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Part 2: “Magic Soap” Maker David Bronner on Organic Labeling, Fair Trade, Hemp and Not Selling Out

Web ExclusiveMay 16, 2012
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In an extended interview, David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, discusses the history of the company, why they put sustainability and social justice ahead of profits, the organic and GMO labeling movements, the U.S. war on hemp, and why they refuse to sell out. Click here for part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is David Bronner. He is the head of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and he also happens to be the grandson of Dr. Bronner, who founded the company in 1948. Talk about how you came to be the head of this company. Talk about the remarkable history of Dr. Bronner’s soaps, that so many people know, whether they buy it or not, the image of that soap bottle. Even describe what is on it.

DAVID BRONNER: Sure. So, Dr. Bronner was, himself, a third-generation master soap maker from an Orthodox Jew soap-making family in southern Germany. He—

AMY GOODMAN: From Heilbronn?

DAVID BRONNER: From Heilbronn.

AMY GOODMAN: You were really the Heilbronners?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, Heilbronners. I think Napoleon rolled through and made all the Jews take like the town’s last name or something. And when he came over, he dropped “Heil” from his name in '29. And he, like two of his younger sisters, got out. One went to Israel, and one came here. But the rest of his family was gassed, and the factory was nationalized. And out of that experience, and along with just the Cold War nuclear annihilation, he just felt called to convey what he saw as the Moral ABC, that all the faith traditions of the world, all the spiritual giants, were basically saying the same thing, you know, and were all one, all children of the same divine source, and we just, you know, need to realize that, or we're going to destroy ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play a clip—


AMY GOODMAN: —of your grandfather, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, founder of Dr. Bronner’s soaps. This is from the documentary, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. Listen carefully.

DR. EMANUEL BRONNER: The Moral ABC that the wise man in the temple, mason, tent and sandalmaker, Essene teacher of righteousness of light, the real Rabbi Hillel taught the [inaudible] Jesus to rally-raise-train-evolve-unite the whole human race in one God faith. That Moral ABC is the most important set of teachings that helped mankind to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: That is a clip from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox. It is Emanuel Bronner, your grandfather, David, from whom you inherited the company. Explain what he’s saying.

DAVID BRONNER: He’s—you know, he’s basically conveying his dream and vision that, you know, lightning-like humanity can unite and realize our transcendent unity, you know, across all the faith and ethnic divides. And, you know, this is what drove him. This is—he was nonstop on, you know, “We must unite this Spaceship Earth.” And, you know, “We’re all one or none.”

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened. He comes from Germany to the United States. He had a soap factory there—


AMY GOODMAN: —and has the recipe for this.


AMY GOODMAN: But explain what happened with your family, with his wife, with his children, who is your father.

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, so his wife died when my father was four. And yeah, you know, he’s—basically, my granddad felt called, you know, on his mission to save the world, and financially supported his children, but basically placed them into foster homes, where they were raised, and, you know, was in some level responsible and checked in routinely. But, you know, it was a pretty hard and difficult childhood for my dad and uncle.

AMY GOODMAN: Because they were put into foster care—

DAVID BRONNER: Foster care.

AMY GOODMAN: —as he traveled the country.

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, you know, basically with his message and—of uniting this earth, and, you know, selling soap on the side.

AMY GOODMAN: And he—did he write all of these words on his soap bottles?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, absolutely. And he actually—his eyesight was progressively worsening and eventually went blind. But he was constantly perfecting the message, like, you know, trying to get the right—right mix to just like break through to people. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the ingredients in the soap, why it’s so significant, why your father talked—your grandfather, then your father, then you, talk about it as being healing and organic.

DAVID BRONNER: Well, yeah, he—I mean, it’s always been a natural soap. I mean, he kind of launched the company at a time that “better living through chemistry” was all the rage, and all the body wash formulations were turning to petrochemical-based detergents, which is still the case today. He had a natural soap recipe. And yeah, you can’t thicken it up easily, you know, but it’s very concentrated.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s liquid.

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, and based on natural oils—coconut, olive, hemp. Well, hemp’s a little newer. And, basically, his family—his grandfather invented liquid soap in Germany. And it was all through all the washrooms. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Your father, though—your grandfather was eventually institutionalized.

