Dr Bronner makes you want to get up and go help change the world. That’s pretty unusual that a soap company can make you feel all those things but that is just one of the reasons why Dr Bronner is so special. It is one of the most iconic clean beauty brands in the world and it just keeps getting bigger and better. We spoke with the president of Dr Bronner’s, Mike Bronner all about his life, the company and why you’ve got to keep fighting for what’s right…
1. Our theme this month is all about beginnings, we know the amazing story of how your grandfather started the company but what was your Dr Bronner beginning like? How did you become part of the company, was it something that you had always planned to do, work for the brand or had you planned on another career?
Dr. Bronner’s has always been a family business, with my father, mother and uncle running the company after my grandfather Dr. Bronner, so growing up my brother and sister and I were always involved. We used to apply the labels on the soap bottles by hand, and work at various jobs in the company during the summers. My grandfather Dr. Bronner passed away in 1997, and my father in 1998, and that’s about when my brother and I became more formally involved in the company leadership. I joined Dr. Bronner’s in 2000 after teaching in Japan for three years, alongside my mother Trudy who was then and still is our Chief Financial Officer, and my brother David who was then company president. I began working on the goal of bringing our soaps and body care products to new international markets around the world. Since then, we’ve expanded beyond the U.S. and now 20% of our sales come from 33 international markets.
2. When you and your brother took over the company from your dad and your uncle, you must have felt such a massive responsibility, what was that transitioning time like?
It definitely was a huge responsibility, since we knew we were becoming the custodians of this fantastic legacy. It became our mission, in a way, to take the message from the bottle and apply it as much as we could to the spheres of influence around us. So we took the environmental mandate and certified our soaps organic to the American food standard. We took the social mandate and made those ingredients fair trade. We took the philosophy and distilled it into action areas which we called our “Cosmic Principles - Ourselves, Our Customers, Our Employees, Our Suppliers, Our Earth, and Our Community.” We take the All-One Mission of our grandfather to mean that we progressively improve all those spheres of influence as impactfully as possible, because they (and we) are truly All-One!
3. Dr. Bronner has always been and still is a family owned company, what is it like working with your family everyday?
Yes Dr. Bronner’s is a family business, not only because my immediate family works in company leadership, but because we consider all who work with us to be part of our extended family. It’s an important value at Dr. Bronner’s that is at the heart of how we want our business to operate. In fact, one of the foundational pillars that guides our business practices, what we call our Cosmic Principles, is “treat employees like family.” So in that sense, we see our entire company as our All-One family, and strive to create a workplace that contributes to a good, healthy and high quality of life for our employees. Some of the ways we hope to achieve that is by ensuring fair pay with generous benefits, including 100% free health care for employees and their families, yearly bonuses of up to 25% of salary for full time employees, and 15% of salary in profit sharing.
But definitely working with the nuclear family brings its unique opportunities and challenges (mostly the former). I argue sometimes with my brother like we did when he was 12 and I was 10, but then five minutes later we’re all cool and happy again. And even though my brother and I have purchased the company from my mom, we still feel like we work for her and that she still gives us our allowance.
4. Your liquid Castile soap is the icon of your brand, can you tell us why it works so well and also share some of its famous 18 uses too?
The Castile Soap is a pure soap product, as opposed to a ‘wash,’ ‘gel’ or detergent, and its efficacy is due to its superior quality ingredients of organic plant oils. In addition to washing one’s self, the Castile Liquid Soap is multi purpose and can be used to clean your home, pets, laundry, wash fruits and vegetables, and a host of other applications. My sister Lisa has a great cheat sheet with her suggested dilution for various uses, you can check it out on our website: https://www.drbronner.com/all-one-blog/2017/06/dilutions-cheat-sheet-dr-bronners-pure-castile-soap/
5. We believe there is no other brand that encompasses natural and non toxic living like Dr. Bronner does but it also represents more than that. It’s also about loving the planet and everyone in it, with the iconic All-One motto. Dr. Bronner stands for so much and speaks out when others stay silent, do you think this outlook goes back to your grandfather or is it more about you guys, the modern day Bronner’s?
