David Bronner is the social-justice CEO (“Cosmic Engagement Officer”) of a family company that takes its activism as seriously as it does its natural soap products.
On the label of a 32-ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s certified organic, free trade, not tested on animals, non-GMO “18-In-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile [Liquid] Soap,” there’s the slogan, “Family Soapmakers Since 1858.”
The company’s roots in California go back to 1948 when David’s German-born, Jewish grandfather, Emanuel H. Bronner, started manufacturing liquid soap there — in addition to continuing his fiery, public oratory on the need to unite humankind through a commonly-held “Moral ABC.” Emanuel placed a similarly-stated, 30,000-word belief system on the label of every single bottle of his soap. It was a passion — some might say zealotry — which had previously led to Emanuel being placed in a mental hospital in Illinois, from which he’d escaped to the West Coast.
The Bronner family’s colorfully triumphant yet dysfunctional, generational tale is told within the 2007 documentary, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. David’s father and his two older siblings had been placed in foster homes and orphanages, while their father acted as a self-appointed messenger of the divine.
“My grandad was 24/7 coming from the Mountain Top,” David, now 45, recalls of his early experiences with his grandfather, during a time when David’s late father, Jim — an industrial chemist who pioneered the use of foam in firefighting and as fake snow within motion pictures — was working for the company remotely in the Los Angeles area. David impersonates his grandfather Emanuel’s voice: “‘We must unite the Spaceship Earth, we are All-One!'”
Then, David admits, “It wasn’t until these huge psychedelic experiences really opened me up, and I just really understood what [my grandfather] was saying all this time.”
It’s not every CEO who’ll admit in public to having benefited from plant medicines like psilocybin mushrooms. But Dr. Bronner’s is no ordinary company. Make that successful B Corp company — which manufactures a host of products like liquid and bar soaps, lotions, toothpastes, shaving soaps, hand sanitizers, and lip balms.
When David began working for the family business in 1997 — the same year his grandfather died and his daughter was born (on the same day, no less) — the company’s sales were $5 million. In 2018, net sales hit $122.5 million. It’s a business metric he’s happy to point out.
But first ask him what he’s most proud of having accomplished, and he says of one corporate donation, “[Having] gotten a million dollars a year into [the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies]. That’s hard — got my family to sign off on that one.”
David runs the family company with his brother, President Michael Bronner, and his mother, Chief Financial Officer Trudy Bronner. “We now cap all our [executive team] salaries and compensation at five times the lowest paid warehouse position,” says David. “And all the profits that we don’t need for the business, we dedicate to the causes that we believe in . . . drug policy reform; regenerative agriculture; fair trade; income equality; [and] animal welfare are the main areas.”
While you can certainly read about those areas of concern on the company’s bottles of soap, you can also read about them in more depth on the company’s website — which not only lists the company’s line of products, it opens the book on the company’s profits and workings, its fair trade farm partnerships, and the different suggested uses for its liquid soap (e.g., for shaving, in laundry, and for washing produce, among others). Among the cornucopia of info available from the Bronner family, there’s a colorful video tour of their recently constructed 120,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and headquarters in Vista, California, conducted by Lisa Bronner, David’s sister.
Hemp seed oil is one of the oils incorporated into the company’s soaps — and Dr. Bronner’s was one of the first companies in the country to use it as an ingredient, starting around the turn of the 21st century. At this year’s NoCo Hemp Expo in Denver, David was awarded the first annual NoCo Award of Excellence for his activism — which has included challenging the DEA in court in the early 2000s over Canadian hemp oil being seized at the border.
Although hemp seed oil is a smaller component of Dr. Bronner’s soaps compared with coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and olive oil, David says hemp’s Omega-3 fatty acids can aid the skin, and, ingredient-wise, the hemp seed oil “has a big impact on the lather . . . the emolliency.” The company’s hemp seed oil is presently imported from Canada, but David says the company is now looking at using oil from U.S. grown hemp seeds. The company also co-sponsors the annual Hemp History Week.
What does David think has allowed the company to increase its success, way past its initial popularity with hippies and vitamin store health freaks in the ’60s and ’70s?
“The macro trends of health and wellness being integrated into the mainstream,” he says. “We’re riding that. We deliver a really good product at a good price.” And then there’s this: “All the advocacy we do on behalf of the different causes, it’s resonating — especially with Millennials.”
Whether or not the company remains family-owned in the future, David says that it’s important for Dr. Bronner’s to remain, at heart, family-run. “We need to protect the mission — and family ownership guarantees that,” he notes, weighing potential options.
It’s too early to tell whether successive generations will continue to be “Family Soapmakers Since 1858” — as well as “Moral ABC” crusaders. But there are promising signs. David says of his nephew, “I can tell Eli’s going to be awesome — but, he’s five right now.”
Challenges: David says, “Growing in a way that’s not too stressful and that we can finance. I think we’ve got most of our major problems worked out, as far as cash flow and margin structure and capex. We’re actually installing an oil-refining and bar soap base making machine. So, that’s going to finalize our vertical integration on the processing side — so we don’t have to ship oils to Rotterdam [in the Netherlands] to get refined, and then to the East Coast to be made into bar soap base. So, we’re going to have that all in-house.”
He concludes, “Mostly, we’ve just got to keep our own selves healthy — and house in order. As long as we do that, I think we’re going to be good.”
Opportunities: David says the big opportunity for Dr. Bronner’s is proving “that you can invest this much in advocacy and really generate consumer interest. In place of a bunch of paid media, we generate earned media that really raises the profile and connects with consumers.”
Needs: A research-and-development department: “We want to produce functional [products], like hair care. That’s really hard to do in a totally-natural organic way. So, we want to basically get an R&D department that understands the constraints and toolbox that we need to work within to develop really high-performance products.”
David says upcoming products will include cosmetics, deodorants, and face care items, as well as chocolates, due to all the fair trade palm oil the company is able to source.
(And did we forget to mention David’s very own heady endeavor? That would be his branded line of sun-grown cannabis, Brother David’s, which, officially, is a separate undertaking from Dr. Bronner’s as a company.)