Beyond Profit is a collection of interviews to highlight the work of purpose-led brands. We believe businesses must change and prioritize the planet over profit, and we present these companies to show how this can be done.
Suffering the consequences of the Holocaust; building a business empire that invests millions into social good; battling for hemp and psychedelics policy reform; and inventing a revolutionary product that has become one of society’s best known and most loved brands could serve as the Hollywood plots of five different movies. Instead, it is the 150-year-old story of the Bronner family and their company, Dr. Bronner’s.
In 1948, Dr. Bronner’s was founded by Emanuel Bronner (later known as Dr. Bronner), a third-generation soapmaker from a German-Jewish soapmaking family. While Emanuel Bronner was in the business of producing liquid Peppermint Castile soap (invented by his family in the 1800s), his true mission was to spread a single message: “We are All-One or None!” In other words, we must transcend our differences to achieve peace for ourselves, our society, and our planet. When people came to buy soap without stopping to listen to his message, Dr. Bronner started printing the words on the soap’s labels instead. And so, the iconic Dr. Bronner’s soap that we know and love today was born.
Today, Dr. Bronner’s is a family-run company with over 270 employees. The company follows six Cosmic Principles that guide all that Dr. Bronner’s does – and make no mistake, Dr. Bronner’s is a company that’s known for putting its money where its mouth is. From investing over $2.5 million in fair trade premiums to pioneering progressive business practices that include 100% free healthcare for employees to supporting expansive projects in sustainable packaging and regenerative organic agriculture, Dr. Bronner’s has the rare insight of connecting seemingly disparate issues to create a holistic, equitable, and purpose-driven business. Today, we sat down with Michael Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner’s, to learn more about how the company operates.
In many cases, purpose-driven companies have a singular, core issue that they focus on – for instance, climate, immigration, or racial justice. However, the range of social issues that Dr. Bronner’s tackles is huge – and for some, seemingly unrelated. Can you tell us more about how Dr. Bronner’s thinks cohesively about its work? What is the “red thread” that ties everything together?
Our advocacy work is focused on imperative social and environmental justice issues of our time. We seek to make the best products for people and the planet, and part of how we fulfill our mission is to dedicate profits to support organizations and projects that contribute to tangible and meaningful change for the Earth and all its inhabitants. From our All-One perspective, to create a global regenerative organic and fair trade food system we must also address the well-being of animals; to advance drug policy reform we must also address racial justice and dismantle systemic racism in the for-profit prison system. To prevent mass extinction in the oceans, we must advocate for plant-based diets and lifestyles. The “red-thread” tying everything together is that these issues are connected, and we consider our company an engine for positive change that impacts the whole, not just the sum of its parts.
Dr. Bronner’s core product is, and has always been, Castile soap. The soap itself is excellent and has many marketable qualities, but to focus only on the product would be to miss out on everything that the soap stands for. When thinking about marketing, how does your team strike a balance between educating customers about the product, versus educating customers about the causes it supports?
Our Castile Liquid Soap offers instructions for its various applications right on the soap label and our social media and marketing team publishes regular content regarding tips for its application and best use. My sister Lisa Bronner also publishes an excellent blog called Going Green with Lisa Bronner where she produces videos, recipes, and educational articles about the soaps and other products, as well as our advocacy campaigns. Many of our consumers are very interested in green living, DIY topics, and sustainability, and we so also learn a lot from our consumers about how they use our products! To spread the word of our advocacy campaigns, the political initiatives, and policy projects we support, we rely on a combination of earned media coverage, social media content, articles we write for our All-One Blog, and our newsletter. Recently, our Vice President of Special Operations, Gero Leson, published a book, Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain, which tells the whole story behind Dr. Bronner’s fair trade and regenerative organic agricultural supply chain for all our major ingredients. Communications are absolutely a cornerstone of our company structure!
Dr. Bronner’s has been known for taking an activist stance on the issues that it believes in – including stories like CEO David Bronner getting arrested for harvesting hemp plants in a cage in front of the U.S. White House. Many companies shy away from such a radical approach, even when they believe in the same goals. What are the underlying beliefs or values at Dr. Bronner’s that anchor such actions?
