The Story Behind Dr. Bronner's Soap
An Interview With Ralph Bronner
Gail Grenier Sweet


Corporations come and go. Some fail to grow fast enough and die. Others spread like giant blobs in bad science-fiction movies. Butthe 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. 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."
Twenty years ago, I noticed a strange listing in the white pages for Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where I live, two thousand miles from the California home of Dr. Bronner's Soap. Instead of a family name, the listing read, "All-One-God-Faith," followed by a street address (my street) and a phone number. I learned the address was that of Ralph Bronner, son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner, soap inventor, and I heard tales about Ralph loading boxes of soap into his white van (marked "All-One-God-Faith") and driving thousands of miles to give the goods away wherever a flood or other calamity created a need.
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 his three hundred thousand 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 fifty articles in such publications as Parenting, Backpacker, Vogue, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and others.
Shortly after I met Ralph, I traveled to California to visit my brother and his family, who live only a mile away from the soap factory, and got to see the operation firsthand. I missed my chance to meet Dr. Bronner himself, however; he had died in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine.
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 sixty-four years old, retired from thirty-two 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 himself. 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"?
The interview began as we walked into Ralph's cluttered office.

Bronner: My wife would die if she saw this. It reminds me of my father's office after he escaped from the insane asylum.
Sweet: Tell me what it was like being the son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner.
Bronner: I was just out of college when I first went out to LA to help him with the business in 1957. He was in an old tenement building. The room he rented - he called it a cave - was packed from floor to ceiling with thousands of documents he had written to world leaders: the President, the Russians, the United Nations. There's a letter he wrote to Roosevelt in 1943 in which he complains that the White House hasn't answered any of his telegrams for the past ten and a half years. He got off the boat from Germany in 1929, and by 1932 he was writing to the President.
I was the prodigal son returning. I typed the labels. (No word processors back then.) I thought we were wasting our time. I told Dad, "Nobody's going to read this stuff." There were more than three thousand words, in type smaller than a phone book. It was stupidity. And when I made a mistake in those days, we didn't even have white-out. We retyped it. Finally, I went into teaching so I could become independent. In 1961, I brought my wife, Gisela, to California with me for the first time, and within half an hour, she was packing soap. Dad never wasted time on pleasantries.
I keep scrapbooks. If you glance at them, you'll get an idea of what goes on in this den. Some of it is business, with distributors and so on, but a lot of it is personal correspondence. Here's a letter from a man who says the soap makes him feel like someone put a York Peppermint Pattie in his underwear. Here's another from a man who thanks us for giving his life purpose: "My dear friend Dr. Bronner. [It always floors me how many people who had never met my father thought of him as a close friend.] My life was empty until one day, while washing the daily grime from my skin and anticipating my demise, I noticed the words on the wrapper of a bottle of soap. I read them, and instantly there was purpose to my existence. Your words of eternal wisdom returned faith to an old man's black heart. For this I cannot thank you enough." And he signed it, "My eternal gratitude."
My favorite quote from the label, and one of Dad's favorites, is "God must have loved the common people of the earth, he made so many of them." That's Abraham Lincoln. I have no friends in the corporate world of briefcases and ties. They only want to buy us out, tell us how to double our sales, or get something out of us. My friends are the people stocking the shelves, cutting the carrots in the food pantries, and shopping in stores all over America. Three times a year, we go to a national convention. That's the only marketing we do. The other booths have slick Madison Avenue salesmen grabbing you and handing you brochures. We're just crowded into our little booth with a picture of Dad on the wall. And people hug us and tell us how wonderful our soaps are.
I would be in jail if I put on the label the claims that people make for our soap: Gets rid of warts. Cures eye infections. One woman showed me her teeth. "Don't they look beautiful?" she said. It turned out she brushes with the almond soap. A dentist she hadn't been to in two years wanted to know what she was using, because she had no plaque and no cavities. "Doesn't it foam?" I asked her. "Of course," she said. "My kids like to watch me brush so they can see Mom foam."
An animal-rescue operation wrote to tell us that an application of Dr. Bronner's gets rid of fleas and ticks. We mention that, but we don't push it, because if I say it's good for fleas and ticks, people won't believe it's also a wonderful body soap.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a shark fisherman saw the sign on my car: dr. bronner's magic soap. He stopped me and said our soap was the best he'd ever used for getting the fish smell off his hands. A farmer from Willard, Wisconsin, bought a case because he said it was the best for re-moving the smell of cow shit. This is the same soap Martha Stewart says is great for mosquitoes and Parenting magazine raves about for your skin. It's also the same soap that's number one among models, whose skin is their career. We don't push it on them; they call us. A photographer who'd been photographing models for eighteen years once said to me, "You wouldn't believe how often I saw your soap in the dressing rooms."
