Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Dr. Bronner's makes soap and peace
We chat with the legend himself, Mike Bronner – President of Dr. Bronner’s
We chat with the legend himself, Mike Bronner – President of Dr. Bronner’s
Dr. Bronner’s has been going for 150 years and across 5 generations! How did it begin, and how has it lasted so long?
It is true that our family have been soapmakers for more than 150 years across 5 generations. The company as Dr. Bronner’s in its current iteration was founded in 1948 by my grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, who was the third-generation master soapmaker and spent his life renouncing hate and war on a personal mission to unite mankind.
Emanuel was born in 1908 to the German-Jewish Heilbronner family, which had been practising the traditional local craft of soapmaking since 1858 through the guild system. In 1929, my grandfather, then aged 21, immigrated to the United States working as a consultant soap manufacturer. But following the death of his family in the Holocaust, he embarked on a mission to spread this message of world peace and the dangers of war by giving public lectures on these subjects, and dropped the “Heil” from his name. His strong views landed him in a mental asylum in Chicago, but he escaped and fled to California and continued to lecture in public about his peace plan. He also began making peppermint liquid soap, which he gave away during his talks. When he realised people were taking it without listening to him speak, he started writing his philosophy on the bottle in tiny script, and the people would find themselves reading it in their shower.
In the early years, the soap enjoyed a small but loyal following. With the emergence of 1960’s counterculture, sales rocketed through word of mouth about the quality without advertising. The soaps spread into health food stores across the United States, and in recent years into mainstream retailers. Today, Dr. Bronner’s products are the top selling natural brand of soap in North America and are distributed in Australia and more than 40 countries worldwide.
Although my grandfather passed away in 1997, the company continues to flourish through our family, our employees, and our remarkable global network of suppliers and distributors.
The 4th and 5th generations of the Bronner family run the company today. As Emanuel Bronner’s grandsons, my brother David and myself are the company’s CEO and President, respectively. We are supported by our sister, Lisa, who advises on customer service and has her own blog to explain how to use the products called, “Going Green with a Bronner Mom.” Lisa’s husband, also named Michael, is our Chief Operations Officer. Our mother, Trudy Bronner, is the company’s Chief Financial Officer. There are also many families with generations of people who work for the company, our distributors, and our supply chains around the world. Dr. Bronner’s is a family business because we also consider all who work with us to be part of our extended family. At the heart of how we want our business to operate is one of the foundational pillars that guides our business practices—what we call our Cosmic Principles—is “treat employees like family.”
In a time where CEO compensation can reach as high as 500 times the average worker’s wage, we remain true to my grandfather’s philosophy of sharing profit with the workers and the Earth from which it was made by capping the salaries of the highest paid executives at five times that of the lowest paid full-time employee.
What is Dr. Bronner’s mission?
Our mission is to make socially and environmentally responsible products of the highest quality and dedicate our profits to help make a better world. We do this to honour the generous legacies of both our grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, and our father, Jim Bronner.
Taken from my grandfather’s manifesto, the “Moral ABC” which is the message of unity that adorns the label on the bottle, our company motto is: “In all we do, let us be fair, generous, and loving to Spaceship Earth and its inhabitants. For we are all one or none! All-One!”
All-One acknowledges our common humanity, no matter your life experience or where you are from, your religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender identity, political beliefs; for there is more that unites us than divides us.
I love how Dr. Bronner started lecturing in the 1950s, encouraging the public to unite as one, whilst selling his peppermint soap on the side! It is so interesting how when people were taking the soap and not really sticking around to listen, he printed his message on the labels! What are some of the ways the company continues to act on the original messages of Dr. Bronner?
My grandfather’s personal mission to unite mankind was always number one and the soap was always secondary. As a family-owned brand, we’ve stayed committed to his vision. Our business is an example that a company can be successful and profitable, while still promoting and modeling progressive business practices and sustainability programs. Our commitment is underscored by our organic and Fair Trade sourcing for raw materials, our generous compensation packages for employees, as well as regular financial contributions to charitable and activist causes, which include animal advocacy, environmental and social justice, child and youth services, community betterment, drug policy reform, regenerative organic agriculture, and climate change awareness.
We recently published our seventh annual All-One Report, entitled “Taking Care of Each Other,” which is our unique take on a corporate social responsibility report summarising the company’s philanthropic giving, environmental impact, and other important company developments in 2020. The report spans the breadth and depth of the company’s support of these issues. Dr. Bronner’s total philanthropic donations and sponsorships last year tallied at more than $16 million, or 8.6% of the brand’s net revenue of $188 million in 2020.
