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Dr bronner

How Dr Bronner’s Got All Lathered Up About GMOs

Best known for tingly soaps with wacky labels, the company has become one of the biggest players in the battle over labeling genetically modified ingredients

Yes on 522 logos on Dr Bronner's soap bottles: "Totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling" