How Dr. Bronner's Got All Lathered Up About GMOs

Best known for tingly soaps with wacky labels, the company has become one of the biggest players in the battle over labeling genetically modified ingredients.

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 4:00 AM PST

Yes on 522 logos on Dr. Bronner's soap bottles: "Totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling."

It's midmorning at the hive of cheap buildings that serves as the global HQ of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, and, as usual, David Bronner isn't working on anything to do with soap. Sure, his phone is ringing off the hook with business calls and a rep from Trader Joe's is visiting tomorrow, but the 40-year-old CEO—who looks like a 6-foot-5 raver version of Captain Jack Sparrow—could care less. A Burning Man amulet dangles on a hemp necklace over his tie-dye shirt as he leans in toward his computer screen, staring at what really matters to him: the latest internal poll results for Washington Initiative 522, a ballot measure that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.

The initiative, which Washingtonians will vote on tomorrow, is one of the costliest in state history: Its proponents have spent a little more than $7 million, while their opponents in biotech and agribusiness have poured in $22 million.* Dr. Bronner's has donated a whopping $1.8 million to the Yes on 522 campaign. (That's on top of $620,000 it gave in support of a similar California ballot measure last year.) At stake, Bronner says, is consumers' right to decide what they put in their bodies. "If we don't win the right to label and enable people to choose non-GMO, then everything is going to be GMO."

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The GMO battle is the latest in a long line of feisty political campaigns waged by Dr. Bronner's, the lovably weird cleaning products dynasty best known for its tingly peppermint liquid soap with the earnestly logorrheic label. ("Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! Teach the Moral ABC that unites all mankind free, instantly 6 billion strong we're All-One.") Since it was founded in 1948 by Bronner's grandfather, the Southern California company has become a soapbox for a variety of causes—from the elder Bronner's religious universalism to its recent campaigns to legalize hemp and marijuana, clean up fair trade and organic standards, and combat income inequality. Activism and charitable donations consume about half of the company's healthy profits. "I feel that if we are not maxed out and pushing our organization to the limit, then what are we doing?" says Bronner.

Embracing lefty lifestyle politics might not seem like the best way to grow a business—until you sit on the orange velour couch in Bronner's Tibetan-flag-draped office in Escondido and watch the phone light up with calls from buyout firms. In the 15 years since Bronner took over, annual sales have grown 1,300 percent, from $5 million to $64 million. Along the way, the company's castile soaps have gone from hippie niche products to staples on the aisles at Target. And yet Bronner has twice refused offers from Walmart to carry his soaps, even at full price, because he can't stomach the chain's politics and crummy worker pay and benefits. The best way to go mainstream, he has found, is to be as unapologetically countercultural as possible.

Dr. Bronner
"Doctor" Emanuel Bronner and his famous liquid soap Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap

At a time when companies strive to project authenticity and altruism, Dr. Bronner's remains unique. "Dr. Bronner's has always stood out on its own," says Joel Solomon, the president of Renewal Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in socially responsible businesses. "Their activism as a company is not engineered; it wasn't coached by a public relations firm. It is the real thing. Dr. Bronner's does their thing the way they think it should be done and nobody is going to change them." Dr. Bronner's shares a small but lucrative niche with socially conscious companies such as Working Assets (annual sales: $100 million) and Patagonia ($540 million). Yet none of those brands can match Dr. Bronner's idiosyncratic vision.

Bronner's grandfather, Emanuel Heilbronner, was born into a German Jewish family of soap factory owners in 1908 and immigrated to the United States in 1929. His parents died in Nazi concentration camps, and he dropped "Heil" from his last name because of its associations with Hitler. More interested in godliness than cleanliness, Bronner—not really a doctor—invented a Judeo-Unitarian pop religious philosophy, publicizing its tenets on the labels of the soap bottles that he gave away at his lectures. He became so obsessed with spreading his All-One faith that he and his sickly wife put their three children in foster homes for long stretches so he'd have more time to travel and speak. In 1945 he was arrested after a particularly fervent speech at the University of Chicago and committed to a mental hospital. He escaped and fled to Los Angeles, where he founded Dr. Bronner's All One God Faith, which now does business as Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

"The soap was there to sell his message," David Bronner tells me, "and if you didn't want to hear it, he didn't want to sell to you." Emanuel Bronner's cosmic ideals and his soap's 18 suggested uses (including as a contraceptive douche—since removed) found a following on communes and hiking trails, even though Bronner wasn't exactly a flower child; he hated communists and never smoked pot. Bronner's son, Jim, rejected his father's mystical ramblings and went to work for a chemical company, where he developed a firefighting foam for Monsanto (it doubles as fake snow on movie sets). But in 1988, he stepped in to rescue Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps after it lost its nonprofit status and declared bankruptcy, recapitalizing it as a for-profit company.

"The activism side of the company enables us to take risks that no sane company would."

At first, David Bronner (Jim's son) wasn't sure he wanted to become the next standard-bearer for the soap-making clan. After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a biology degree, he wound up in Amsterdam and immersed himself in its psychedelic drug culture. "I just had my life explode on many levels of identity," he recalls about a late-night ecstasy and LSD trip at a gay trance club. These experiences and a lot of reading eventually opened his eyes to the value of his grandfather's All-One philosophy, and the power of the soap company as a vehicle for change. In 1997, he let his dad know that he was ready to work for the family business, but only "on activist terms." A year later, his father died of lung cancer and Bronner, at the age of 25, became the new CEO.

