Dr. Bronner’s Audacious Activism Is Refreshingly Authentic

dr bronners, castile soap, Emanuel Bronner, magic soap, Leon Kaye, transparency, fair trade, organic, corporate social responsibilityOne of the best soaps and cleaning products you can buy is castile soap. It is pure, smells good, cleans well and lacks the additives and chemicals that are often tucked into “natural” products. I took a bottle with me to Argentina during a month-long trip there and used it for laundry, shaving, and I even diluted it to clean the surfaces at one unfortunately grotty hotel in the Pampas. Dr. Bronner’s is arguably the leading brand of liquid soaps, not only for the quality of such products as its “Magic Soap” but its commitment to fair trade ingredients and human rights. This commitment was recently outlined by Inc Magazine.

Dr. Bronner’s, like its founder, Emanuel Bronner, is a story of a company’s great highs and the lowest of lows. After losing his parents to the Holocaust and institutionalized for espousing his radical views, Dr. Bronner eventually moved to Los Angeles. He sold his first peppermint-scented soap in 1948. For years the soap was sold as Dr. Bronner lectured about environmentalism and world unity in downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square. A cult following was born.

Emanuel Bronner started cramming his quotes and thoughts into his soap labels after he realized people would take the soap but not pay attention to his sermons. He decided to tuck his beliefs in tiny messages on the bottles’ labels. For years sales were marginal until the hippie-dippie era of the late 1960s. Annual sales were about $1 million annually for years as health food stores started becoming more common during the 1970s. But by the mid-1980s a bevy of problems forced the company into bankruptcy.

Fast forward to 2012, and Dr. Bronner’s is a $44 million dollar business. Emanuel Bronner’s grandson, David, now runs the company with his brother, Michael, and mother, Trudy, and they have reached 1000 percent growth since 2000. Not only have the firm’s sales grown, but so has its commitment to social responsibility, free of public relations double speak, that does far more than carry Dr. Bronner’s original vision.

The David truly believes in using the company’s resources to fight for what is right. Frustrated by their difficulty sourcing hemp oil, Dr. Bronner’s litigated against the Drug Enforcement Agency under the George W. Bush administration, which opened the door to industrial hemp making its way into more American products.

In a world where companies are quick to slap labels stating their products are “natural,” organic or fair trade, Dr. Bronner’s offers transparency in labeling. Now, not only does the company practice fair trade, it invests in the movement, with ownership of or partnership with farms in Ghana, Sri Lanka and India. Dr. Bronner’s engages in its own share of Middle East diplomacy with its sourcing of olive oil from both Israel and Palestine.

The results are continued growth and a diverse sales base. Although Dr. Bronner’s products are now sold in Target, natural food stores still comprise 65 percent of the company’s customer base. The temptation to sell to large nationwide chains is tempered by the fact that they would demand slim margins; and even worse, Dr. Bronner’s would risk angering the independent stores that have supported the company for decades. Meanwhile the company still learns from its mistakes: products without the iconic quirky label have not sold so well, so they have been relabeled and rewritten. At a time when many companies trumpet how sustainable and responsible they are while behind the scenes they fund organizations like ALEC, Dr. Bronner’s shows that corporate citizenship and profitability pair very well together.

Companies like Dr. Bronner’s and Method not only clean well, but can teach a lot of companies large and small how to run a truly clean operation.

Leon Kaye, based in California and who has recently returned from the Middle East, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Dr. Bronner’s.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

10 responses

  1. Dr. Bronner green washes their products. They use palm oil in all of their products. The harvesting of palm oil threatens Orangutan habitat.  And although Dr. Bronner’s claim that they their palm oil ”sustainable”, there is no such thing. The palm oil industry is a dirty industry. 
    Moreover, there is no reason to use palm oil in their products except that they’re dirt cheap.

    If  Dr. Bronner’s really cared about the environment, they would stop using palm oils altogether.

    1. Huh? You’re right, Dr. Bronner “washes” their products. With palm oil from Ghana, grown responsibly on a local farm. You’re right, palm oil threatens orangutan habitat: in Indonesia, where palm oil is often harvested irresponsibly. Unless orangutans have invaded Ghana, that is not a problem at all. Palm oil, like any agricultural product, is responsible and sustainable if grown ethically.

      1. You’re missing the point Leon.

        The entire palm industry is dirty. By using palm oils in their products they support industry as a whole. (Dr. Bronnner’s green washing not withstanding)

        There is no compelling reason to include palm oil in soap products except that they are dirt cheap.

        There are plenty of other companies who ”get” this and don’t use palm oils at all. Seek them out. Buy their products. Save an Orangutan today

        1. Hi Mediocrates,

          I work for Dr. Bronner’s and I would like to clear up some misconceptions. You suggest that the entire palm oil industry is dirty, and that we are supporting it. Whatever the case may be about the “palm oil industry,” it is important to note that we are not a part of it, rather we run our own palm oil operation in Ghana, to ensure that it is fair trade, organic, and sustainably grown. Please take the time to read up on our palm oil project: http://drbronner.com/palm_oil_from_ghana.html

          Additionally, you state that we use palm oil in all our products, but this is not true. We use palm oil only in our bar soaps, for which it provides the necessary hardness.

          Please feel free to contact us directly if you really have an issue with any of our practices, as we would be more than happy to discuss it with you.


          Rafi Loiederman
          Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps 

  2. Mediocrates is an appropriate name for such a prosaic logician.

    The argument “by using palm oils in their products they support the industry as a whole,” could also be applied to coffee, bananas, chocolate, animal products– or any of the myriad industries riddled with corruption and environmentally destructive practices. And like palm oil, all of these items are available via alternative, green models of production and exchange.

    Palm oil itself is not inherently evil. Rather, the means of its production should concern you (hence Leon’s distinction between palm oil from Ghana and palm oil from Indonesia). That’s why responsible, conscientious individuals (and yes, companies, like Dr. Bronner’s) choose to create trade relationship with producers who practice organic farming, fair trade ethics, and yes, Orangutan-friendly agriculture.

  3. The Dr. Bronner’s shills ”doth protest too much, methinks.”

     ”Additionally, you state that we use palm oil in all our products, but this is not true. We use palm oil only in our bar soaps, for which it provides the necessary hardness.”

    While I may be mistaken about palm oil in all of your soaps, palm oil is not essential for hardness. You use because it is cheap. Dirt Cheap.

    By supporting the use of palm oils you increase demand for them causing much harm along the way. See these articles:

      Top 3 Victims of Palm Oil: Wildlife, People and Planet

    Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/top-3-victims-of-palm-oil-wildlife-people-and-planet.html#ixzz1rYuDKEZ3
    How to Stop Buying Palm Oil and Help Save the Orangutans

    Read more: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/how-to-stop-buying-palm-oil-and-help-save-the-orangutans.html#ixzz1rYufajFh

      Palm Oil or Rainforests – You Decide

    Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/palm-oil-or-rainforests-you-decide.html

    And that’s just from searching one site. The net of full of similar articles.

  4. Hi, Can you please tell me if Monsanto now owns this company? I read a post on my Facebook page about that. I’m curious because I would never buy anything that Monsanto touches. If this is not true, I would like to correct the author who wrote the post.

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