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From Soap and Chocolate to COVID: Dr. Bronner’s Keeps Getting Ethical Business Right

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Image courtesy Dr. Bronner's

It’s been more than 70 years since Emanuel Bronner, a third-generation master soapmaker, launched Dr. Bronner’s soap. He couldn’t have known then that his grandchildren would carry on his ‘All-One’ vision with such gusto—reimagining a number of other categories from toothpaste to hair care and now, chocolate, to a new world ethos around the pandemic.

There is perhaps a no better example of the saying “how you do anything is how you do everything” than Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap company. 

Now helmed by Emanuel Bronner’s grandsons, David and Michael Bronner, the Southern California soap company is nothing short of the world’s foremost ethical empire. Bronner’s grandsons are building a brand that marries their grandfather’s utopian daydreaming with sound business acumen, ethics, and science—even, and especially, during a pandemic.

“While the pandemic offered many challenges, it did provide an opportunity for me to work on my work-life balance, and spend more time with my family,” Michael Bronner, the company’s President, told Ethos via email. “My kids just turned 8 and 5, so I was really happy for the opportunity.” Bronner, like most of us, was holed up at home. He split his time poolside, building Legos with his children. But he also spent the bulk of his days trying to keep his family and his employees safe.

Covid provided the Bronner family an opportunity to show the world what it really means to run an ethical company. For the Dr. Bronner staff, the company expanded sick leave to give more paid time off during the crisis. “We are providing extra appreciation pay of $2.50 an hour, which equates to an extra $100 for 40 hours a week for people who are required to work on-site,” Bronner said. “At the end of 2020, we had grown so much, we gave all full-time employees a $5000 bonus we called the Covid-bump. Most recently, we’ve created a $1,000 incentive for any employee who receives a COVID-19 vaccine in an effort to boost our vaccinated population and improve the safety of our workplace.”

Dr. Bronner’s COVID Relief Program

The San Diego-based company also launched the COVID Relief Program in March 2020, at the very beginning of lockdown. Bronner says it’s still going strong and will be, “into the foreseeable future until this public health crisis is abated.” It allocates 4 percent of all of the company’s organic hand sanitizers and four-ounce bottles of its pure castile liquid soap for donation to people most in need. 

“Since March of 2020, Dr. Bronner’s has distributed more than 140,448 units of Organic Hand Sanitizer, and more than 140,406 units of 4oz Soap, in this dedicated effort to mitigate the current COVID pandemic crisis,” Bronner says.

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

The company’s staunch commitment to addressing the crisis and to support vaccines in the workplace may seem counterintuitive to a brand long synonymous with the anti-authoritarian counterculture. 

“Questioning authority does not mean negating sound science,” says Derek Beres, co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and Ethos contributor. “Dr. Bronner’s has a history of putting their money with their mouth is and standing up for causes they believe in. I’m happy to see them follow consensus in the medical community and promote one of the most successful interventions in the modern era, the COVID vaccines—which doesn’t imply they’ve lost any edge in asking the right questions in other domains of power.”

And while the brand certainly revels in being synonymous with idealistic worldviews, the company is rooted in science—both with the products it formulates and vaccine safety.

Dr. Bronner’s isn’t out to necessarily shake its longstanding hippie image, though. Its goal is to simply take that ethos mainstream, bridging the worldviews shared by its founder, its current executive team, and its consumers.

It appears to be working. In 1998, the company’s annual revenue was $4 million. In 2018, it was $122.5 million. 

The brand made its mainstream shift in the early 2000s. That move proved highly successful—it’s one of the few items sold at Trader Joe’s that doesn’t bear the store’s in-house labels, for example. Target and Costco have also carried the soap. It has national distribution in hundreds of supermarket chains.

But part of its success also lies in the Bronner label’s incredibly loyal customer base. And as the brand has entered other categories in recent years, it’s pulled that base along with it. 

That base is less woo-woo than it would seem. Mainstream consumers love the economic value of the soap, its iconic peppermint tingle, and its verbose label that makes for excellent hair conditioner wait time shower reading.

But these shoppers are also seeking to make responsible purpose-driven purchases. A recent survey found 71 percent of consumers want traceability and accountability from brands. More than half (57 percent) are even willing to change purchasing habits to reduce their environmental impact.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic…Food?

But can a soapmaker cross into food? With its latest launch—a range of vegan, Fair Trade chocolate bars, the Bronner family is out to prove that it can. 

“There is significant interconnectedness in our soap and chocolate supply chains,” Bronner says. “The cacao used to produce Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-One Chocolate Bars comes from small-scale farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast who use regenerative organic and agroforestry techniques to sustainably grow cacao alongside palm oil produced by our sister company Serendipalm, which is an ingredient in Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soaps.”

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

Other crops like coconut and sugar, Bronner says, are also part of the supply chain for both the soaps and chocolate. “While our soaps are not food products, they are indeed made almost entirely from plant-based agricultural products, so the supply chains for both are interwoven and rely on the same environmental and social justice values.”

