Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Faces of the Green Pages

Conversations with Today's Green Business Leaders

David Bronner
David Bronner
March 2008 — 150 Years of Green
Dr. Bronner's, Escondido, CA

You’ve bought their soap at your local co-op for years.  You’ve read the words of wisdom on the outside of their bottles and wondered about the eccentricities behind the label.  Here’s your chance to find out. 

Read our latest green business interview with David Bronner, a fifth-generation Bronner in a family that has been making all-natural soaps for 150 years. We asked him to tell us about the history of the company, their tangles with the DEA, and their latest ventures into Fair Trade.


Green America: What does your business do?

Dr. Bronner's
Dr. Bronner's famous
soaps come in tea tree, peppermint, eucalyptus, almond, and lavender.

David Bronner : Dr. Bronner's makes bar and liquid soap and other personal care products, certified under the USDA National Organic Program, with all major ingredients from certified Fair Trade sources.


What makes Dr. Bronner's green?

David:  All major materials are certified both organic and Fair Trade.  We pioneered 100-percent post-consumer recycled bottles for our soaps, and we successfully coordinated the hemp industry’s defense against the DEA’s attempt to ban hemp foods and body care.  We are an activist company that donates significant amounts of our profits to various worthwhile causes and charities.  We are fighting for meaningful organic standards in personal care.  Our employees receive generous compensation and benefits, including no-duductible PPO health care and fully-funded profit-sharing.  All executive compensation is capped at 5 to 1 of the lowest warehouse position. 


How long has Dr. Bronner's been around?

David: We can trace Dr. Bronner's history back through our family’s German-Jewish soap-making tradition to Emanuel Bronner who was born in 1908 to a family that had been making soap since 1858. He was the third generation artisan, certified as a master-soapmaker under the guild system of the time, and in 1929, he brought his recipes for high-quality liquid and bar soaps to America, starting Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in its current form in 1948.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps enjoyed a small but loyal following in the early years, and then in the late 1960's, sales of the soap started to explode.  Word-of-mouth soon made Dr. Bronner’s the iconic soap of that era, and in the decades that followed the soaps spread into every health food store in the U.S. and then into the mainstream as well, on the way to becoming the number-one selling natural brand of soap in North America. 

The fourth and fifth generations of the Bronner family that run the company continue to make the unsurpassed soaps with care and integrity.  2008 marks both the 60th anniversary of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in America and the 150th going back to our family’s first soap manufacture in southern Germany.  We strive to honor our heritage with progressive business practices while devoting profits to worthwhile causes and charities worldwide. 


What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?

Magic.

David: Trying to do business while fighting the DEA in a drawn-out court battle over hemp in food and bodycare products.  We hired good attorneys, did activist PR events, and didn’t back down.

We’re constantly battling the BS of competing brands in the “natural” products industry — companies that brand “Organics” onto non-organic products that are based on conventional synthetic formulations.  We make videos that make fun of them that get a lot of play, and we educate the market in other ways.  Litigation is always good education, and we may be doing that soon.  The difficulty and cost of certifying Fair Trade operations have been tough, but perserverance pays off.


What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?

David: On the anniversary of Bob Marley’s birthday, February 6, 2004 we beat the DEA once and for all in federal court regarding the hemp seed and oil which we use in our soap.  Another nice moment was in meeting our Palestinian farmers in Jenin shortly after our first shipment of 80 tons of Fair Trade and organic olive oil left the port in Haifa. It became clear our sphere of influence was having a positive real-life impact in that region.


What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?

Green Festival
Dr. Bronner's at Co-op
America's San Francisco
Green Festival.

David: Make sure your product quality and design rock.  And make sure you’ve got enough margin to sustain and grow. 


What are you excited about going forward?

David: Fighting for better enforcement of organic standards in body care.  Sadly many popular brands make false and misleading organic claims on their body care products that contain synthetic preservatives and petro-chemicals.  It is time for companies that make real organic products to be able to fairly compete and consumers stop being ripped off.


What is the most hopeful sign you've seen recently in the green economy?

David: The spread of Fair Trade into more and more commodities, promoting social justice, fair wages/pricing and safe working conditions in supply chains, alongside organic (environmental sustainability) certification.


What green product could you not live without? 

David: All my sisters and brothers in hemp: Living Harvest, Manitoba Harvest, Nutiva, and Ruth’s:  keep the hemp flowing!  Satori, Indigenous Designs, Two Jupiters, Of the Earth, etc., gratitude for all my fab hemp clothes.  All the Fair Trade inspiration, Equal Exchange, Guayaki, Sambazon, picking me up with a little espresso, a little yerba mate, a little acai.  To all the vegan companies that make being vegan so tasty and great.


Questions from readers:

Q: I buy your soaps and detergent. Do you have any other products in your line, such as shampoo or make-up? Gwen

David: We recently overhauled our Web site, which features our brand new USDA organic shaving gels, hair rinse, and other products. 


Q: What are the soaps' minor ingredients, not disclosed in the interview? Shanti and Bill

David: I’m not sure which minor ingredients you’re referring to.  Our Web site lists all ingredients for each product. 


Q: Which of your soaps is made from both Palestinian and Israeli olive oil?Susan

David: All of our soaps use olive oil from both Palestine and Israel.  The olive oil is part of the base soap formulation.  

 

Read more interviews in the Archives »

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