Get David Bronner talking about soap–real soap–and he can go on for quite a while. He can talk about soap-making’s long history (“it’s one of the oldest things to do, besides baking bread”), the ancient soapy trade routes through the Middle East and Mediterranean, or a triglyceride’s chemical structure. He can wax eloquent about the difference between soaps made with natural products–like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the ones he sells worldwide–and artificial detergent-based soaps.
Bronner, 39, who runs his Escondido, California-based company with his brother, wants to make and sell good soap, sure. But at the end of the day, he wants to do a lot more, too. “That in itself would be kind of boring,” he says. “What we’re really about is leveraging business as an activist engine.”
Last year, for instance, Bronner camped out in a cage in front of the White House, where he proceeded to publicly harvest hemp, a product he uses in his soaps and which he feels is unduly controlled. The “three-hour media circus” ended with Bronner’s arrest. Apart from what he views as our broken drug policy, Bronner’s other causes include enforcing ethical supply chains, undoing industrial agriculture, and–his most recent passion project–achieving honesty in GMO labeling. “People in this country don’t even have the right to know if they’re eating a genetically engineered ear of corn,” he says.
In his passion for changing the world, Bronner takes after his grandfather, the eponymous Doctor Emanuel Bronner (a self-styled “doctor,” much to the frustration of Emanuel’s sister, who actually had a doctorate). Emanuel Bronner came to the United States from Germany in the late ’20s. Emanuel was from a Jewish family that had made soap for years, and he came over to consult with various soap manufacturers in the States. With the rise of the Nazis, Emanuel’s parents were killed in the Holocaust.
Emanuel’s reaction to the tragedy was to become something of a mystic and aspiring spiritual leader, preaching the necessity of overcoming ethnic and religious strife in order to live in harmony. “He was basically called on this mission,” says David of his grandfather. He’d wander around lecturing, and at the end of the lecture, he’d sell a bit of soap. When Emanuel noticed that people seemed more interested in his soap than in his lecture, he put his screed on the Dr. Bronner’s label–a tradition that remains with the product today.
“He was just 24-7 on it,” says David of his grandfather’s mission, which was so all-consuming as to lead Dr. Bronner to leave his kids largely in the care of foster parents. “When I was growing up and hanging out with him, he was always on the mountain top preaching the ‘All-One’ message.” As a child, David didn’t really get it. It wasn’t until David had mystical experiences of his own, catalyzed by experimentation with psychedelics in his 20s, that he began to appreciate his grandfather.
David finally decided to join the company a few years after that. By then, his grandfather was quite aged; David’s father had had to step in in the ‘80s in order to save the company from bankruptcy (the IRS had disagreed with Dr. Bronner’s claims that his company was a non-profit religious organization, leading to a massive unpaid tax bill). Within the span of a year, both David’s father and grandfather died, leaving David at the helm, at all of 25 years old. Soon David roped his brother Michael into the business, and the two have grown revenues from around $5 million a year to $52 million last year. David predicts Dr. Bronner’s will be a $100 million company within five years.
“My brother’s rocking it internationally,” says David. “We’re blowing up in Korea, Japan, the U.K., and Germany.” Foreign sales account for 17% of revenue, but are growing much faster than domestic, says David.
The company is closely held, with equity split down the middle between David and Michael. Yet the two have voluntarily capped their salaries at around $200,000, or five times what the company’s lowest-paid employees make (employees will also typically get 25% annual bonuses, and up to a 15% contribution to their retirement plans). The brothers reinvest all profits into building the business and supporting their various activist, political, and charitable causes.
The way David sees it, not only does his business support his activism, his activism also supports his business. “In a way our activism is our marketing,” he says (that hemp-harvesting stunt earned him front page Washington Post coverage, for instance). “We just kinda get a lot of love and a lot of media over the various fights we get into.”
Emanuel Bronner had continued to tweak the grand message that appeared on his soap bottles through the rest of his life. Where the fine print on most soap containers might host unpronounceable chemicals, Dr. Bronner’s contains line upon line of passages like this: “Like a beacon breaking through dark clouds that pass; your deep embrace, your sensuous kiss, who else but God can make Love last 1 trillion years of sweet eternities!”
Run-on religious prose poetry, where conventional business wisdom would call for a snappy slogan logo? Like so many things, it’s just something Dr. Bronner’s does differently. And it’s working. “We’ve left it alone,” says David, “as a memorial to him.”