Constructive Capitalism and Dr. Bronner

Dr. Emanuel Bronner holding a bottle of his soap
Dr. Emanuel Bronner 1908 - 1997

UPDATE: This post was originally written and posted in 2013. In Dec. 2019, the Dr. Bronner company publicly endorsed psychedelic therapy and decriminalization of psychedelics. Brandy Walker does not agree with or condone psychedelic therapy, and she does not endorse the decriminalization of psychedelics. She does not believe anxiety and depression can be fully or ultimately healed through the use of any drugs.

I can't remember the first place where I came across Dr. Bronner's liquid soap (you know, the one with the peculiarly verbose label with references to Spaceship Earth, Halley's Comet and All One God Faith!) - it was many years ago - but I do remember my reaction. I thought, "Wow, this guy is a wacko," but I bought the soap anyways. I figured if he was honest enough to rant like a lunatic on his label, then his soap must be honest and pure as stated in the simple ingredients list. Sure enough, the soap was very good.

Dr. Bronner was a third generation soap maker descended from Orthodox Jewish soap manufacturers in Germany. The first part of his life was marked by tragedy - his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and later, he was committed to an insane asylum where he endured barbaric electroshock treatments for his bizarre (but at least peaceful) views. He managed to escape from the institution to California where he founded his soap company in 1948. Fortunately, his latter days were marked by blessing. He reconciled with his abandoned children (so committed was he to his cause of uniting Spaceship Earth, they spent much of their childhood in foster homes) who in turn helped run the company. In spite of a sadly complicated and imperfect past, Dr. Bronner, in his geriatric years, enjoyed helming a successful family enterprise as well as an Eden-like existence of nude sunbathing and eating fresh guacamole, his favorite health food, on a regular basis.

His soap continues in the same excellent tradition despite Dr. Bronner having passed away in 1997. The company is run by his relatives who hold to the same purity standards espoused by Dr. Bronner and have taken them to another level. The company's product is completely organic and fair trade certified, and they're especially proud of an organic, fair trade olive oil project in the Holy Land. The company has always donated a percentage of their net profits to charity. In recent years, the percentage donated has increased to over 70% of net profits. The relatives have also capped their salaries so that they are never grotesquely out of proportion to the lowest paid employees in the company. And they give generous bonuses to all of their employees, not just the top management. (As anyone knows, this is so unfortunately not true in many American companies and corporations where a sense of entitlement prevails in upper management to the long-term detriment of the companys' morale and financial health.)

Several bottles and bars of Dr. Bronner's soap
Dr. Bronner's line of soaps

More and more business people are considering the sustainable and socially responsible business model just as more and more people have jumped on the organic and fair trade bandwagon. Some claim that a business that creates an excellent product, reimburses all workers fairly, is socially and environmentally responsible, gives generously, and is also economically viable all at the same time is not possible. Dr. Bronner's company is a practical example of how this "constructive capitalism" is in fact very possible.

Many people are unaware that it was Dr. Bronner who first conceived and used the term "constructive capitalism." Increasingly, financial and economic pundits are trying to take credit for the term. Dr. Bronner was truly a pioneer, well ahead of his time, and his work has helped pave the way for contemporary offshoots such as "conscious capitalism" (the Whole Foods business model before being acquired by Amazon in 2017.) While generosity is nothing new in American capitalism - industrialists Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their twilight years, were big givers from their, some argue, ill-gotten wealth - Dr. Bronner's business was one of the first to marry the concept of social responsibility with profit in a very practical way.

I have been a consumer of Dr. Bronner's soap for years - it's great for everything, including stinky, dander-infested pets. (Caution must be exercised in using the peppermint soap on private areas since the high quality peppermint has a surprising "zing" to it.) Over time, the kooky labels with excessive exclamation points have become more and more endearing, like the rantings of a favorite, eccentric, old fart relative. Apparently, Dr. Bronner's family feels likewise. Even though a number of Dr. Bronner's relatives are born-again Christians and don't quite agree with everything on the labels (e.g. the Halley's Comet connection to the Messiah), they have left them unchanged out of respect for their founding patriarch. The family states on each label, "No one agrees with everything on the label, but everyone finds something which inspires and touches them." So true. The labels contain a random assortment of original quotes by Dr. Bronner from his "moral ABC" and quotes by famous people. Here is a sampling:

"To love, to live!
to see to it that I give and grow
and give and give!"
Dr. Bronner

"God must have loved the common people of the earth...he made so many of them."
Abraham Lincoln

"Our technology has outstripped our humanity!"
Albert Einstein

"We're ALL-ONE or NONE!"
Dr. Bronner

And did I mention that Dr. Bronner was blind? His ever diminishing eyesight, which he attributed to the early electroshock treatments, eclipsed into total blindness by his old age, but he had more vision and foresight than most people with perfect eyesight. And perhaps his most radical, daring, and for many people, annoying practice - he brings up the subject of God in a place where no one else would dare to for fear of losing customers: the marketplace. His soap labels are peppered with references to God. You may find his theology to be strange or flawed, but you have to at least admire his brazenness for giving homage to God in a place where the term "God" is practically a dirty word. On something as ordinary and mundane as a soap bottle sitting on a store shelf, of all places. The nerve of that Dr. Bronner!

(Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I touch on the subject of God in the topic "God" which is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.)

(Posted 12/9/2013)