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah. So, in ’47, he was institutionalized for, you know, very—how do you say—intensely communicating his message in the University of Chicago. And yeah, you know, kind of borderline schizo tendencies, perhaps.

AMY GOODMAN: He was shocked, electroshocked.

DAVID BRONNER: He was electroshocked, which I think worsened his eyesight.

AMY GOODMAN: And he escaped.

DAVID BRONNER: He escaped. He escaped.

AMY GOODMAN: And moved to California.

DAVID BRONNER: He came to California. And, I mean, [inaudible], I mean, it’s like, you know, there’s a genius and mystical, you know, insight, you know, and he was just kind of on this line. And, you know, and my dad, when he was out of the Navy, came to work for him and oversaw the soap manufacture and eventually launched his own chemical specialty company that I grew up working in. And so, you know, my granddad was a difficult father in some respects, but in other ways, you know, just given his difficult life story, was really great for my dad, who reconciled later in life. And—

AMY GOODMAN: This Dr. Bronner’s soap, which is, you know, so pervasive in America, you see—whether or not people buy it, they know this image of the soap bottle. You tried to launch some other products which didn’t have all the words, which are so hard to read, but in fact it’s this product that continues to—


AMY GOODMAN: —be the biggest seller?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, for sure. So we had this idea that, OK, so the, you know, counterculture, hippie, natural consumer core, you know, they’re all about it, but that, you know, as we’re kind of growing and expanding, that this kind of was maybe a little off-putting for your naive first-time customer, that, you know, “What kind of cult is behind this?” You know, so, we like—we expanded to, like, pump soaps and lotions and stuff. We made a nice, clean look. I mean, the formulation integrity was all the same. It was all certified organic under the same program that certifies food. But it was a clean, slick look. It was beautiful. But it was not the distinctive kind of old-style, apothecary look that, you know, my granddad designed, basically as a blind man, that people just completely resonate to. And so, we’ve experienced that—you know, as we cross over, that the classic look outsells this kind of—the newer, slicker look. So we’ve recently redesigned all the new products to have the same basic kind of text-dense look, but rather than taking my granddad’s philosophy, which is—this is a memorial, the classic soaps, to what he was about. We’re updating it with more kind of what we’re doing now, like fair trade, organic and—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Bronner, who is the president of Dr. Bronner’s soap. He is the grandson of Dr. Emanuel Bronner, who founded the company, well known throughout this country. You are taking on large corporations, as well, though you are a large corporation yourself. You are unusual in that, unlike like Tom’s of Maine, Stonyfield and other companies—what, Burt’s Bees—


AMY GOODMAN: You guys have not been bought out by a larger corporation.

DAVID BRONNER: Right. Yeah, we have no intention of selling. We have a pretty radical mission and very activist mission.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you get offers?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, all the time. And—but yeah, we’re just not interested. There’s no way that the radical agenda we have would be supported by a corporation beholden to their shareholders.

AMY GOODMAN: What is that agenda?

DAVID BRONNER: Well, I mean, for instance, you know, just taking on, for instance, the drug war, taking on corporate malfeasance across the board. You know, we believe in a fair and sustainable food system. And just in general, our economy needs to move to a fair and sustainable basis. You know, agroecological programs should support and define our farming, not monocultural, chemically intensive, petroleum-dependent agriculture, which Monsanto is, you know, with their genetic engineering, is just—it’s on steroids.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, here, as we speak in the Occupy age, what is Occupy Monsanto?

DAVID BRONNER: So that’s an effort my friend Adam Eidinger is heading up. It’s And there’s going to be a nationwide day of action on September 17th. Activists will dress up in bio-hazmat suits and just really try and break through to people, like what genetic engineering is. There’s a lot of ignorance, and a lot of people think of big, bland strawberries. But what it’s about is about engineering resistance to weed killer. That’s what 80 percent of the acreage of genetically engineered is. It’s not vitamin-enriched rice, you know, for Bangladesh. That’s marketing spin. You know, their model is about breeding resistance to their chemicals, so they can sell more chemicals. And just, you know, really highlight what’s going on and that our food supply has been co-opted by these massive corporations, and our whole policy, food policy, agricultural policy, is being whipsawed by Monsanto and Dow and basically the chemical pesticide industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it works and how a pesticide company—like in the first part of our interview, you talked about how the reason there are GMOs is for crops to be more amenable to pesticide or responsible to pesticide, like Roundup. Explain how that works.

