Dr. Emanuel Bronner, a third-generation master soap maker who spent his life renouncing hate and war on his mission to unite mankind, long knew the benefits of natural and organic ingredients.
While chemists formulated the latest synthetic brews that were advertised as new-age beauty fixes, Dr. Bronner steadfastly continued his work, bringing pure products to the market that was, at the time, fixated on the latest ingredients out of the lab.
He was born in 1908 to the German-Jewish Heilbronner family, which had been practicing the traditional local craft since 1858. In 1929, Bronner, then aged 21, immigrated to the US 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 communism and fascism by giving public lectures.
While his strong views landed him in a mental asylum in Chicago, he escaped eight months later in 1948 and continued giving lectures in California. He also began making peppermint liquid soap under the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps brand. He gave away soap during his talks and when he realized people were taking it without listening to him speak, he started writing his philosophy on the bottle in tiny script. These eccentric labels, featuring musings on everything from Hillel to Confucious, are still used today.
In the early years the soap enjoyed a small but loyal following. With the emergence of 1960’s counterculture, sales rocketed on word of mouth and the quality. The soaps were soon sold in health food stores across the United States. Today they’re also sold in mainstream stores.
A staunch supporter of only natural ingredients, Dr. Bronner’s became officially certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture in 2003, branching into other organic personal care products in 2005. Today, its products are top sellers in the US and distributed worldwide.
While Dr. Bronner passed away in 1997, his company is run by his son Ralph, daughter in-law Trudy and grandsons David and Michael. 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of Dr. Bronner’s and 150 years (five generations) of his family soap making. In a time where CEO compensation can reach as much as 500 times the average worker’s wage, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps remains true to its founder’s philosophy of sharing profit with the workers, and the earth from which it was made, by capping the salaries of the highest paid employees/owner’s at five times that of the lowest paid full time employee.
Dr. Bronner’s grandson Michael (pictured below) is just as passionate about the brand as his grandfather was, and remains as committed to keeping the Dr. Bronner ingredients natural and organic. I caught up with the fifth generation eco entrepreneur for a chat…
You’re carrying on a wonderful family tradition. What do you think your grandfather would say if he could see brand today?
I think he would be proud that his legacy was being carried on by his family. We’re taking what he stood for on the label and applying it to reality in our sphere of influence. In 2003 we took his environmental ideals to the next level by going organic to the food standard, and in 2007 we took his socially progressive ideals and went fair trade.
What was the very first product Dr. Bronner developed?
In the US, interestingly enough it was a mineral seasoning. No one knows where he developed the expertise to make foods, since he was a soapmaker by training in Germany. But it was the proceeds from this mineral seasoning that gave him the means to make the peppermint liquid soap, which was his first soap product. He made this soap product to give and sell to people who came to listen to him speak about the Moral ABC, his philosophy of peace and social & environmental harmony that was borne out of the horrors of the Holocaust. When people started coming for the soap and not to listen, he put his philosophy on the bottle so at least they’d take his words home with them.
It seems Dr. Bronner was beyond his time on many levels. How proud does it make you to not only witness his legacy, but also to carry it on?
Funnily enough, Dr. Bronner was both behind and ahead of his time. The mantra in the 1950’s was Better Living Through Chemistry where the general attitude was that nature was backwards and in the name of progress you needed to bring it into the laboratory and make it better. Thus you had the advent of plastics, artificial detergents, and synthetic pesticides. Dr. Bronner however knew what would happen once these materials got out in the environment, and so stuck to his convictions with his “backward” biodegradable soaps. Sure enough, in the 1960’s with the dawning of the counter-culture and a new-found respect for sustainability, Dr. Bronner’s was seen to then be ahead of his time.
Is it true that the product labels still contain much of the same wording as used by your grandfather?
It certainly does. It is a big family decision when we need to make room for an organic statement or the like, since that means that we need to cut a part out of the label, which is never an easy task.
How important is it to you for the ingredients to remain natural and pure?
Essential. We continue to source the best possible organic ingredients and are actually certified to the US organic food standard, since there is no current standard for bodycare.
Can you explain the difference between a natural soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s, and a soap produced using synthetic ingredients? How does it affect the skin and – in the long term – the health of the person?
Soaps have been made for millennia. Aside from making fire and cooking food, “saponifying” oil and fat into soap is one of the oldest and simplest chemical reactions known to humankind. In fact, the first soaps were accidentally made by fat dripping into the ashes of cooking fires.Â Soap is made by saponifying a fat or oil with an alkali. A fat or oil is a “triglyceride,” which means that three fatty acids of various carbon lengths are attached to a glycerine backbone. The alkali is either sodium (for bars) or potassium (for liquids) hydroxide, made by running electricity through salt water.
The saponification process is a simple one-step reaction with no waste generated: the glycerine is split off from the fatty acids, and the fatty acids combine with the sodium or potassium to form soap, while the hydroxide forms water. The result is soap, glycerin and water (no alkali remains in our soaps).
Quality soap-making consists in great part of choosing the right proportions of the right oils with their different fatty acids. Most commercial soap manufacturers skimp on quality because of cost and use lots of tallow from beef fat with a little bit of coconut or palm kernel oil.
Your skin definitely absorbs, especially those leave-on products like lotions and toners (just think of the nicotine patch). I equate using organic and natural bodycare as the opposite of drinking green tea. Drinking a cup of green tea is not going to cure cancer, but drink it over your lifetime and you will have less chances of developing cancer in the first place.
The inverse goes with organic and natural bodycare: you’re not going to get breast cancer by using a single mainstream conventional product with parabens once, and a pregnant mother is not going to give her unborn son problems with his reproductive system just by using a product with phthalates a single time. However, the constant exposure to these chemicals in everything from conventional shampoo to hair spray to nail polish to body lotion to face cream, every day over the course of a significant period of time, can potentially increase the possibility of the aforementioned problems occurring, just as green tea might have a cumulative positive effect.
Also, organic bodycare not only benefits the body and the skin, but benefits the environment as well, since by buying certified organic you are essentially keeping tons of pesticides from entering the environment and affecting the organic farmers. Environmental sustainability is a definite plus for organic bodycare.
What have you personally learned since becoming involved in the company?
That we have some of the most attentive customers on the planet. Since we sell organic products, sometimes the color and fragrance can fluctuate a little bit. When this happens, even to the most slightest degree, we hear about it by voice mail and email. A lot!
Do you believe more people are becoming aware of the ingredients they’re putting on their skin?
I think so. People are learning more about parabens and phthalates and looking to avoid them. They are trusting their ability to understand a label, which basically means that if they can’t understand the word, then it’s probably not good for them.
What I love about the products, besides the fact that they’re natural, is that they have multiple uses. What are your favorite products in the range and why?
I would have to say the peppermint soap, for that one-of-a-kind cooling tingle that gets me out of bed in the morning and wakes me up (I am not a morning person by the way). However, I am really digging our new citrus orange fragrance, which is made with organic orange, lemon, and lime oils, and smells of summer and makes me feel so refreshed. The tea tree soap is essential for me sometimes to, since I have psoriasis on my skin and it really seems to keep the symptoms down.
How does Dr. Bronner’s stand out in the beauty market? What do you believe has endeared it to people so much over the years?
Its unparalleled quality and commitment to environmental and social causes and business practices. The fact that you can do anything with it from head to toe and then some. The fact that the label is one of the most fascinating personal testaments on any product ever. The fact that we are really the Bronner’s and Dr. Bronner was no corporate mascot. And of course that oh so cooling peppermint tingle,
Your family must have seen the beauty industry change a lot over the years. What changes have you welcomed? What disappoints you?
We’ve welcomed the spread of organic farming into materials that we use in our soaps, thus enabling us to become organic ourselves and lend our support to the movement.
However, the word “organic” has been hijacked by the cosmetics industry as some hollow-marketing shtick. Certain brands capitalized on the hard won distinction made for organic foods back in the early 1990’s, and because there was no oversight for organic bodycare, began marketing cheap imitations of mainstream bodycare and calling them “organic” simply by dipping a tea bag of organic lavender into the water they used in their products, but essentially leaving all of the other ingredients exactly the same: parabens, ethoxylates, phthalates, formaldehyde donors, petrochemicals, and all. To put this kind of fraud in terms of a food product, imagine organic minestrone soup that contained only conventional vegetables, pasta, and beans, but had a teabag of organic oregano dipped in the broth a couple seconds before packaging it. Pretty ridiculous, right?
Anyhow, as the mainstream began to embrace natural products more and more, corporate companies eager to make a buck but with no passion for sustainable agriculture began flooding the marketplace with these fake organic products. As a result, the genuine organic bodycare products, which contained organic ingredients that cost at least double their conventional counterparts, couldn’t compete price-wise with the knock-offs on the store shelves, since the average customer couldn’t perceive the difference and so went for the cheaper alternative.
How do you define beauty?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that will never change. What we care about is how people feel about themselves and thus to radiate beauty from the inside out. We feel that a soap that cleans effectively without being aggressive and produces a velvety-lather that leaves the skin silky-smooth and refreshed, that the customer knows is made with the utmost care and integrity, will make that person look and feel great.
What’s next for the Dr. Bronner’s brand?
I’m working on an organic premium skin line for Japan and a toothpaste for the US.
Live the life you love.