While a line of dark chocolate bars may seem like a departure for iconic castile soap brand Dr. Bronner’s, the family-owned company’s newest product is actually a natural result of its strong supply chain relationships and industry-leading environmental and social practices. Now led by brothers David and Michael Bronner, the company started selling its signature castile soap in 1948 (although its roots go back 90 years and two generations earlier) and now is the top-selling natural brand of soap in North America.
Michael Bronner says he grew up watching his dad make soap and soon learned how to do so himself, while also honoring the values behind Dr. Bronner’s.
“We say soap and soul were intertwined at the very beginning,” he says. “We’re both a soap company and a socially minded entity. That is the legacy that we have to live up to. The ideals inspire us as a for-profit business with the soul of a nonprofit to measure how we’re doing and where we can focus on getting better.”
In recent years, he says those improvements have included gaining Regenerative Organic Certification and Fair Trade status and advocating for policies to require GMO labeling and allow commercial hemp products, among other initiatives. The company also solidified its commitment to stakeholders — workers, customers, suppliers, community, and environment — and constant improvement by becoming a Certified B Corporation in 2015 and championing social change.
As part of my research on purpose-driven companies, I recently talked with Michael Bronner to learn more about Dr. Bronner’s “All-One” philosophy and ongoing mission, and why chocolate was the clear next step for the company. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Chris Marquis: Why are regenerative organic practices so important to Dr. Bronner’s and what role does that play in your supply chain structure?
Michael Bronner: By the time my brother and I took charge of the company after my father’s passing in 1998, Dr. Bronner’s had a great product and used natural ingredients. We were able to certify organic in 2003 and we went Fair Trade in 2007, and that meant forming companies, forming relationships — in Sri Lanka for coconut oil, in Ghana for palm oil, in India for mint oil — and really knowing the farmers, knowing the product from the root to the fruit, and knowing that everybody was being paid well along the way.
The soap is kind of the centerpiece for all this impact around the world. We sell a healthy product, but we’re even more motivated by how it affects the land. Then we started devoting a lot of our attention to GMOs and labeling initiatives so consumers could be more aware.
It opened up the whole idea of the soil being the living substance that really has created life on this planet and to use agriculture, not as a means to put more and more carbon out there but to actually bring it down to acceptable levels and to really encourage farming techniques. You can get the outputs you need and reduce the inputs you use if you just kind of change the ways in which farming is done. We obviously need to connect the consumers’ desire to purchase a product that matches their values with the farmers’ need to know that if they change their farming practices, it will benefit them financially. A lot of the initial work was proving out this concept.
That led to us working with Patagonia and Rodale on the Regenerative Organic Standard, which combines animal welfare, social equity and organic sustainability under one umbrella. This certification is kind of like the maxim from Lord of the Rings: “one ring to rule them all.”
Marquis: When it comes to supply chain partners it sounds like you have some really good established relationships. How do you choose suppliers? And once you are working with a partner, how do you scale up while still maintaining your standards?
Bronner: One of the key tenets of Fair Trade is that you don’t view fair trade materials like coconut oil as indifferent commodities where if they get really expensive in one country you simply find them somewhere else for cheaper. The key is that you treat your suppliers like trusted partners and work with them through good times and through bad.
More than anything else, finding the right partners with whom to do business with is the most important facet to building your own supply chain. That is the reason we built our fair trade coconut operations in Sri Lanka: we had the best partners you can ask for in Gordon DeSilva and his daughter Sonali. They are extremely dedicated not only in operating a growing and diversifying business that includes bulk coconut oil for cosmetics, bottled coconut oil for food, coconut milk and coconut chips, but in applying fair trade principles both internally to their workforce and externally to their community.
We always scale up in as human a way as possible. Sometimes that involves bringing in mechanization, sometimes not. In Sri Lanka, we did bring in more mechanization to crack and peel the coconuts, , but we did not replace any of the workers, just increased the efficiency of what they could accomplish. In Ghana where we make our palm oil, we made a conscious decision to not mechanize the picking of palm fruit from the fruit bunches, since we could accomplish economies of scale at a comparable price by simply employing more people, most of them are women. It provides more jobs to the local community, and machines just don’t sing and laugh together the whole day through like the women do.
Marquis: How did COVID-19 affect the company’s operations — and how does it continue to do so?
Bronner: We grew 43% last year. Demand for products like hand sanitizer was up 653%, we faced a constant shortage of key materials, and it really wasn’t the ones you might think of. It really came down to packaging, as it was hard to get bottles and caps. To boost our production, we ran a second shift and a night shift — so running three shifts a day.
Of course, there were new guidelines coming down all the time, and we’re doing everything right; we’re doing the sanitizers, of course, we’re doing 6 feet distancing. In the beginning it was, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re not going to get it from the air; it’s 90% from touching your face.’ And then, of course, that totally reversed. We were trying to pivot and keep our employees not only physically safe, but also psychologically and emotionally resilient.
Thus, we expanded sick leave to give more paid time off. We ended up giving extra appreciation pay of $2.50 an hour, which equates to an extra $100 for 40 hours a week for people who are there. We made sure to check in more with people who were off-site. And at the end of the year since we had grown so much, we gave all full-time employees a $5000 bonus we called the Covid-bump.
This year was a different story. January was a big wake-up call: retailers had overbought last year so 1stquarter sales were slow. Additionally, the sanitizer market had become hyper-saturated, so sanitizer sales dropped off a cliff. It shows you how easy it is to go from one side of the pendulum (having too much demand) all the way to the other side of it (having too much supply). Now we’re kind of in an equilibrium.
Marquis: What does being a B Corp mean for Dr. Bronner’s? How does the history as a family business affect its direction and practices?
Bronner: Sustainability is baked into everything we do. It’s not an afterthought. For us, B Corp has intrinsic and extrinsic meaning. We want those internal metrics, but we want to be part of the B Corp community. We also want to support a community that is trying to measure all these tangibles and intangibles in a uniform way across disciplines, across different companies, whether you’re a law firm, a manufacturer, or a hotel. We want to know where we’re succeeding and where we’re falling short. Through the B Impact Assessment, we get the numerical scores that are the quickest way to understand where you are on the spectrum.
Currently we have a score of 178, the 2nd highest in the world. Since that score came out three years ago, we’ve doubled in size. So now we’re working on another B Impact Assessment for recertification. We had to bring in all these new systems, bring all the scale, and we’re going to be evaluated in areas that we weren’t three years ago.