We are also proud to have built and maintained the integrity that we have as a company having been in business for nearly 75 years. Our dedication to our mission has earned us the B Corp designation of second “Best for the World” in 2020, with a score of 178.
We can only hope that other companies might see us as a positive example and that it would inspire them to enact similar ethics. We aim to become a climate positive company by 2025.
Tell us more about how your cosmic principles guide your business!
Our values have been integrated into every part of the way we do business as a family company. Maintaining that integrity is essential for our mission. Our leadership, employees, distribution partners, and suppliers understand that social responsibility is a core part of what influences the decisions we make as a company, defining our most important relationships, and guiding us in everything we do, from soapmaking to peacemaking. It is what we call our Cosmic Principles, derived from the ethos of my grandfather. They include: Work Hard! Grow; Do Right By Customers; Treat Employees Like Family; Be Fair to Suppliers; Treat Earth Like Home; and Fund & Fight for What’s Right. We continue to live by the values and principles of my grandfather, and we are able to maintain pathways of trust as more and more people appreciate us for our commitments.
What are some of the initiatives Dr. Bronner is involved in on Australian soil?
We are honoured to have an amazing, mission-aligned local partner in Lateral Food Corporation Pty Ltd as Dr. Bronner’s exclusive distributor in Australia. They uphold these ideals and create the same kind of community impact as an extension of Dr. Bronner’s in their representation of the brand as they support a number of organisations who are taking action in environmental advocacy, animal welfare and community betterment with product and funds each year.
One of the ways they do this is through All-One Australia, which helped inspire the company’s global philanthropic initiative called Dr. Bronner’s All-One International, which started in 2020. The initiative ensures that mission-aligned advocacy is supported in the markets that Dr. Bronner’s sells its products in, which is at the heart of the company’s continuing global growth and expansion. Through this initiative, at least 1% of sales made by Dr. Bronner’s participating international distributors are donated to local advocacy efforts in their markets supporting social justice, environmental sustainability, and animal advocacy.
In 2021, All-One Australia gave over $31,000 to three organisations doing phenomenal work in their respective fields: Voiceless, Seed, and Eat Up. Voiceless are an animal protection institute, working to educate and inspire the next generation to think critically and make positive changes for animals, while Seed, Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, is movement building with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people for climate justice, which includes campaigning against fracking in the Northern Territory. Eat Up feeds hungry children so they can grow, learn, and succeed by providing sandwiches to schools for children who go without lunch. Eat Up also provides emergency food boxes during school holidays, and Dr. Bronner’s has provided 2,000 bottles of liquid soap to add to these packages.
Also, we recently welcomed Maree Lowes as our first official ambassador for Dr. Bronner’s Australia which been a fantastic experience. She is an actor, writer, activist, and content producer, and we are thrilled to have her as a mission-aligned partner as a brilliant storyteller and educator. Maree cares deeply about the health of our planet and the people on it and is herself a changemaker, championing regenerative thinking and cultivating optimism in the face of a climate crisis. She has spent the past decade working with families, farmers and First Nations communities. As an ambassador for the brand, she is using her knowledge and passion to highlight the All-One message of Dr. Bronner’s, hosting panels and events – including a virtual education series through our platforms. We have lots of exciting plans for working with her in 2022 – so stay tuned!
How would you describe Dr. Bronner’s journey to a clean, green, and ethical supply chain?
It has been an extraordinary one! As pioneers within the natural products industry, Dr. Bronner’s has long been committed to an ethical supply chain. When my brother and I took over the company, we continued to innovate and were the first cosmetics company to become organic certified to organic food standards in 2003. Then in 2007, we became fair trade certified, as well, thanks to the incredible work of Dr. Gero Leson, Dr. Bronner’s Vice President of Special Operations, who joined the company in 2005 and helped us make the transition to source our major raw ingredients organic and Fair Trade. His new book, Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, Ethical Supply Chain, tells the story of building Dr. Bronner’s supply chain from the ground up in powerful detail, and the lessons learned along the way.
When we first committed to becoming fair trade certified and organic certified, many of the ingredients in our soap could not be sourced at the scale needed via existing fair trade organic supply chains. So, with the Gero’s guidance, we decided to invest in small scale farmers and producers to help them make the switch to fair trade and organic models. By expanding this way of operating, we were able work with nature and these farming communities instead of exploiting them for profit.