When my grandfather first started making the soap, he would give it away for free with the hope that people would read the message printed on the labels of the Moral ABC — his All-One philosophy for uniting humanity across Spaceship Earth. And that drive to spread peace and make the world a better place still guides our advocacy and philanthropy work today. Our work to build fair trade and regenerative organic supply chains, stand up against animal cruelty in the body care industry, support fair pay wage laws, advance drug policy and criminal justice reform, are all ways we’re trying to engage in what my grandfather referred to as ‘constructive capitalism’ where we hope to make their world a better place. This is also one of our Cosmic Principles that guides our business practices— “Fund and Fight for What’s Right!” And to us this is the natural extension of what my grandfather sought to accomplish with his philosophy.
6. When did you have your own awakening about the world that we live in, when you realised what was going on with the majority of the food and cosmetic industries. Were you so immersed in the brand that you knew from a young age or was it something that you had to find out for yourself?
I had to go through my own awakening just like most folks did. I grew up in a moderately conservative suburb of Los Angeles, and it wasn’t until I was able to break out of my bubble and see America from the outside that I was really able to see the world for where it was. I studied in Ethiopia while in university that really showcased privilege and poverty in stark terms, where I helped start a charity for impoverished children and their families, that aside from providing education and arts exploration, created an urban farm from which the families could earn an income. I spent three years between university and my career at Bronner’s as a junior high school teacher in Japan, where I travelled every opportunity I got throughout Asia. I firmly believe that everyone, if possible, should spend a year abroad to gain perspective from the outside in.
When it comes to problematic cosmetics, I think a lot of it I absorbed when I was young, but “Not Just a Pretty Face” by Stacy Malkan really helped connect the dots for me. It introduced me to the “cocktail effect” where it’s really the incremental exposure to a plethora of cosmetics (all on their own deemed “safe” by our FDA) that can lead to sensitivities, reproductive issues and possibly cancer. “Farmageddon” by Philip Lymbery, the movie “Cowspiracy” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan really opened my eyes to the perils of conventional agriculture, for example over-reliance on GMOs to resist ever-more-toxic levels of pesticides and the raping of the soil to release staggering amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
7. When you look at what you have all fought against, the spread of GMO food and pesticides, unethical organic labelling, drug policy reform, the racism of drug policies and that’s just to name a few, it’s unbelievably inspiring. But do you ever feel sad that you had to do this, that there is so much to have to work against, that there are so many people, corporations and governments out there trying to do just bad things to either make us sick or try to cover up their morally corrupt wrongdoings. Have you ever over the years gotten overwhelmed by the fight?
That there is so much good to be done, so much positive change we can make in the world, is a source of inspiration. As with any social or environmental justice fight, such as the need to label GMOs and support regenerative organic farming systems, or establish laws for fair pay and a living wage, it starts with education. We are committed to helping educate our consumers, and in doing so we build momentum and engagement in positive change. If we were simply to be sad and discouraged by the state of things and injustices we see in the world, that injustice would remain the status quo! As my grandfather said, “All-One or None!” So we’ll choose to fight for “All-One!”
8. Hemp is such a massive part of Bronner products and you’ve worked tirelessly on hemp and drug reform policy. With the massive popularity of CBD oil and other hemp products finally being embraced by the majority, what are your hopes for the hemp and cannabis industry next?
The majority of our body care products contain hemp seed oil, and this ingredient helps make our products superbly moisturizing and luxurious. Our hope is that consumers learn the value of hemp as a sustainable, versatile agriculture crop that can be used for a wide variety of product applications, which can reduce our dependence on less sustainable materials like cotton, lumber and plastics. In the U.S. in particular, we want to see hemp farming be legalized at the federal level, so that American farmers can grow the crop.
9. Activism is such an integral part of Dr. Bronner, what advice would you give anyone wanting to follow in the brands footsteps, to try and make changes in the world through peaceful protest?
Peaceful protest is a powerful way to take a stand and assert your voice on an issue, but there are many ways to engage in activism. As a company, Dr. Bronner’s strives to ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to demonstrating how we want to make the world a better place. Creating fair trade and organic supply chains, engaging in progressive practices, is proof that companies can make a difference. We have to “be the change” we want to see in the world.