DAVID BRONNER: So, the—Monsanto has taken a gene from bacteria and shot it into soy and corn, which in this gene expresses a protein that confers resistance on their bestselling weed killer, Roundup Ready, or Roundup. And the seeds are called Roundup Ready. I mean, so, number one, there’s this compound that’s novel in our food, that hasn’t—you know, that—you know, like, genetic engineering doesn’t just kind of magically do its thing. I mean, it’s actually expressing a compound in every cell of the plant that is new in our food. So, like, you know, the increasing incidence of allergies and food reactions—well, you know, without labeling, we can’t tie the causal reaction. We can just kind of note, well, since genetic engineering has appeared, there’s been all kinds of increasing food allergies, which is—I mean, there’s a lot of culprits, but definitely that seems to be something, you know, especially that there are these compounds being expressed to resist weed killer.

And then there’s even more weed killer in our food. So, the EPA, just last year, doubled the allowed residue for Roundup, for glyphosate in our food from six parts per million to 12, just because of the increased spraying. And the spraying is rapidly developing superweeds, resistant superweeds, that are not being killed by Roundup. And like the whole technology was sold to farmers and to America, that, oh, now we don’t have to use 2-4-D, dicamba, but like these really bad weed killers—2-4-D is the main ingredient in Agent Orange. Well, now that the superweeds are spreading all across the country, now the next generation of genetically engineered seed is 2-4-D-resistant. So now you’re going to have 2-4-D being doused all over fields, dicamba, which is a listed neurotoxin—a bad actor by Pesticide Action Network. They’re engineering resistance so you can dump more and more and more of these pesticides and herbicides in our food.

AMY GOODMAN: Monsanto executive Michael Taylor was appointed by President Obama to be the senior adviser to the commissioner of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration.

DAVID BRONNER: Right, yeah. I mean, it’s amazing. The—you know, both parties are—receive huge money from the biotech industry. And, you know, their agenda is simple: you know, we want these people put into these positions in the EPA, FDA. Obama has received huge amounts. I know Dow—Dow’s CEO has been very friendly to the Obama administration. And 2-4-D-resistant corn is like—that’s their—you know, that—I mean, farmers are freaking out. I mean, they got this glyphosate-resistant herbicide. They thought it was, you know, the bee’s knees. And now it’s not working. You know, they don’t—you know, they’re just on this kind of chemical magic bullet, you know, mindset. And, I mean, clearly overdosing our fields with these herbicides are just going to keep breeding resistant superweeds and creating more and more problems. But, of course, it’s short term. There’s like $10 billion to be made with each of these toxic herbicides. But anyways, yeah, I mean, and Clarence Thomas, you know, worked in the Monsanto corporation. I mean, you know, there’s unbelievable revolving-door penetration and capture by the biotech industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the companies that you are challenging, that—I asked you about it before, but I want you to go more into depth—companies like Estée Lauder, Avon. What is it about their products? What are you concerned about?

DAVID BRONNER: Well, in general, the organic movement, intersecting with the cosmetics industry, has kind of been a really bad—bad situation. I mean, the cosmetic industry is built on marketing hype and marketing basically meaningless ingredients of the season that are going to, you know, promise you eternal youth and, you know, whatever. And, you know, taking organic, which is a really hard-fought system of agriculture—it’s not perfect in its federal regulation, but, you know, at its best, it’s about agroecological principles, that, you know, you reduce your fossil fuel inputs. It’s a—you’re building soil tilth and health naturally. It’s a naturally drought-resistant system of agriculture, that the cosmetic industry was basically using token amounts of organic ingredients or fair trade ingredients.

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

DAVID BRONNER: You know, I mean, legitimately, like, you know, lavender water. You know, they’re the organic lavender extract, like a tea bag of organic, you know, herbs and 3,000 gallons of reduction batch water. You know, and then it’s like, you know—and it’s all the real ingredients that make a shampoo or moisturizer are all conventional, non-organic, petrochemical, synthetic silicone. They weren’t changing anything about the actual products or the ingredients that make up them function; they were just kind of adding—playing with the water and—or organic aloe or just something that was—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is a fair fair trade stamp? What measure do you use?

