogging and jazzercise were becoming popular. Natural foods and products started to become more popular, too.  Dr. Bronner’s was sold in health food stores and food co-ops across the country in big gallon-sized bottles. Here’s Brian Obach again:

 

BRIAN: The organic movement was really part of an effort to build alternative institutions. It supported alternative businesses, alternative communal farms that adopted organic growing methods. So it was really this, this population that gave organic a lot more attention and popularity at that, at that time.

 

During this time of massive growth, Dr Bronner reconnected with his youngest son, Jim.

Who he’d placed in foster care all those years ago. They began to develop a closer relationship, but it was hard to be close to Dr. Bronner. Here’s Jim’s wife and company CFO Trudy Bronner.  

 

TRUDY: There was a coldness there. Cold might not be the right word. There was not warmth. The warmth of the family was not on his radar…..

 

Eventually, Dr. Bronner asked Jim to join him in running the company. But this was not an easy choice for Jim. He was busy building his own life, 100 miles away.

 

TRUDY: That was a very difficult decision. He fully came on when it was – it was definite

that they needed help here.

 

Dr Bronner was so consumed with spreading his message, that many of the details of the business fell to the wayside.  He had started the company as a religious non profit and because of that – he’d never paid any taxes.  What followed was a financial bloodbath.

 

Here’s Jim’s son, and current CEO, Mike Bronner.

 

MIKE: It was really like kind of just tough —  you can imagine, it’s like, my grandfather being behind all these taxes, He declared bankruptcy, My father saw like, all these advisers just taking money from my grandfather, not giving him good advice, and they would all say, like well, we tried to give him advice but he won’t take it. And dad would be like, why are you taking his money, then? And so he fired all of them.  So my dad got my grandfather out of bankruptcy, and then got mad at my dad for hiring all these expensive people. So I think that really — that was just like, you know, my dad kind of lost it, and was like I mean, gosh, I can’t do anything right, you know.

 

The drama with the taxes went on for a decade.  Jim got them through the tangle of dissolving the non-profit and becoming a for-profit company. And Jim took over the business. His father became more of a figurehead.

 

Dr. Bronner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and eventually died from it in 1997 at the age of 89.

 

This is when Jim asked his eldest son – David – to run the company with him.  

 

But just one year later – in 1998 – Jim died of cancer.

 

David asked his brother Mike to help lead Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Company, and they still run it today.

 

Mike and David are two very different people:  Mike looks like your typical  jeans and  t-shirt-wearing kinda dad. And he’s direct, to the point.

 

MIKE: Sure my name is Mike Bronner, I’m a fifth general soap maker and now President of Dr Bronner’s.

 

David- on the other hand –  wears tie-dye shirts and a long blond ponytail.  David is more...cosmic.

 

DAVID: There is a transcendent spiritual dimension to our existence.

 

Running a family business can be thorny, but Mike and David say working together makes somes decisions easier.

 

MIKE: And there’s a lot of things that we can agree on super fast, that other companies

would take, you know, months. Such as, you know, let’s give 2 million dollars to fight for

GMO labeling in the next election. It’s like sure, done, let’s do it.

 

When it comes to the business – they are both perfectly aligned with their grandfather’s ideas about protecting spaceship earth. And they’ve adapted that message to fit today’s  environmental challenges.  

 

MIKE: You know, we try to always push the envelope. We were the first to come out with

a 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles for our soaps. We’re looking at

getting our toothpaste tubes now, made from sugar cane. And it’s always trying to find

every single link in the circle of, you know, our brand, and try to

make it as —

 

DAVID: Cool as possible.

MIKE: Cool as possible. Optimal, you know just — yeah I guess, cool is a good

Word….

DAVID: Green and it’s fair and its righteous.

MIKE: Righteous! Yeah, exactly.

 

Keeping things as cool as possible means always trying to find ways to make their product more equitable. More environmentally friendly. More fair. They’re trying to improve the lives of both the employees who make the soap, and the communities who provide the raw materials, like coconuts…

 

MIKE: And there was no fair trade coconut in existence. And we worked with different

agencies, trying to come up with some kind of program to get coconut oil certified. It was

difficult. People told us come back to us in five years. And we’re like no, we want fair

trade now. So we worked with a Swiss organization called IMO to develop a standard for

coconuts.

 

In 2003 Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap went fully organic. And in 2006 it went fully fair trade.

 

MIKE: For us it’s really taking the — the message off the bottle, and just

applying it everywhere. And for my grandfather, obviously, that was always the

intention…..And you know, this — this label was going to unite the human race. It was

going to, you know, make for a better world, a better environment.

 

Here’s Brian Obach…

 

BRIAN: They did not sell out and they have been able to maintain an

ethical commitment not just to organic but to their workers to the to the natural

environment, to customers. And that’s, that’s outstanding. There are very few other large

organic companies that maintain those standards and maintain their independence and

really fought to uphold ethical standards within the organic sector.

 

And their commitment to ethics extends to their company policies. At Dr. Bronner’s, the lowest paid employees are paid nearly 18 dollars an hour with benefits. Their highest-paid executive makes no more than five times the lowest paid worker.

 

MIKE: And so what we do is, we — we invest in our employees, because our employees

are really our most valuable resource, so that also means that they can get up to 25 percent bonus, as well, that on top of that, they get 15 percent that goes towards retirement…You know, we really — we really do believe that we should treat employees like family, my mom gives every employee a candy cane at the holiday party with a $100 bill that they have to spend on themselves.

 

Today the company has expanded beyond soap. They make a shaving cream, body lotions, toothpaste and lip balm. And not unlike Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory – The Bronner brothers are always trying out new ideas.  

My producer Julia Botero and I are back in David’s office. He places a clear menthol crystal in each of our hands.  

 

DAVID: So just nibble a little bit.

JULIA: Wait they’re breath mints?

ASHLEY:  Oh! That is so — don’t put the whole thing in your mouth.

JULIA: Oh wait?

ASHLEY: It’s really strong.

DAVID: Too late oh my god

ASHLEY: ooh!  

DAVID:  But we had the thought like, oh you know, these are so powerful that we could put them in little dime bags and say, Breaking Bad Breath or something like that.

 

ASHLEY: Oh gosh I dropped mine on the carpet. It’s somewhere here within the strands, the different colored strands.

The Bronner Brothers are also looking for ways to expand the brand, right now they sell coconut oil for cooking. And the brothers hope to always keep the business in the family. If possible.  

 

MIKE: Well, right now — right now, my boy of three and a half and man, he just wants to work for a soap company, that’s what he wants to do. I know — I know that this might not be a linear transition, that he’s probably going to — probably need to find his own path, but I hope that at some point, he can do what me and my brother did, which is come to Dr. Bronner’s on his own terms, with you know, a passion that he found for himself.

 

Dr Bronner’s also continues to embrace its quirky roots.

 

That’s me – spraying one of the company’s employees with a firehose full of soap suds. This is part of their official welcome when a newcomer visits the company…it’s a bit weird and also really fun.

 

The fire truck travels to parades and music festivals – and the purpose is to cover people in white foam. For a laugh.

 

So the next time you see one of those bottles with the pastel colored labels on the shelf of your local organic grocery story. Pick it up and read the fine print. It’s the work of a visionary from a century ago – who tried to make the world a better place.  

 

CREDITS

 

The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo & Partners.   

 

We were produced this week by Julia Botero, Nicole Wong, and Rachel Ward, with help from Grant Irving, Thom Cote, and Caitlin Dilena. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. We were edited by Wendy Dorr and mixed by Andrew Dunn. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll.  

 

Special thanks to Bertine Kabellis, Stevie Lane, Chris Neary, Kalila Holt, Alvin Melathe and Brittany Luse.

 

Music for this episode is courtesy of West One Music and Marmoset.

 

To learn more about our show, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure

 

Coming up next time on The Venture…how one woman is fighting to fix the gender disparity in the tech industry, by teaching teenage girls how to code.  

 

RESHMA: I do believe that finding a cure to cancer. thinking about the top innovations, doing something about climate change, those are going to be my girls. You know my girls are going to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

 

That’s next time on The Venture.

 

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.