It’s true that my brother David Bronner, and others among our staff and company leadership have voluntarily participated in direct action, civil disobedience, grassroots organizing and mobilization, citizen lobbying, and other forms of participatory social movement building and activism to advance many of the causes we support. These are all tactics that have played a fundamental role throughout history in movements for social progress. Dr. Bronner’s has always been an activist company, dating back to when Emanuel Bronner was calling on the human race to unite from street corners and auditoriums, selling his peppermint Castile soap on the side. Carrying forward that same activist spirit, it is our mission to continue to use the company today to fight for and financially support causes we believe in.
Lots of purpose-driven companies set out with good intentions to create a strong company and workplace culture. This is easy to do when the team is still small and close-knit but can be difficult to maintain as the company scales. As a family-owned business, has Dr. Bronner’s managed to retain the same culture of transparency and care among its employees as it has gotten bigger?
We are deeply committed to our 3rd Cosmic Principle, “‘Treat Employees Like Family.”’ As we continue to grow, we make sure we continue to provide all employees with progressive benefits and pay scales that support good and healthy living. Being a Benefit corporation gives us a legal framework for ensuring we can pursue business for the greater good of all stakeholders, beyond being solely beholden to the profit motive. Being independent and not beholden to investors or economic shareholders also enables us to prioritize mission over profit.
Investing in leadership development and professional development generally, hiring strategically and equitably, and making sure our practices and decisions are informed by the out of box thinking that has driven our success in the first place and staying true to it, is all part of our formula to make sure we don’t let our growth hurt our culture. In fact, we believe our growth has positioned us to create a stronger workplace as we have grown departments, expanded benefits, and leveraged our resources in ways that improve workplace culture. Emanuel Bronner believed that a company has a responsibility to “Share the profits with the workers and the earth from which you made it!” His son Ralph called this approach Constructive Capitalism and we are determined to practice it in every aspect of our business—no matter how much we grow. In 2015, we began publishing what we call our All-One Report, Dr. Bronner’s version of a corporate sustainability and social responsibility report, wherein we make public and transparent all data for the year on our financial stewardship, employee statistics, activist and advocacy efforts, philanthropic donations, waste footprint, and overall highlights of that year’s work—this report is one way we self-evaluate the impact of our growth.
Dr. Bronner’s has been around for 150 years. In that time, there has been a huge range of social issues that have risen to, or fallen out of, prominence. How does this changing landscape of external issues affect the way Dr. Bronner’s operates as a purpose-driven business?
Actually, though my siblings and I are 5th generation soapmakers with our ancestors in Germany making liquid soap as far back as the 1880s, Dr. Bronner’s was founded in 1948 in the U.S. We are soon to celebrate our 75th anniversary as a company! My Grandfather’s philosophy of the Moral ABC which he espoused throughout his life until his passing in 1997, and which is printed on the labels of our Castile Liquid Soaps, speaks to a range of different philosophical and ethical issues. He was especially passionate about the need to unite all of humanity across ethnic, racial, religious, and national divides. This message was vital during his lifetime, as someone who escaped the holocaust, a witness to the emergence of nuclear warfare and numerous atrocities and traumas. When my brother David and I came into the company leadership in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we thought about how to apply the Moral ABC in the primary spheres of influence of the company, namely: fair trade, organic agriculture, and legalizing hemp farming in the U.S. so that we could source the hemp oil we use in our soaps from U.S. farmers (which we now do). Since then, our core advocacy causes have expanded to include such issues as GMO Labeling, climate change, drug policy reform, and animal advocacy—we see all of these as related to the core message inherent in the Moral ABC.
The product labels on Dr. Bronner’s soaps are densely packed with information and messages that your team wants to share with the world. But let’s say a customer doesn’t take the time to carefully read the label. If that’s the case, what is the one, most important message that Dr. Bronner’s wants the world to hear?
"For we are All-One or None! All-One!"