Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: How “We are all one, or all none!” walks its green talk

December 24, 2012 by Frontline Copy

by Faith Attaguile

certified organic soaps, fair trade certified soaps

Emanuel Bronner didn’t much like what capitalism was doing to the world. He wanted a system where profits were shared with the workers and the earth.

Despite its socialist overtones, he called this idea Constructive Capitalism. (He was, after all, an avid anti-Communist.) In the end, though, it’s not the name. It’s the principles that matter.

Does his company live up to them?

Inside the Magic Soap Family

It’s been said that if you want a job at Dr. Bronner’s, be willing to wait a while. Because people who work there love their jobs so much, they never leave.

Why? Let’s count some of the ways:

  1. it begins with generous starting salaries
  2. continues with 25 percent end-of-year bonuses to full-time employees
  3. keeps going with full health care coverage (including dental) for employees and their families
  4. extends to 15 percent salary contributions to a retirement fund

But that’s not all. The Bonner family has capped all executive salaries at five times the lowest paid warehouse worker. That means that David Bronner’s salary (he’s the company CEO) can’t increase unless the lowest paid worker’s salary increases.

Compare that to Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke’s 2011 compensation package. At $17.6 million, in just two days he makes two times what Wal-Mart’s average hourly worker makes … in a year!

Wal-Mart loves to tout its “green” credentials. But it has a long way to go before it will be on a par with Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps in this regard (not to mention a slew of others).

In any case, I think Dr. Bronner would agree with this one. Giving back to the workers was a key part of his vision.

“All one or all none!” he might say (socialistically).

The Magic Soap Extended Family

In 2005, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap started looking into the back story of their suppliers. Because its mission extended far beyond company doors, and even “certified organic” labels.

So the company decided to begin uniquely sourcing all major soap ingredients from certified organic suppliers who were also certified fair trade groups.

The fair trade premium paid under this program could then be reinvested into new community-run development projects, increasing quality of life and resilience for supplier communities.

It’s a theoretical no-brainer for a green company. But Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps doesn’t just talk. It walks the green walk.
And this means applying an incredible amount of research, investment, follow-through and love to the projects it takes on. Such commitment insures that:

  • all farmers and workers along supply lines are treated with respect
  • they are all paid fair trade prices and wages
  • all production – both farming and processing – is done sustainably and organically

Let’s take a closer look at how three of these projects work.

Certified organic palm oil


Sustainable Palm Oil from Ghana

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps switched to certified organic palm oil in 2004. The company could have stopped there, resting on those laurels.

But that wouldn’t have satisfied its founder. It didn’t satisfy his grandchildren, either.
So in 2007 Dr. Bronner’s started an organic and fair trade palm oil project in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

Working through Serindipalm Co. Ltd., its Ghanaian affiliate, Dr. Bronner’s now:

  • buys from 300 small farmers who work about 2,500 acres of certified organic land (involving no deforestation)
  • pays fair trade premium prices
  • supports their suppliers in many ways, including training in organic agriculture and yield improvement
  • through their affiliate, employs about 150 people (mostly women) in a remodeled oil mill, paying wages at a level unheard of in that area of the world

And the people can now plow their Fair Trade premium back into a broad range of community development projects -- from drilling wells to medical clinics.

But there’s more.

Recently, Dr. Bronner’s announced its own “Fight Malaria in Ghana” campaign to buy much-needed mosquito nets for the area:

The campaign met its $25,000 goal in just 12 days. Dr. Bronner’s matched these funds, sending a total of $50,000 to purchase 5,000 mosquito nets for the people in and around the town of Asuom, Ghana.

After the first 12 days of the campaign, an additional $22,100 came in. Again with matching funds, Dr. Bronner’s is sending $44,200 to Asuom to help the people build a maternity ward at the local health center.

All part of Dr. Bronner’s “All-One” mission …

certified organic coconut oil


Sustainable Coconut Oil from Sri Lanka

The same year its Ghana project was put in gear, Dr. Bronner’s began another project. Its mission was to source all needed coconut oil from Sri Lanka through sustainable, fair trade production.

First, Dr. Bronner’s formed a subsidiary with two Sri Lankan partners. This paved the way for purchase of coconuts from about 500 farmers whose holdings go back for generations.

Second, the partnership began providing training and assistance to convert all their farmer suppliers to organic and sustainable practices.

And third, an old coconut mill was bought and remodeled. The group then installed new processing technology for more efficient coconut harvesting.

The Sri Lanka coconut oil project has been so successful that it supplies Dr. Bronner’s with all the coconut oil it needs to:

  • make its rich, lathery soaps
  • feed its new line of edible organic virgin coconut oil
  • sell to other U.S. and EU companies needing organic and fair trade coconut sources.

Here’s the story of the Sri Lankan coconut oil project:

Sustainable Olive Oil from the Holy Land

In 2007 Dr. Bronner’s began originating 90% of the olive oil in its soaps from Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, an Israeli farm, and a Jewish/Arab Israeli organization.

The partnership rule? All must be committed to peaceful coexistence.

Canaan Fair Trade, Dr. Bronner’s partner in Palestine, works closely with the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA). It now purchases olive oil from 1,700 PFTA members.

This Fair Trade relationship guarantees PFTA growers a minimum price for their olives. And the Fair Trade premium they get guarantees funds for additional projects in the area that contribute to community resilience.

But Dr. Bronner’s mission goes even beyond this.

Short-term loans to its Palestinian partners lets them develop much-needed infrastructure for processing and storage. And because Dr. Bronner’s funded their Fair Trade certification, Canaan Fair Trade and PFTA now have access to more U.S. and EU markets.

Any additional oil needed comes from Sindyanna, an organization owned by Jewish and Arab Israeli women. This group supports both Israeli and Palestinian producers. Another source is the Israeli Strauss family farm, also committed to peace. Michael Strauss notes:

"The idea of Dr. Bronner’s mixing oil … from different people who live in the West Bank, is a great idea. I’m actually a perfect example. I was fighting, engaged in the confrontation between the Arab part of the Holy Land and the Jewish part. I can tell you honestly … that unless we find a way not only to mix our oils but to mix our lives, there is no future for either of us.”

Some might think a project like this is “too controversial.”

But Emanuel Bronner never feared controversy. And luckily, neither do his heirs. Indeed, supporting peaceful coexistence through projects such as this is right down Dr. Bronner’s alley. I can just hear him quipping now, “We’re all one or all none! Exceptions eternally? None!”

Discover the beautiful story of the Olive Oil Project here:

Dr. Bronner's certified organic soap

“A symbol of an ideal …
and an ideal product”

I read that quote while watching “Dr. Bronners Magic Soapbox.” It’s author, Heather Jenkins, got it right.

People don’t just like Doctor Bronner’s Magic Soaps. They love them.

Because each of those luscious, cleansing, spirit-tingling soaps – made from oils grown and harvested sustainably from around the world -- holds within it the dream of a better world.

This is a company that takes its mission seriously, returning the gifts it takes to the people and the earth that nourish it.
If he were alive today, Dr. Bronner might go into one of his famous anti-Communist rants if I said (smiling), “You know, that looks like a socialist vision ya got there…”

Or, arms open wide as though to embrace the world, he might answer fervently, “We’re all brothers sisters! And we should take care of each other and Spaceship Earth!”

I couldn’t agree more.

So … here’s to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, holding to the triple bottom line by firmly (and joyfully) walking its green talk. May it continue lathering the world into a better place for all!

(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. Check out Part 1 to discover how Dr. Bronner’s began walking the triple bottom line, living its mission to give back what it takes from Spaceship Earth)

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