Sweet: During the thirty-two years you taught school, were you still as involved with the company?
Bronner: Yes and no. My father, thankfully, slowed down over the years, but at his peak, I'd get four or five phone calls a week, some an hour long, about "Ralph, we're changing Number Six," or "Number Thirteen" - which is how he referred to statements on the label. With faxes back and forth, I was never completely away from the business. I'd go out there for about two weeks at a time, which was all I could stand.
About ten years ago, I started taking "soap trips," traveling at random, meeting the people who are selling our soaps, and telling them our story. On one trip through rural Minnesota, a woman told me, "My husband would love to meet you. He's out plowing the north forty." So I drove into the fields to find him. Seeing the tractor, I got out and waved to him. From a distance, I said, "I'm Dr. Bronner's son." As he walked toward me, he recited from memory a quote on the label, the one about "God's perfect pilot." That choked me up: a farmer in a field in Minnesota, who didn't even know I was coming, had memorized part of the label.
For a typical soap trip, I might take thirty-nine cases and about four hundred copies of articles. When we leave, we usually don't know where we are going to stay that night. I sometimes go on the spur of the moment. I used to take a disabled friend along. One time, we were heading to Kansas City, and on the way we decided to go to Omaha. It makes no difference; I have no appointments.
I have met people so incredibly giving that your and my and most people's efforts pale in comparison. One of them is Rosemary Landry. Seven years ago, someone wrote to me and asked, "Could you send this remarkable lady some soap? She has adopted many handicapped kids." That's all he said. We drove five hundred miles out of our way to meet her. In the last twenty years, she has adopted thirty-nine children who were rejected by other families because of Down syndrome, elephantiasis, schizophrenia, tumors, and so on. She takes care of nine to fifteen kids, ranging in age from three to twenty-three. She gets no recognition, no support, and yet she feels God has blessed her. We've become good friends. The kids call me "Dr. Soapy." I play the guitar for them, and we have fun together.
A lot of people think I'm a salesman, that these are sales trips, but we already have more business than we can handle. Our soap is everywhere. When my wife and I were in Hawaii for our fortieth wedding anniversary, we went to a crater, and there was a shack selling cold drinks at the bottom. Inside were six backpackers from all over America. All six loved our soap. Two of them had it in their backpacks. I had to autograph Dad's picture for them. This happens everywhere.
Sweet: So the purpose of your trips is . . .
Bronner: To tell the story. Of course, people can't believe this. They all think I'm a salesman. They can't believe Dr. Bronner is my father and I'm the vice-president. I'll give you a good example. We were near Mount Shasta, and I walked into a health-food store and said, "I am Dr. Bronner's son." The owner said, "Why are you visiting me? I'm already selling your soap." But I told her our story anyway, and by the time I left, she had tears in her eyes and was hugging both Gisela and me. She'd had no idea that our profits were helping to dig wells in Ghana and to raise Rosemary Landry's kids, or how we shared with our workers.
Sweet: How much do you share with your workers?
Bronner: Last year, every one of our fifteen workers got from six to twenty-two thousand dollars as a profit-sharing bonus. They all have optical and dental as well as medical coverage, and a pension plan. Four times a year, we have safety meetings, which can be boring, but afterward we take all of our employees and their spouses, sweethearts, and kids out for a big party. We'll have an eight-hundred-dollar bill. But they looked on Dr. Bronner, my father, as a sort of father, too. We are all one family, and we try to carry on what he started.
Reporters can't believe 2 million bottles are packed by hand, but you saw it. Four to five people, not working fast, pack them with no machines. Corporate America wants us to believe that you have to have machinery and pollution if you want products; that we can't make money if we share profits with workers. We are proving them wrong and loving it. The business is still run out of a California bedroom that Dad converted into an office. The two secretaries can look out the window and see our cats and orange trees.
        Sweet: How do you decide which causes to help?
        Bronner: It's usually a call from someone who loves the soap. A woman I've never met named Adaku Nzeribe called five years ago. She'd just come from Nigeria and was depressed by the sight of Nigerian street women being forced into unwanted marriages, prostitution, and homelessness. She wanted to get some soap for them. We sent her soap and money for getting those women jobs and clothes. Churches and organizations often ask if they can buy it cheaper to ship it to Third World countries. We tell them it's no charge.
We've donated money to the Black Holocaust Museum, and two months ago, I met its founder, Dr. James Cameron. He reminded me of my father, eighty-five years old and going strong. Dr. Cameron said, "The world is our country, and we are all children of the same God." I showed him my father's label from 1950: "The whole world is our country, our fatherland, because all mankind are born its citizens. We are all brothers and sisters because one ever-loving, eternal Father is our only God." That's from Thomas Paine. My father added the part about brothers and sisters. He always changed things.

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