DAVID BRONNER: We like IMO. It’s a Swiss-based organic certifier that is now certifying fair trade. They really understand the combination of agroecological methods being introduced in the developing world and how that can really boost yields and boost incomes. And they’re very rigorous. They don’t allow their seal to be used on a product unless it’s at least majority fair trade, which means all its main ingredients are fair trade, not some token amount. Now, for instance, we got mad at Avon, because they had a bar soap that was basically a palm-driven product—sodium palmate, sodium palm kernelate. And then they had a little bit of fair trade olive oil, which, you know—and I talked to Nasser, and he was like, “Yeah, it’s absurd. They apply like the tiniest amount.” And they’re flying this seal on their products. And palm, of course, like the enviro groups are—you know, they’re just all about the, you know, orangutan-destroying plantation practice around palm. And it’s pretty much anti-fair trade the way palm is being cultivated, but there’s this fair trade seal that’s being flown on products that are, you know, majority anti-fair trade, basically. So, anyway, so—so IMO is like, you know, a reputable, good certifier. It’s this little “Fair for Life.” I don’t want to harsh too much on the other certifications. I mean, hopefully we’re going to clean up our own act. Avon just actually threw in the towel and is withdrawing that line at issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Which line is that?

DAVID BRONNER: It was a mark—there was a mark: “Body Care That Cares.” Their lip balm was called “The Big Fix,” which was a good name, since it was—you know, the fix was in. It was this tiny, tiny, little bit of fair trade. But yeah, you know, that we’re just saying, like letting people know, like, you know, don’t—don’t mess around. This is—you know, this is not—this is a real movement. This is—you know, this really matters. This isn’t a marketing shtick.

AMY GOODMAN: What is “magic” about? Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

DAVID BRONNER: Well, I’m 150 years old. Yeah, it’s—I mean, I think it’s—I mean, it was from— Esquire magazine did a portrayal of Dr. Bronner’s in '73, and it was “Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.” And I don’t know. I think it was just the countercultural phenomenon of the soap. It was just like no marketing, no advertising, pure word of mouth. It was a very unique, real man behind this product and, you know, kind of violated every rule of marketing and business, and yet was a huge success.

AMY GOODMAN: What are purposes of the soap that we don’t know about?


AMY GOODMAN: It’s soap.

DAVID BRONNER: Well, it’s good for—it’s a good insecticide for plants. You know, it’s natural. Organic gardeners use it.

AMY GOODMAN: They just pour it on the plant?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, just like dilute—no, very dilute, you know, and just like 1 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh. And can the soap be used as shampoo?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, although we don’t have conditioning agents, per se, in it. So, yeah, I mean, the soap can be used for everything. So, when you’re camping, you can, you know, brush your teeth, wash your hair, wash your dishes.

AMY GOODMAN: You can brush your teeth with it?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t recommend it if you have a nice toothpaste. But, I mean, I use it whenever I’m, like, you know, out of toothpaste. But, yeah, it’s a little soapy. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there was once caramel coloring in it, that you learned when you became head of the company?

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, right. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us that story and what you did about it.

DAVID BRONNER: OK, yeah, so, my granddad died in '97, and my dad died in ’98. And I was just—I was pretty young, and I had to step up. Luckily, I had time with my dad. And my dad was an amazing person. He's kind of my central moral inspiration in my life. He wanted nothing to do with the cosmic trip, was just, you know, about his family and the immediate community in front of him. But anyway, so, I mean, the soaps were very pure, but one of the things that my granddad had done was put caramel coloring in the peppermint and the almond flavors for some reason.

AMY GOODMAN: What color would the soap have been? Clear?

