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How a cosmic commitment to soap created a progressive giantby Mike Denison
Economics & Business

WATCH | Meet David Bronner, the CEO of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. That title doesn't stand for chief executive officer, by the way. It's cosmic engagement officer.

In case the labels didn't give it away, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps isn't a typical company. And David Bronner isn't exactly a typical CEO, even if you ignore the exotic title. 

Since taking over the company in 1998, Bronner has led his family business to explosive growth. The family business has always had an activist history. It was originally founded to spread the word of David's grandfather's home-brewed faith. That religion isn't the company's driving goal anymore, but it's tied to the progressive causes David and his business fight for.

"My granddad ... founded the company basically as an activist platform ... and just sold his fantastic family soap almost as a secondary operation."

David Bronner

The company started in the U.S. when David's grandfather, Emanuel Heilbronner, moved to the U.S. in 1929. His family was had a long history of making soap. He dropped the "Heil" from his name as it became tied to the Nazis and started selling soap -- but with a cause in mind.

Emanuel Heilbronner who started the company.

Emanuel Bronner wasn't exactly in the business for the money. He founded a religion called All-One, which touted the values of cosmic unity and hard, honest work. He gave his soap away at lectures on his beliefs, and the labels spelled out his doctrine in a uniquely passionate writing style.

The core beliefs of the All-One faith still drive the family business. The company dubs its yearly sustainability reports "All-One Reports," and the text-heavy product labels still bear Emmanuel's religious manifestos. 

"[The War on Drugs] was a war on our sacrament, and ... a religious war, and I really kind of woke up that we need to fight for our freedom."

David Bronner

David didn't plan on following in his family's footsteps. He visited Amsterdam after college and fell in love with the counterculture there. He came to believe "the War on Drugs was largely a war on the hippies" and warmed up to other causes, becoming a vegan and animal rights activist. 

He joined the family business in 1997, but said in a Mother Jones interview it was only "on activist terms." A year later, his father Jim, then the CEO, died of lung cancer, putting David in charge at 25. 

Already concerned with labor rights and minimum-wage issues, David capped his salary in 1999 at five times that of the lowest-paid office worker. He now makes roughly $200,000 a year, even though the company grew from $4 million in yearly revenue to more than $100 million in 2016.

The company has now become a leading fundraiser for progressive causes. 

In 2012, the company gave $2.2 million to support a GMO labeling bill in Washington state. In 2016, it gave (among others):

  • More than $500,000 toward animal rights campaigns, including $100,000 for Yes on 3 in Massachusetts
  • $500,000 for minimum-wage increases
  • $660,000 toward campaigns to legalize marijuana

Of course, not every company agrees with David's beliefs. He refuses to let Wal-Mart sell his soap for political reasons. The company also left the Organic Trade Association because OTA didn't fight GMO food hard enough.

The "magic" soap has run into some trouble when science challenged its claims.

In 2014, it got inhot water with the FDA after a label on its Virgin Coconut Oil claimed it could cure heart disease. The company insists research backs up that claim, but acknowledged it wasn't appropriate for a nonmedicine.

Also, older labels claimed the soap could be used for, among other things, a contraceptive douche. Science didn't exactly back that one up, and the labels no longer make the claim.

"You're getting soap, but ... we're using the money to make the world better."

David Bronner

David doesn't view activism as a distraction from the core business, but an asset.

"Our activism attracts highly skilled people willing, maybe, to give up some higher compensation elsewhere to come and help us rock," Bronner said.