10. Something that your company is also super passionate about is trying to close the wage gap. Your highest-paid employees and executives salaries are capped so that they can never go above five times that of the lowest-paid position. There is also so many benefits and bonuses your workers get that goes above and beyond most workplaces. It’s such an inspiring and important pledge. Is this something that took time to implement and what inspired this decision.
One of our Cosmic Principles that guides our progressive business practices is “Treat Employees Like Family,” and that is in part the inspiration and motivation behind 5 to 1 cap on executive salaries compared to the lowest paid employee, and our generous benefits and employee compensation plan. This is something that has developed over the years, as we seek to continuously improve and encourage the best in one another. Our best resource is our employees, and they give us 120%, so yes it is good for them but it is great for us too. They really feel like this company is there’s. You never hear anyone saying here “that’s not my job.” We don’t have any silos here where people just care about their own department or scope of work. We really are a living entity where everyone feels like a part of the whole. And there is virtually zero turnover. So the benefits certainly go both ways.
11. So many natural and non toxic make up and skincare brands that started out independently have recently started to sell shares and parts of their company to large corporations such as Unilever and P & G, Dr. Bronner has never done this. Is this something that was ever considered for you guys, you must have been approached more times than you can count?
Dr. Bronner’s is committed to remaining a family company. We are a registered B Corp, which gives us the legal basis to pursue socially and environmentally driven goals in addition to financial profit, legally obligates us to generate social benefits through our activities, consider impact to multiple stakeholders in our decision making processes, objectively assess our social and environmental impacts and be transparent about their performance. We have no intentions to become a publicly traded company or merge with existing companies in the industry.
12. Do you have any advice for smaller businesses on how to stay independent and keep the soul of their brand, to not get swallowed up by these big business giants?
I would suggest that all businesses identify what core values guide their business practices, and identify tangible, clear actions and processes that will direct your businesses to upholding those values. For Dr. Bronner’s, we are committed to running a business that upholds our Cosmic Principles, which include: 1) Work Hard! Grow! 2) Do Right by Customers, 3) Treat Employees Like Family, 4) Be Fair To Suppliers, 5) Treat the Earth Like Home, 6) Fund and Fight for What’s Right!
13. It feels like there is definitely a movement happening, that people are starting to wake up to big pharma and big corporations and start to look around and educate themselves on what they are eating and putting on their skin. Dr. Bronner has been there the first time around in the 60’s when this wave of independent thinking happened. What do you hope this new wave of truth seekers find?
Everyone is on their own, unique path to truth and enlightenment. One of my grandfather Dr. Bronner’s tenets of the Moral ABC is to ‘Unite Spaceship Earth,’ which is the idea of uniting humanity across all race, religion, gender and social divides. Our hope is that all truth-seekers come to that realization that we’re All-One!
14. If you could share any piece of advice about what you think everyone deserves to know about the beauty and cosmetics industry what would it be?
Read the labels and trust yourself to determine if something sounds healthy or harmful to you. Use tools such as www.ewg.org to illuminate on those chemicals that you don’t understand. Recognize the cocktail effect of cosmetics: it is the gradual build-up of toxins from using a multitude of products over the course of your life that puts you most at risk. The best and most effective products make humble and mindful use of the earth’s gifts, do not waste, do not harm the land or people or animals, and return profits to the Earth and people from which they are made.
15. What is your own personal favourite product that you make?
The peppermint soap of course. Gotta love that cooling tingle. It’s like being hugged by a snowman!!
16. Are there any new products that your working on at the moment that you can share with us?
Perhaps some new scents of sanitizer, perhaps some new flavours of toothpaste.
17. What’s the one thing that your most proud of, that Dr Bronner has achieved?
We’ve given over 1/3 of our profits to charity for the last 20 years, while in the time growing from $4 million to $120 million in revenue, and still managed to stay 100% self-owned and not rely on any outside money
18. On your life’s journey, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve picked up that you can pass on to the readers of thirteen:fourteen…?
What I learned from my dad, Jim Bronner: Stand up for the little guy. Speak truthfully. Take a step towards your fears. Learn from everyone. Let your responsibility for others ground you. Eat last.
You can find out more about Dr bronner and all their products here.