You've undoubtedly used Dr. Bronner's, the top-selling organic liquid and bar soap brand in North America. But how much do you know about the man behind the company, and the soap he created?
1. EMANUEL BRONNER WAS BORN INTO SOAP.
Bronner was part of the third generation in a family of Jewish master soap makers in Germany. His family is credited with important liquid soap innovations in the country, but because of Bronner’s increasingly sour relationship with his father and uncles, he emigrated to the United States in 1929 for a clean start and to consult for American soap companies—just a few years before the Nazis came to power.
2. HE STARTED HIS LIFE IN THE U.S. LECTURING ABOUT WORLD PEACE.
Bronner spent years spreading word of the life philosophy he called Bronner’s Peace Plan, which would eventually become “the Moral ABC.” The basic idea of his world view? If people stopped focusing on how we are different and instead thought about how we are the same, we would all be better off on this “Spaceship Earth.”
3. HIS MORAL PHILOSOPHY WAS BORN OUT OF TRAGEDY.
In the 1940s, Bronner received word that his parents and extended family who had stayed in Germany had been killed in Nazi death camps. Soon after, his wife fell ill and passed away, leaving Bronner with his two sons and one daughter, all three of whom he put into foster care in order to focus more on refining his speeches. His eldest son, Ralph—who has said he spent time in 15 different orphanages—would eventually join his father on the lecture circuit and continue spreading the Moral ABC after his father’s death in 1997.
4. BRONNER’S SISTER ONCE COMMITTED HIM TO A MENTAL INSTITUTION.
Concerned by the fervor Bronner applied to his lectures and his decision to abandon his children, his sister had him committed to Elgan Mental Health Center outside Chicago, where he received shock treatments, in the mid-1940s. Bronner escaped and fled to California, started calling himself a rabbi, and began mixing up drums of liquid soap using his family’s old recipe.
5. HIS NOW-FAMOUS PEPPERMINT SOAP STARTED AS A GIVEAWAY TO THOSE WHO CAME TO HIS LECTURES.
When he realized that people were coming to his events, taking his soap, and not sticking around for his talks, he started printing his talks on the bottles. Bronner spent the rest of his life refining the 30,000-word creed by which he led his life and which his company still prints on its soap today.
6. THE COMPANY NOW BASES ITS BUSINESS PRACTICES OFF BRONNER’S LIFE PHILOSOPHY.
Six principles guide the employees of Dr. Bronner’s: Work hard! Grow!; Do right by customers; Treat employees like family; Be fair to suppliers; Treat the earth like home; Give and give!
7. THE COMPANY FIRST LISTED ITSELF AS A NONPROFIT RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATION.
The IRS disagreed and served Bronner with a notice that he owed them $1.3 million in back taxes, enough to send the company into bankruptcy. It was Bronner’s son Jim who stepped in to save the family soap business.
8. TODAY, BRONNER’S GRANDSON RUNS HIS SOAP EMPIRE.
David, son of Jim (the one who saved the company), takes after his grandfather more than his conservative father (who rejected his dad’s life philosophy and became an industrial chemist). After graduating from Harvard, David took a life-changing trip to Amsterdam and returned to the U.S. with the intention of getting back to the Netherlands to start his own marijuana-growing business as soon as possible. But after spending time reading up on Eastern religions, David said he finally understood what his grandfather had been preaching about all those years. When David’s father passed away in 1998, David took control of the family soap business.
9. THE COMPANY SAYS THERE ARE 18 DIFFERENT WAYS TO USE EVERY BOTTLE OF THEIR CASTILE SOAP.
Despite the company's claims, though, collective internet knowledge and experimentation have found there are around 14 acceptable uses for the product. These include most general cleaning tasks such as face wash, shampoo, shaving cream, and diluting the product for use in cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and washing floors. Somewhat surprisingly, the soap has a reputation for being an effective ant spray. Not surprising is that the internet community has mostly rejected the company’s idea of using the soap to brush your teeth; those who have tried it have found the practice akin to washing their mouth out with soap. Go figure.
10. FOR YEARS, THE SOAPS CONTAINED A SECRET INGREDIENT: CARAMEL COLORING.
After becoming the man on the soapbox, David decided he no longer wanted to hide the ingredient from their customers. Concerned that soap loyalists would see the additional ingredient on the label and assume he had added it himself—or that the change in color from removing it would make it look like he was diluting the recipe—David decided to replace the caramel coloring with hemp oil. The color of the soap changed, but customers also found the new not-secret ingredient improved the feel of the lather.
11. DAVID BELIEVED IN HEMP OIL SO MUCH, HE SUED THE DEA OVER IT.
Because hemp has long been seen by the government as equivalent to marijuana, in 2001, the DEA tightened their enforcement of THC bans and started seizing shipments of hemp seed and hemp oil at the border. David led the industrial hemp industry in a lawsuit against the government, and just to make sure they didn’t miss his point, corporate representatives would camp outside the DEA’s headquarters and hand out samples of hemp granola and poppy-seed bagels (which made the point that poppy seeds contain trace amounts of opiates but are perfectly legal). The agency eventually reversed the policy.
12. SINCE THEN, THE COMPANY HAS ALSO FOUND ITSELF IN THE BUSINESS OF ACTIVISM.
When beauty product companies Kiss My Face and Avalon Organics advertised their products as “organic,” Bronner’s sued them over their false use of the word. The company changed the labels on their soap in 2014 in support of a measure in Washington state that would require the labeling of goods containing genetically modified organisms. David himself has been arrested twice: once for planting hemp seeds on the lawn of the DEA headquarters and once for milling hemp oil in front of the White House.
13. WHEN DR. BRONNER’S COULDN’T FIND AN ORGANIC AND FAIR-TRADE SOURCE FOR THEIR OILS, THE COMPANY STARTED ITS OWN FARM.
In a case of talking the talk and walking the walk, Dr. Bronner’s now operates its own organic and fair-trade palm, coconut, and olive oil farms in Ghana, Sri Lanka, and Israel, where, in keeping with their vision of world peace, they source their olive oil from both Israeli and Palestinian sources. Coconut oil is now almost as big of a product for Bronner’s as their bar soap.
14. THE PAY FOR THE HIGHEST EXECUTIVE AT THE COMPANY IS CAPPED AT FIVE TIMES THE LOWEST-PAID WORKER.
This means as CEO, David makes about $200,000 a year. Additionally, Dr. Bronner’s offers every employee a fully paid health plan, company contributions to an employee’s retirement fund at 15 percent of the employee’s salary, and a 25 percent annual bonus for all full-time employees.
15. THE COMPANY HAS BECOME MORE POPULAR, BUT YOU STILL CAN'T GET ITS SOAP JUST ANYWHERE.
The original Dr. Bronner refused to sell his products to any retailer who wasn’t interested in hearing his thoughts on life. David twice rejected lucrative offers from Walmart because he didn’t want to support the company's politics and low pay for workers. However, the retail giant now carries the brand.