The Fascinating World of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps Revealed in 'Honor Thy Label'

The new book explains how the soap company built an ethical, fair-trade, organic supply chain over the past 15 years.

Dr Bronner's book and soap labels

Dr. Bronner's

Dr. Bronner's is quite possibly the most eye-catching soap you'll ever buy. It stands out with its brightly colored labels that are packed with tiny words, preaching its founder's All-One! philosophy of worldwide peace and equality. It's no wonder then that people are curious to know more about this quirky soap company. Perhaps, like me, you have also wondered what it's all about. 

Now you can find out in great detail, thanks to a new book called "Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner's Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain." Written by Dr. Gero Leson, vice-president of the company's Special Operations team, it offers an insider's look at the company's history and how it has grown to become the leading natural soap brand in the US, as well as a major global brand. 

As you may already suspect, Dr. Bronner's is not a typical soap company. Building on a family legacy of soap-making that started in Germany in 1858 and moved to the US in 1929, the family-run company opted in 2005 to shift its entire product line to fair-trade and organic-certified ingredients. This was easier said than done. The supply chain did not yet exist to do this entirely, but instead of giving up, Dr. Bronner's committed to building the supply chain itself, from the ground up.  

That's when the author, Gero Leson, was hired to help with the gargantuan task that has now spanned over 15 years and is ongoing. The book describes how the company went to Sri Lanka in the tumultuous years following the tsunami, while a civil war continued to rage, and built a highly successful coconut oil company called Serendipol that now supplies more than just Dr. Bronner's with its fair-trade, organic virgin coconut oil. 

workers at Serendipol
Women work shelling coconuts at Serendipol, Sri Lanka.

Dr. Bronner's

Using that experience, the company has since done the same in Ghana, to establish an ethical supply of palm and cocoa oils; in Palestine, with olive oil; in Uttar Pradesh, India, for the company's iconic mint oils that both smell wonderful and feel tingly on the skin; and in Kenya and Samoa for yet more coconut oil. The goal has always been to choose places and farmers that will benefit most from the investment and opportunity and are, of course, capable of supplying the ingredients the company needs. The projects are independent of Dr. Bronner's itself, run by locals and with multiple customers for its now-desirable products.

The transition to fair-trade organic (FTO) ingredients was made somewhat easier by the fact that soap has a fairly short ingredient list. "The main raw materials are coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, and olive and mint oils, with another ten minor yet significant ingredients, accounting for the balance – sugar, alcohol, a few more essential oils, and jojoba oil," Leson explains. Most other natural food and personal care companies "may use hundreds of raw materials, most in small percentages. Such a structure would certainly complicate a wholesale shift to using FTO ingredients."

Of particular interest is the chapter on palm oil production in Ghana. At a time when palm oil is often vilified and linked to extensive deforestation and destruction of orangutan habitats, Leson argues that people's anger should be directed at the production methods, not the oil itself, which is a staple food for many developing countries. He writes:

"Thanks to our 'in house' production of FTO palm oil, Dr. Bronner's is in an excellent position to demonstrate that it is not the oil itself that native people and environmental NGOs fight against – for good reason – but rather the way it is generally grown: in large monocultures on carelessly cleared forest land. I always add that Dr. Bronner's is not using our own palm oil from Ghana because it's cheap. Rather, as we joke, it's one of the more expensive palm oils on the planet – because we product it in a fair and regenerative way that benefits our host town, Asuom, its environs, and the planet at large in several significant ways."
making palm oil
Making palm oil at Serendipalm, Ghana.

Dr. Bronner's

The company is a proponent of "constructive capitalism." This differs from textbook capitalism, which "aims to minimize unit labor cost." This doesn't mean the company advocates for inefficiency, but rather weighs all parties implicated when figuring out what to mechanize or automate — and sometimes opts not to introduce new machinery that would put someone out of work.

"Serendipalm [the palm oil producer in Ghana] could replace all 150 jobs in fruit cleaning with four [fresh fruit bundle strippers] operating year round, but we won't because the project's commitment is to create meaningful jobs to those without alternatives... Here, the advantage of a growing business is that it can mechanize key aspects without eliminating jobs." 

The book is dense, with its 300+ pages of detailed descriptions of building these supply chains, including all the missteps and fixes, but it could be very useful to any business owner wanting to take its social responsibility to the next level. Leson maintains that the approach can be replicated by businesses of all types: "Its key trick: businesses must treat desired societal improvements as if they were real business objectives and handle them accordingly, meaning: internalize them."

He differentiates between the two types of activism in which a company can engage: inward-facing, which falls within its own sphere of economic influence, i.e. how it treats employees and suppliers of agricultural ingredients and the environment; and outward-facing, which takes the form of donating profits to charity and philanthropic causes.

Many companies settle for the latter, but both matter greatly. While Dr. Bronner's donates enormous amounts of money to charity — around $49 million between 2014 and 2019, which corresponds to 7.6% of total global revenue during that period — it takes pride in prioritizing the former. (Compare that to companies that boast about donating 1% of revenue.)

Leson writes, "My favorite inward-facing cosmic principles are 'Treat employees like family,' 'Be fair to suppliers,' and 'Treat the Earth like home.' Taking care of your employees is humane and good business. Dr. Bronner's high productivity is testament to that." 

The book is not exactly entertainment material, but it provides great resources about certification processes, dynamic agroforestry (DAF) methods, regenerative agriculture, ethical financing, and more. Leson doesn't shy away from historical and political discussions about the Holocaust (which killed founder Emmanuel Bronner's parents and many relatives), what it was like growing up in post-war Germany and then working for a Jewish-founded company, and Dr. Bronner's decision to buy Palestinian olive oil in response to Israel's occupation, while also sourcing ingredients from a female-owned cooperative in Israel. 

Emanuel Bronner
Emanuel Bronner, who brought the family's soap company to the US, shows off his Castile soap in 1978.

Dr. Bronner's

Furthermore, it has been a strong advocate for the legalization of hemp in the US, which it viewed as a matter of principle, not a necessary ingredient, and even funded a study to challenge the Drug Enforcement Administration's claim that one could test positive for THC by consuming non-psychoactive "industrial" hemp products. Leson writes that CEO (cosmic engagement officer) David Bronner was motivated by personal experimentation, as was Leson himself. These chapters add great color, context, and personality to the book.

I am not about to open a soap company of my own or implement the business methods Leson describes, but I can say that, after reading the book, I feel more loyal than ever to Dr. Bronner's big bottles of Castile soap. Now that I have a sense of how much has gone into making it — the years of conscience-driven investment and work — the price tag seems absolutely worth it and the liquid more precious than ever.