If you ever took the time to read the fine print on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s iconic 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap, you probably barely noticed the one reference to what people put in—not on—their bodies.
“Balanced food for body-mind-soul-spirit is our medicine!” founder Emanuel Bronner wrote as part of the “all-one” vision that’s embedded in the company’s DNA.
But while food got a fleeting mention in Bronner’s original peace plan, the skin-care company is now investing a surprising amount of time and capital in projects that affect how people eat—from GMO labeling to promoting regenerative agriculture—putting themselves at the forefront of efforts to build a more sustainable food system.
“Dr. Bronner’s is an unquestioned leader in the organic food movement,” says Max Goldberg, an organic food expert and activist who’s the publisher and founder of Organic Insider and Living Maxwell. “The amount of financial and hands-on support that it provides to the industry is simply mind-blowing.”
From Suds to Sustenance
Mike Bronner is Emmanuel Bronner’s grandson and the current president of the company, alongside his brother, David Bronner, the CEO, and their mother, Trudy Bronner, CF0.
At the same time that Emmanuel Bronner started distributing his soap in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square in the 1950s, Mike Bronner says, he was also selling a “mineral seasoning” he made by foraging herbs from the hills outside the city.
“My grandfather was very much about the industrialized cosmetics and chemical industry, and food is all part and parcel,” he says. “In the 1940s, when we was making this natural soap, he was laughed at, not just because the label was so out there, but because the mantra of the time was DuPont’s slogan, which was ‘Better living through chemistry.’ Whether it was plastics…or pesticides, he was like, “no, this is a chemical treadmill we’re on…and we’re not looking at the big picture. I think for him, cosmetics and food were just interrelated. “
Over the years, the company did sell other food products but shifted squarely back to focusing on soap in the late 90s. Then along came coconut oil.
While Dr. Bronner’s products had long been certified organic, they decided their bigger philosophy wouldn’t be totally realized until they could also guarantee workers were treated fairly and paid fair wages at every step along the supply chain.
“We wanted to go fair-trade,” Mike Bronner explains. “25 percent of that liquid soap is coconut oil, so we couldn’t become fair-trade unless we had fair-trade coconut oil. The problem was there was no fair-trade coconut oil.”
They found a partner to help them open the first fair-trade coconut oil mill in Sri Lanka and brought on a food partner to buy the food-grade oil, while they would use the cosmetics-grade. Then, the food partner pulled out of the deal, and they were using the food-grade oil in their soap. “While that sounds good, once you turn it into soap there’s no real difference except that it costs more,” he says. “So we were just losing money hand over fist. Out of desperation, we thought, ‘We’ve got to sell this food oil.’” The coconut oil hit shelves in 2010 and became their best-selling product within two years.
Digging Into the Issues
While the connections had always existed, selling coconut oil for kitchen use pushed Dr. Bronner’s further into the world of food.
In 2012, the company became incredibly active in efforts to label foods that contained genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). It was part of a coalition that fought hard against what activists referred to as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act, legislation that pre-empted state labeling laws and allowed manufacturers to use QR codes and 800 numbers on packaging rather than clearly stating the presence of GMOs.
“We did all this work and were just on the cusp of a real victory when congress pulled the rug out from under us, and there were some groups in this industry that were complicit in that too,” Mike Bronner says. “And it was like, ‘Where do we go from here?’”
David Bronner laid out what the company felt was at stake in a Huffington Post column soon after the act passed. “We need to transition agriculture globally to sustainable organic practices that builds soil health, sequesters carbon and provides healthy food for our children and children’s children, and provides bio-diverse habitat for wildlife on a planet not facing catastrophic climate change, “ he wrote. “We also need to get animals out of their cages and back on the land in mixed organic farming systems.”
To do that, Dr. Bronner’s turned to the Rodale Institute, a long-time leader in organic agriculture research and promotion. In 2017, the company committed to donating $100,000 per year to support three major initiatives—the Organic Farmers Association (OFA), research on hemp as an organic cover crop, and the establishment of a regenerative agriculture standard.
“They are always at the forefront of trying to really take hold of the organic message and make it the centerpiece of what they do,” says Rodale Institute executive director Jeff Moyer.
The hemp project makes a lot of sense for Dr. Bronner’s, since hemp oil, like coconut oil, has both food and skin-care applications, and the company does stand to benefit from increased production of hemp. This year, Pennsylvania made hemp production legal for the first time by granting 16 research permits, one of which Rodale landed. Its project will look at how hemp functions as a rotational cover crop that organic farmers could use to improve soil health and sequester carbon while also generating additional revenue.
“Given that less than 10 percent of farmers in the U.S. plant cover crops because these crops don’t typically generate revenues, this hemp research project is a potential game-changer,” Goldberg pointed out. “Dr. Bronner’s understood the importance of this project early on and played a critical role in making it happen. “
Meanwhile, at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore in September, people crowded around the company’s booth to hear David Bronner share the news about the company’s partnership with Rodale regarding regenerative agriculture, a holistic systems approach to organic farming.
Dr. Bronner’s financial support helped Rodale develop a Regenerative Organic Certified standard that is currently posted for public comment and will be rolled out for brands to start using later this year. Dr. Bronner’s will be the first company (alongside Patagonia) to undergo the certification and carry the label on its packaging.
“Regenerative agriculture on a global scale can really start to mitigate climate change,” David Bronner said at the event. “We’re ready for the next level in organics.”
In many ways, it’s the perfect cause for the company to have landed on, despite how far from soap it seems. “Of course we care about food, but we’re really just looking at the complete system,” Mike Bronner says. “We’re looking at the environment, labor, animal welfare…as all interrelated. “
In other words, what could be more “all-one” than an approach to farming that protects the earth, workers, animals, and consumers in a continuous, self-sustaining loop? Or, as Emmanuel Bronner put it long ago, in a quote that now lives on a glass jar of coconut oil, “God bless the food & bless the loving hands that prepared it! Bless it to give us strength & bless that strength, so we use it to help unite the whole human race in Thy Kingdom.”