DAVID BRONNER: Like this color. So it was darker. And, you know, so I’m like, well, OK, either we need to put caramel coloring on the label or we need to pull it out. And which is—you know, and I’m like the grandson coming in. I’m like, OK, so either I put caramel coloring, you know, and look like I have a caramel coloring of soap. And it was just like, what am I doing? You know, or I pull it out and it looks like I diluted the soap. So, this was kind of the conundrum. I was like, well, I’m not going to put caramel coloring on the label, so—but then, that’s actually when hemp oil—we’re like, OK, what we’ll do is we’ll—you know, we’ll take out the caramel coloring, but let’s look at—we looked at different—different super fatty ingredients. And hemp oil, after customer trials, we’re like, OK, we’ll do the hemp oil. And that will be—you know, so when people notice there will be a change, but then actually the lather’s smoother, less drying. And it worked. You know, people were—I mean, some people were like, “You diluted the soap!” And they got really upset. And we were like—you know, we show them, you know, tests. “No, we didn’t do that.”

AMY GOODMAN: So it’s called Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap Made with Organic Oils.


AMY GOODMAN: And what is your—and Certified Fair Trade. Dr. Bronner’s Magic “All-One.”

DAVID BRONNER: Yeah, the—and the coconut oil is a fair trade project in Sri Lanka. It grew out of a tsunami relief effort. Palm oil is coming out of a fair trade project in Ghana, and the olive oil from Palestine, and some from Israel. We actually work with an Arab-Israeli project in the Nazareth region, and then a Jewish family farm makes up 5 percent, that actually turns out to be related to us. Fair trade mint oil out of India. And actually, the hemp oil is a domestic fair trade source, so this is a new movement.


DAVID BRONNER: It’s out of Canada. It’s that—the idea is that family farms in the north face a lot of the same challenges as developing world farmers. I mean, not—in certain respects, they’re very different, but in others, they’re very similar—

AMY GOODMAN: Could you—

DAVID BRONNER: —volatile markets and—

AMY GOODMAN: Could you get hemp oil from the United States?

DAVID BRONNER: No, we cannot. And that—you know, when we dug up DEA’s lawn, I mean, that was—you know, Obama came in, and, you know, I’m sure everyone here is very disappointed in various ways. And so, you know, we really thought that finally, you know, we’d get at least hemp, if not medical, and just end cannabis prohibition, period. And nothing was happening. It was just so disappointing. You know, he just did the Clinton thing, you know, ran to the center, just put a bunch of drug warriors in place. And, you know, Jack Herer, who’s like the kind of godfather of the hemp movement, he had a stroke. And, you know, we were just like, “Man!” So, you know, that’s when we dug up the DEA’s lawn. And our shovels actually said, “In honor of Jack Herer, reefer madness will be buried, and American farmers shall grow hemp again.”

AMY GOODMAN: And the argument against growing hemp? You make a parallel to poppy seeds, like we get in cake.

DAVID BRONNER: Right, well, I mean, unlike poppy seeds—you know, also poppy seeds contain trace opiates. It’s a non-narcotic variety of the opium poppy called the breadseed poppy. There was a Seinfeld episode about flunking a drug test eating poppy seeds. So hemp seed in foods are in a very similar position. It’s a non-psychoactive, non-drug variety of cannabis, like a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard. You know, they can technically interbreed, but very different varieties. So, yeah. And, you know, but unfortunately, cannabis is—you know, unlike the poppy, is very much caught up with the counterculture in the culture war and is identified with the ’60s and the movements and the progressive movements out of that. And, you know, the drug war is really a war on pot, mostly.

AMY GOODMAN: So you can’t grow it, but you can sell it, because right here—and it’s in stores all over the country—it says, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap.”

DAVID BRONNER: Right. So, our government policy has given the largest consumer market for hemp—America—has given a captive market to Canadians, Chinese, Europeans. It’s like, “You farmers can supply the biggest market for hemp. We’re not going to allow our farmers to grow it. But, you know, we’ll” — and they actually tried to ban the import. Bush, after 9/11, did try to shut down imports of hemp seed, and we had a protracted battle with the DEA and ultimately prevailed. So, the status quo is maintained since then: we can import hemp fiber, hemp seeds, but we can’t grow it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, David Bronner, for being with us. David Bronner is the president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and he takes over from his father, who took over from his father. David Bronner is the grandson of Dr. Emanuel Bronner, who founded Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID BRONNER: Thank you, Amy.

Related Story

StoryMay 15, 2012Part 1: “Magic Soap” Maker David Bronner on Labeling Genetically Modified Food, Fair Trade, the War on Hemp
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