Corporations come and go. Some fail to grow fast enough and die. Others spread like giant blobs in bad science-fiction movies. But the company that makes Dr. Bronner's Soap is different. Certainly, the $7 million business could expand. Corporations in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan have offered to import the all-natural, inexpensive soap known for its thick lather. Big chain stores have asked to sell it, using their private labels.
But the answer is always no. The family behind Dr. Bronner's wants to stay small and honor the message on its label, which includes words from many of the world's great religions and philosophers. Staying small and honoring the message means remaining family owned and family run. It means making and packaging a pure castile soap in factories where no harm is done to the environment. It means keeping the same employees for twenty years or longer with out-of-the-ordinary pay, benefits, and profit sharing.
|That famous label, the hallmark of a soap favored by back-to-the-land pioneers and fashion models alike, contains the "Moral ABC" of Dr. Emanuel Bronner.|
The company's founder, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, also believed in sharing profits with what he called "Spaceship Earth," borrowing Buckminster Fuller's term. The company once donated a thousand-acre rain forest worth more than $1 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs. Over the years, it has funded an orphanage in China, a chemistry lab in a Mexican school, freshwater wells in Ghana, homes for special children, college scholarships in foreign affairs, and homeless shelters.
Retaining family control of the company also guarantees continued use of a label that might look out of place on chain-store shelves. That famous label, the hallmark of a soap favored by back-to-the-land pioneers and fashion models alike, contains the "Moral ABC" of Dr. Emanuel Bronner. While you lather, you can read thousands of tiny words, scattered with exclamation points and run-on sentences: "When half-truth is gone & we are dust, the full-truth we print, protect & teach alone lives on! Full-truth is God, it must! Help teach the whole Human race, the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith."
Last summer, I finally met Ralph Bronner, the man behind the mysterious phone-book listing. He told me about the company's soap-bottling factory in Escondido, California, and he pushed some soap into my hand. Ralph and a photocopy machine are the entire publicity department. The company spends its money on expensive peppermint and hemp oils rather than on marketing. Ralph told me that, in 300,000 miles of traveling, he hasn't found a health-food store in America that doesn't carry his family's product. Yet they use no salespeople and no advertising--just word of mouth and more than 50 articles in such publications as Parenting, Backpacker, Vogue, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and others.
The low-tech Bronner factory in Escondido was a world apart from the smelly factories I saw when I was growing up in Milwaukee. Surrounded by eucalyptus trees, the building emits no noise. There's no smoke and no odor except for the occasional whiff of peppermint, almond, eucalyptus, lemon, aloe vera, rose, or lavender. The day's work orders are scribbled on a chalkboard. Liquid soap is stored in elevated vats and gravity-fed into tubes handled by four women who fill bottles in a room below. With fifteen employees, the company produces 1.5 million bottles a year, as well as bar soap, all packed by hand, with no machinery.
David Bronner, Ralph's nephew and the company president, showed me around and told me about his grandfather. Dr. Emanuel Bronner was an eccentric who railed loudly and publicly against such "evils" as fluoridated water, communism, false religions, and poor health practices. Though he lost both parents in the Holocaust, he was a believer in the unity of the human family. Some saw his preaching about "uniting Spaceship Earth" as ranting, and he was once committed to an insane asylum in Elgin, Illinois. He escaped after three tries and fled to California, "where he fit right in," the family likes to joke.
When I returned to Menomonee Falls, I had questions for Ralph Bronner, the company vice-president. Ralph is 64 years old, retired from 32 years of teaching junior high school in Milwaukee's inner city. He now spends his days pursuing his love of folk music, practicing philanthropy, and promoting his father's philosophy and soap. He runs a coffee house and sings for day-care centers and children's groups. "Music, soap, and my life are so intertwined that they could never be separated," he says.
Talking with Ralph gave me a taste of what it might have been like to meet the eccentric Dr. Bronner, who died in 1997 at the age of 89. What other company vice-president would take six cases of soap and a guitar on the train to Mardi Gras and lead the passengers in singing Steve Goodman's famous song "City of New Orleans"?