How A Soap Company is Helping Fix the Broken Food System

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Author: Lisa Elaine Held | Published October 2017

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 Emmanuel 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 San Francisco’s 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.”


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