Early on, Bronner decided that he'd rather feel good about his job than worry about making a ton of money. In 1999, he capped the company's top salary at five times that of the lowest-paid warehouse worker. He employs a lot of people he met at Burning Man, including Tim Clark* (official title: Foam Maestro), a buff guy whose job mostly consists of driving a psychedelically painted foam-spewing fire truck to music festivals, which is about as close as the company gets to actual marketing. (Dr. Bronner's has run ads in Mother Jones.) Bronner also employs lots of grandmotherly ladies like office manager Nina Vujko, an intensely loyal, 32-year employee whose office is plastered with photos of her coworkers' babies.

Limiting executive pay and spending virtually nothing on advertising left a lot of extra cash for improving the products and funding social campaigns—which have often gone hand-in-hand. For years, the soap had included an undisclosed ingredient, caramel coloring. As the new CEO, Bronner wanted to remove it for the sake of purity, but feared that die-hard customers would assume the new guy was watering down the product. So he decided to incorporate hemp oil, which added a caramel color while also achieving a smoother lather. But there was a hitch: A few months after he'd acquired a huge stockpile of Canadian hemp oil, the Bush administration outlawed most hemp products. "Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics," Bronner recalls.

Dr. Bronner's CEO David Bronner Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap

Rather than destroy the inventory, he sued the Drug Enforcement Agency to change its stance on hemp, which comes from a nonpsychoactive strain of cannabis. Adam Eidinger, who now heads the company's activism efforts in Washington, DC, served DEA agents at agency HQ bagels covered with poppy seeds (which, in theory, could be used to make heroin) and orange juice (which naturally contains trace amounts of alcohol). In 2004, a federal court handed Bronner a victory, striking down the ban and allowing him to keep his stores of hemp oil.

The success of the hemp campaign convinced Bronner to push his company ever closer to the bleeding edge of the progressive movement. In 2003, Dr. Bronner's became the world's first soap company to win organic certification. Then it sued rival companies such as Kiss My Face and Estée Lauder that were using the "organic" label as window dressing. When Bronner couldn't find certified organic and fair trade sources of palm, coconut, and olive oil, he created his own in Ghana and Sri Lanka, and scaled up small existing projects in Israel and Palestine. (His coconut oil business now accounts for 12 percent of company sales, almost as much as bar soap.)

Bronner has been arrested twice for his hemp activism—first in 2009 for planting hemp seeds on the DEA's lawn to protest a ban on domestic cultivation, then last year for milling hemp oil in front of the White House inside a metal cage designed to thwart the cops. Now he's talking about partnering with renegade American farmers to manufacture the nation's first line of domestically grown hemp-based foods. Obviously, that sort of thing isn't on the agenda of competing green brands owned by corporate multinationals. "The activism side of the company enables us to take risks that no sane company would," Bronner notes. "But the point of what we are doing is to fight, and the products serve that."

"Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics."

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the GMO fight in Washington. While many organics companies have contributed to Washington's 522 campaign, none has gone to the mat like Dr. Bronner's, which prominently displays a Yes on 522 ad on its soap labels. "Taking sides on a political campaign like that is totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling," Robert Parker, the president of Label King, the printer of the Dr. Bronner's labels, tells me as we float among the breakers during a company "board meeting"—an early morning surf at Carlsbad's Terramar Beach with Bronner and a handful of his employees and friends.

On the day I met with Bronner, Eidinger was arrested in Washington, DC, for posing as a Monsanto lobbyist and dumping $1,600 in dollar bills from a balcony inside a Senate office building. The company's director of social action, Eidinger is also the brain behind Occupy Monsanto and a fleet of cute "fishy foods" art cars (Fishy Sugar Beet, Fishy Tomato, etc.) that have been crisscrossing Washington state to make light of how GMOs sometimes incorporate fish genes. (The pro-522 TV ads have taken a tamer approach, playing up consumer rights and countering the claims that labeling will raise food prices.)

Bronner falls on the more measured side of the anti-GMO camp. "I have no in-principle objection to genetic engineering or synthetic biology," he explains, pointing out his background in biology and his dad's work for Monsanto. His beef with GMOs has less to do with ambiguous fears about "frankenfoods" than with the well-documented effects of the widespread deployment of herbicide- and pest-resistant genetically modified crops. While those breakthroughs were meant to cut down on the need for chemical inputs, studies have found that they've instead bred new superbugs and superweeds that, in turn, must be suppressed with ever more and stronger pesticides and herbicides. "Far from freeing us from the chemical treadmill," Bronner says, "GMOs are doubling down on it."

Bronner brings me to a bright, 120,000-square foot warehouse down the road from a Home Depot—his company's future headquarters and factory store. There Bertine Kabellis, a spunky, Haitian-born factory manager, details the plans to make the blandly corporate space feel more like home. The factory store will include a "fragrance bar," an empty bottle refill station, and a hemp activism diorama featuring a Bronner lookalike mannequin sorting through cannabis plants in a cage. "So it's going to be really, really rad," Kabellis says. "We're going to have Dr. Bronner pinhole glasses for sale."

"Leopard-print Speedos?" Bronner wants to know. "Which I have to get for Palm Springs Pride," he adds, thinking out loud. "I'm gonna rock 'em."

Kabellis is explaining the layout of the new organic, farm-to-table employee cafeteria when Bronner interrupts her with a message from Eidinger, who's just been released from jail. A photo shows him in his Monsanto lobbyist outfit rolling around in a pile of dollar bills.

"Oh my gosh, he has no shame!" Kabellis says. "He's dangerous!"

"That's so ridiculous," Bronner says, slipping his phone back into his baggy hemp trousers with a huge smile on his face. "It's so rad."

Correction: Updates have been made to this story. The original version overstated the amount of money raised by proponents and opponents of Initiative 522. It also incorrectly reported that Foam Maestro Tim Clark has tattoos. Mother Jones regrets the errors.

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