We can have immediate impact, when we decide we are not going to eat factory farmed animals. When we decide to refrain from meat or eat only an animal product pastured from the farmers doing it correct or not at all. Now you’ve just removed yourself from a really unconscious destructive cycle and are participating in a much more constructive humane cycle. So it’s like, what are the flows of eating and consumption for a business? I need to choose from the farms that are doing it correctly. ’Cause the farms are making not just food but a lot of our stuff. Like soaps and clothes and all of our consumable stuff. What are those farms? I mean 30 percent of the earth is now terraformed in agricultural land management. And we need to transition that management to replicating a wild ecosystem and a sustainable balance of livestock and crops and doing it in a way that nature does. You know, nature doesn’t have any synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. It doesn’t have a bunch of animals locked up in cages. I mean it’s all integrated and that. So it’s about reducing the population of livestock to a sustainable level and then balancing them in our agricultural systems in a sustainable way.
And so all of these ideas are coming to you and your brother, as the potential for what Dr. Bronner’s could be when you started to head up the business?
Well my dad implemented a lot of our employment practices like good wages and benefits. And we were watching other businesses like Guayaki which started up in the ’90s and Guayaki is also a tribe in Paraguay that sustainably harvest yerba mate, which is like a South American green tea. And the company set the example of harvesting the tea in a way that is totally benefitting the tribe, while the rainforest is being protected ’cause it’s all shade grown. And I was like “Wow! Like, duh! Where’s our stuff coming from? What is the price that should be paid so that it’s done correctly?” Not the cheapest possible price so that you can just wreck the environment, and rip the fertility out of the soil, wreck communities. I mean that’s what most businesses were doing. Just default to that unconscious, chasing after the cheapest price. Then you get this race to the bottom. So I was like okay, we’re going to go organic and fair trade and we’re going to increase the cost by 20, 30 percent. But this is what needs to happen. And it was a risk but we were rewarded. I mean it turns out our customers started making this shift at the same time, and I think a lot of people in general were just waking up. So we connected at the right time.
But something else that seems like it’s happening here is that there’s a lot of generosity, right? You’re in this economy of abundance. You’re giving, you give this free vegan lunch to your staff, free kombucha on tap, it’s like a very generous workplace. And I think there’s something in that model of generosity.
Yeah. We’re putting money in the spiritual bank account.
Yeah. Yeah great.
You’ve got to be smart, strategic about it. But yes. It all comes back. I mean our staff are obviously psyched. So anyone who interacts with us, the vibes, it’s incredible. And I mean it’s all kind of flowed organically and naturally. But then giving our money to minimum wage campaigns, cannabis reform, GMO labelling, organic agriculture, all these causes that we fight in, we get a lot of love. There’s a lot of people who really care passionately about animal welfare or minimum wage or cannabis. So they’re like, “Whoa, we’re in there fighting for real. Laying down real firepower to help win it.” And so we’re in the news a lot and instead of marketing we do activism, but then we’re effective in communicating it.
And we take our organic fair trade really seriously. We’re certified under the national organic program the same as food. There was a big problem with organic misbranding in personal care in the States where a bunch of companies would take a teabag of organic herbs and put it in the production batch water. And then all their main cleansing and moisturising ingredients are petrochemical shlock, but now they load up the ingredient deck with organic water infusions, chamomile, lavender, peppermint. There would be all this litany of meaningless organic extracts that are in there in this tiny amount. And then the rest of the product’s just the same old crap shampoo. And they call it organic. And we’re like, “You need to stop.” And we tried it for three years to work with them, with everybody. At the end of the day we built a standard that they all walked away from. And the same thing happened with fair trade. Where people were making big claims with two percent content of fair trade. In both cases we had to resort to litigation to make them stop.
So what about success? Has your idea of success changed and what does it mean to you now?
I just want to give a shout to my brother on the international sales front. I mean that’s now 20 percent of our business which was like one percent when we took over back in the day. And he’s just done a great job on those relationships. After college he lived in Japan. He spent a semester abroad in Ethiopia in college and he’s just like an international traveller and was similar to me, he didn’t want to work with our Dad the same way I didn’t want to. He had to go do his own thing for a while. And then once he did, I was like, “Mike, dude, business has taken off and I’m not like I was before, I’m way cooler.” So I talked him into coming on [laughs.] We’ve also navigated the move into mass market, which many natural brands have not done correctly. They’ll just lose their soul. They sell out or they’re just bought, which is mostly what happens. Or they lose their way. So we’ve negotiated that transition in the national channel and mass market. We did five million when I took over and we did $110 last year and are now just really poised for another wave of growth. I mean organic, fair trade, the salary cap all has been amazing for us, but the soaps themselves are so simple. Like when you look at food, food brands are finally figuring out we should just have five ingredients in our ice cream. We shouldn’t have 30 unpronounceable ingredients.
That’s genius. Right? It’s the simplest thing that makes so much sense. The less ingredients there are, the better the product.
And if you read our ingredient deck you can actually pronounce everything and go, “Wait, this is normal stuff, compared to a bunch of synthetic stuff.”
What do you think makes good leadership?
You’ve just got to step up when it’s hard. To step in and take care of stuff when it matters. And I think that’s the number one thing, holding the situation with integrity and handling stuff that’s hard. in a way that’s fair and cool and gets the job done. I would say it’s inspiring people with your message. I mean I don’t do like a lot of formal reviews, it’s more this real time “Hey, you know, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that this way.” And then we do it and we get it done and it’s awesome, and people see that. I like feel like we have some of the Genghis Khan style of leadership where Genghis gave his Khans a lot of power; our tip managers have a lot of autonomy. Leadership is also about understanding where people are at and influencing them in a way that’s respectful but efficient.
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