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Leon Kaye headshot

Dr. Bronner’s Audacious Activism Is Refreshingly Authentic

By Leon Kaye

One 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.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye