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David Bronner is a Cosmic Engagement Officer
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David Bronner is a Cosmic Engagement Officer
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David Bronner is a Cosmic Engagement Officer
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Conversations
7 June 2018

David Bronner is a Cosmic Engagement Officer

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

Nathan Scolaro on meeting David Bronner

On a recent trip to California, I arranged to visit the headquarters of Dr. Bronner’s just outside of San Diego. I knew from the company branding—the planets and stars and great cosmic messages of connection and one-family—that I was in for a wild ride. And it was. There were sirens and pop anthems and employees dancing on top of the Dr. Bronner’s magic foam truck. And that was just the beginning. Energy is something this team has in bucketloads, a testament to the pioneering workplace culture that Dr. Bronner’s has created—their “cosmic principles” including: “Treat employees like family, Treat the Earth like home, Fund and fight for what’s right.”

David Bronner is the grandson of the company founder Emanuel, and a fifth-generation soapmaker. Under he and his brother Michael’s leadership, the brand has grown from $4 million in annual revenue in 1998 to over $111 million in 2017. Drawing on a 160-year soapmaking legacy, David and Michael have also established the company as a sustainable leader in the natural products industry, fighting for legislation change in GMO labelling, industrial hemp farming, fair trade standards and a fair minimum wage. With his long ponytail and rainbow tie-dye t-shirts, David ensures business at Dr. Bronner’s is done with an open mind and passionate spirit, working always to improve the system for people and planet.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

I’m keen to hear from you about what’s happening here at Dr. Bronner’s and how that’s contributing to the next economy.

Well, Dr. Bronner’s is at the forefront of a movement within the business community to respect the multiple stakeholders beyond shareholders: respect the community, the earth, the ways our products or services impact everyone involved – from the source farmers and suppliers to the end customers and people impacted. How does that product get thrown away? What’s the ultimate fate? And just taking responsibility for your whole impact, especially with supply chains. I mean as cool as Bronner’s is here at our headquarters and we have all fair pay and practices and fully biodegradable soap, there are 10 times more people involved in our supply chains and that’s true of every company. So making sure that you’re not just buying on price and spec without considering the social-environmental impact. Like that’s kind of the old way. The new way is that you want to make sure that everyone involved in the production of our raw materials is being respected and not exploited, and that the impact on the earth is minimal.

There’s this interesting tension don’t you think, in that we’re trying to create this new economy while we’re working within the old economy framework.

Yeah. I mean the revolution is made out of the tools of the empire. You have to operate within current economic constraints and usually that means make the small achievable moves. Move in the direction as you can. Take incremental steps. A lot of these steps are often at times cost-saving. Like if you can really smartly redesign your operation a lot of waste streams can become profit centres. So if you start to think more environmentally then you’re going to be wasting less, you’re actually bringing more back into your process. There’s more and more awareness within the general public, especially the millennials coming up, they want companies that are producing products that aren’t going to come back to bite them. They want to know, like, “Hey, is this done correctly or not?” And they are willing to pay a premium for it. So if you can tap into that and effectively communicate what you’re doing, customers are more receptive.

Transparency is so important. I think people are increasingly sensitive to a lack of transparency as well.

Right.

As customers we’re becoming more discerning. “What am I not being told here?”

Yeah. You’re seeing it in food, all the big CPGs trending down. And they’re realising that the more simple, healthy, organic offerings are what is putting up the big growth numbers. And you’re just seeing a big shift away from commodity products towards more consciously produced goods and services.

And then I think employees as well are attracted to organisations where they can find purpose and meaning in this kind of work.

That’s huge man. On the lower end, like our warehouse positions obviously we pay really well, compared to market. But on our higher end, our top management, we pay much less than a lot of our top people could be commanding working elsewhere, but they work for us because they feel aligned to our values. We work within a five to one cap. You’re not going to make more than five times our lowest paid position, but they’re so bought into our vision and our mission. Basically we get talent that could easily make way more money elsewhere but they’re just all in on our mission. And in capping our salaries we donate all our profits we don’t need for the business towards the causes and charities that we care about.

That’s amazing. So tell me more about the story of Dr. Bronner’s. I know it’s got a pretty rich family history.

So my dad died in ’98. My grandad died in ’97, on the same day our daughter was born, Maya. And my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after I had let him know I was able to come into the family company—there’s a whole story there. I mean the one thing I knew back at college was I didn’t want to work for my family.

Why not?

I just wanted to do my own thing. I was like, “I don’t want to work for my dad,” you know. There was nothing wrong with him. It was fun blasting foam and we got to do a lot of good stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. And after college I got a Euro pass. It was a graduation present. I went to London and to Amsterdam and then never left Amsterdam. I was there for the Cannabis Cup in ’95 and really got turned on, on a lot of levels, in many ways understanding what my grandad was saying all along. I mean growing up I had no idea what he was talking about when he’d say, “We must unite this Spaceship Earth!” You know. “We’re all one!” “We’re all connected.” Just constantly on it. And as a kid I’m like, “Ah, okay.” But then having these experiences was like whoa, “He’s totally right!” And it was amazing. I mean it was a whole process. I became vegan and became a mental health counsellor in New England. But as my consciousness deepened, I just realised well if a company like Dr. Bronner’s were to offer me a job, I’d go for it in a second. And so I let Dad know. And he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer like a month after I let him know. Luckily I’d already made that choice to come in the company.

Tell us more about your grandfather and how he came to have these ideas. You know, he was such a strong advocate for these messages. And he used the product really to bring people to the philosophy.

Right. So my Grandad founded our company as a non-profit religious organisation and even though we do business as Dr. Bronner’s our corporate name is still “All One God Faith.” The IRS disagreed with my grandad’s tax exempt status and there was litigation and my grandad ended up in bankruptcy paying huge amounts of back taxes in the ’80s. My dad and my mum and my uncle stepped in to help right the ship at that point, and took over running the company. And we reorganised as a for-profit. But we have that kind of non-profit-like DNA, you know. And my grandad came from an orthodox Jewish soap making family in Germany. By the time he was born basically it was the largest soap making enterprise in Germany with three factories. And he came of age in the guild system of the times and apprenticed to another soap making family and became a master soap maker. But was always clashing and at the age of like 21 he basically came to the States because he was clashing with his dad and uncles all of the time over his Zionist beliefs and they were like, stop mixing politics and soap. So he came over in ’29 and became a consultant to the US soap industry and helped build factories and launch products. And when he came over, the fascism, it was starting, but it wasn’t that big a deal yet.

Oh okay. I thought he was fleeing.

He wasn’t fleeing. It was more of a generational conflict. But he became increasingly desperate as Hitler rose to power to get his family out. And his two sisters got out. Lottie went out in ’36 at age 20 and ended up at the Ein Gev Kibbutz. And Louise got out in ’38 right before they closed the borders. And his parents, like a lot of the bourgeois Jews, they thought the madness was going to blow over, they were going to ride it out. And then it was too late. The factories Aryanised in 1940 and they were deported and killed in 1942. And actually we have a letter from the Nazi who got our factory for one Deutsche Mark. It’s like, “To the customers, this factory has been Aryanized but please expect the same level of quality and customer service as always. Heil Hitler!” It’s just crazy. You know. So my grandad was reeling under this massive tragedy, and he’d met my dad’s mum and had three kids in the ’30s as well. And she was really sick, you know, she was in the hospital a lot and then died in 1944. So he’s got his parents being killed, his wife dying, this massive personal tragedy. But somehow in the midst of this he’s having these mystical breakthroughs.

That somehow in the midst of all this tragedy and pain and suffering there was a love and a light at the heart of reality.

And if we could tap in and realise our transcendent unity and that we’re all children of the same divine source and that all the spiritual giants, all the different faith traditions were saying that, and that we’re all one, and realise that, then we have a shot because in the next holocaust, in a nuclear armed world, we’re all going to die. So he felt originally called to go and proselytise his all-one message of unity. And if you read all our labels it’s Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, Lao-Tzu, with all their quotes, showing the unity across the different religions. And that’s what he called the “Moral ABC.” And so he was going around the US to lecture on his peace plan basically. And then he was selling on the side his family soap, the peppermint flavour. And he realised people were coming more to buy the soap then to stick around and hear what he had to say. So he began to put what he had to say on the labels of the soap. That’s the genesis of our label. And the foundational example that the soaps are to serve a larger cause. Like for him it was all about the soap selling the label, not the label selling the soap. For him, it was always first and foremost, “We must unite this Spaceship Earth!”

[Laughs]. The spaceship language. Where does that come from?

From Buckminster Fuller, who was another kind of amazing cat. He invented the Bucky balls. He was a polymath kind of cat. But my grandad saw that the planetariums, that all these prophets in my grandad’s interpretation were inspired by the majesty of creation revealed through the stars. And in particular Halley’s Comet. He was big into the blazing light that would blaze forth in the night sky in ancient times, which is mind-blowing kind of like precipitate mystical consciousness and connection with the divine. So he considered that the planetariums were going to be the temples of the future where we could just realise how small we are. He loved Carl Sagan. You know, like we’re just on this tiny little dust mote, where all our conflicts are nothing.

That universe message I find challenging, this idea that we’re nothing. When you see ourselves from space, we think about ourselves on earth, it’s like this is just a blip in time and our lives are really meaningless at the end of the day. And that can have a really calming effect, right? But at the same time we have to urgently recreate the earth and rebuild.

Yeah it’s like we’re insignificant nothing but also it’s somehow at the same time crucially important to struggle and make it better and make more freedom, more life, more love. So it’s not about nihilism. We have a choice. We choose love, we choose life, we choose the light. You know, that’s way better. We’re the part of God and part of the infinite that’s here, that’s now, and so get to it.

How do you see the social and political situation here in the States, and even looking out to the rest of the world, the work that needs to be done.

Oh I mean Trump is a disaster obviously. But underneath that there’s some powerful social trends. Like you were just talking about the new economy. There’s massive shifts in consumer behaviour and I feel like cannabis legalisation, gay marriage, minimum wage, income inequality are some real things that aside from our president, are on good trajectories. And in a way Trump is organising a lot of people to stand up in opposition that hopefully in the longer game will be helpful, like having a wolf in wolf’s clothing. It’s just so obvious we need to fight. I mean my pessimism says he’s doing a lot of damage. He’s undoing a lot of environmental gains and progressive gains in a lot of ways. But we need to see the potential here as well. You know we look at our business where money is flowing, and this money is energy — this is where we can leverage real impact. It’s like your dietary choice.

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.

Our latest magazine, Issue 55 of Dumbo Feather, is all about creating the next economy. For more wisdom, conversations and practical ideas about building a more inclusive economy, purchase the magazine or subscribe

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

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