Brand Advocacy

It’s those values that have made the brand a bellwether across the aisles. It’s been a leading advocate for Fair Trade, organic, and regenerative farming. It’s donated millions of dollars to issues including animal rights and environmental causes. The company has been a longtime supporter of drug policy reform before it was cool. In 2020 alone, it contributed more than $5 million toward reform efforts and advocacy for the cultivation and conservation of indigenous psychedelic plant medicine, and alternative, holistic treatments for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

The psychedelic industry is now booming with clinical trials and pharmaceutical companies developing novel products to treat depression, anxiety, and a score of other health issues. That’s due in large part to policy reform efforts, some of which the soap maker funded, in cities including Denver, Oakland, and Washington D.C. “Psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown great promise in clinical trials at John Hopkins, NYU, UCLA, and elsewhere for treating severe psychological disorders. Used in the right settings, in combination with a good diet, fitness, and other healthy lifestyle choices, psychedelic-assisted therapies, and medicines offer dramatic healing for many people suffering from depression, end-of-life anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions,” Bronner said.

It’s the company’s ongoing exploration into social justice issues like these that Bronner says helped the brand dive into coconut, and now chocolate in the first place.

Supporting Farmers in Ghana

“In working with our partners at Serendipalm in Ghana, where the organic and fair trade palm oil for our bar soaps is sourced, it was a natural course of action to help those farmers institute dynamic agroforestry models and diversify their crops to include cocoa alongside their palm crops,” he says. “From this start, growing organic and fair trade cocoa was a natural next step for our farmer partners; and so it became a natural next step for us at Dr. Bronner’s to then bring that cocoa to market, in the form of the most ethical Chocolate bar we can possibly provide to consumers.”

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

The brand partnered with world-class Swiss chocolatiers to develop a variety of 70% dark chocolate flavors including Salted Dark, Roasted Whole Hazelnuts, Crunchy Hazelnut Butter, Salted Whole Almonds, Salted Almond Butter, and Smooth Coconut Praline. “We have created flavors that naturally highlight the depth of rich, fruity notes in the cocoa, as well as flavor combinations that appeal to a variety of textures from creaminess to nutty crunch. We’re also proud of our Smooth Coconut Praline which is the first flavor of its kind on the market in the U.S.”

Chocolate’s Bitter Labor Problem

Earlier this year,  the first class-action lawsuit of its kind against the chocolate industry alleged child trafficking and slave labor.

According to the lawsuit, eight children, now adults, say they were forced to work as slave laborers for cocoa suppliers to major chocolate companies Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey, and Mondelēz. The plaintiffs, all Malian, say they were tricked and lured to Ivory Coast where they worked for years on cocoa plantations.

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

The lawsuit, filed by the human rights firm International Rights Advocates, alleges the children worked without pay, often handling pesticides without protective gear, and using machetes that led to injuries. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for forced labor as well as compensation for emotional distress, negligent supervision, and unjust enrichment.

Ivory Coast leads the world in chocolate production — about 45 percent of the world’s chocolate is produced there. And West African chocolate production has long been linked to trafficking and child labor. Chocolate giants, including those named in the suit, have been pledging for years to tackle child labor and clean up their supply chains in the region. But according to the lawsuit, that didn’t happen. The plaintiffs say the companies only misled consumers through public pledges promising to phase out child labor from the supply chains.

Eradicating Child Labor

The process of eradicating child trafficking and slave labor has been decades-long; 2001’s Harkin-Engel Protocol promised a slave labor-free chocolate supply by 2005. That deadline moved to 2008. That date was pushed back again by the World Cocoa Foundation. It’s now not set to implement until 2025.

But these eight defendants aren’t anomalies; they say there are thousands of children just like them, tricked, trafficked, and forced to work for years in harsh conditions without pay, even despite Harkin-Engel being a focus for the industry for the last two decades.

“Child labor is unacceptable and goes against everything we stand for,” Nestlé said in a statement, citing “explicit policies” against the practice.

Hershey, too, said it “does not tolerate child or forced labor” in its supply chain. “These human rights violations have no place in the global cocoa industry, and we are committed to ending it.”

“Finding the right partners with whom to do business with is the most important facet to building a clean, green, and ethical supply chain.”

MIchael Bronner

But policies and commitments aren’t policing the fields; there are simply too many children slipping through the cracks, the plaintiffs say. In Ivory Coast alone, there are more than 600,000 cocoa farms.

For Bronner, this is all the more reason to create chocolate. Not because the soapmaker wants to, but because the family feels they have to. 

“As a vertically integrated company, we can track all of our beans to all of our bars,” Bronner says, emphasizing that the company knows every person involved in the supply chain “from the root to the fruit.”

Image courtesy Dr. Bronner’s

He says that, more than anything, “finding the right partners with whom to do business with is the most important facet to building a clean, green, and ethical supply chain.” In these partnerships, Bronner’s Special Operations team gets “closely involved” in all aspects of the operation. “This includes team building and management, finances, product quality, and expansion.”

Bronner emphasizes that one of the key tenets of the Fair Trade label and the Bronner family’s ethos is not viewing materials as “indifferent commodities.” That, Bronner says, is what leads suppliers to lower prices and sends manufacturers into the downward spiral of cost-reduction.

Here, again, the company proves that the way it does anything is indeed how it does everything.

“The key is that you treat your suppliers like trusted partners and work with them through good times and bad times,” Bronner says.

“We are committed to our farmers and supply chain partners for the long haul, and this trust allows us to have a level of transparency and confidence in the social justice integrity of our supply chains and labor. We hope to be a model for other chocolate companies, to demonstrate proof positive that chocolate can be manufactured with the utmost ethical standards, provide consumers and excellent high-quality products, and still make a profit.”

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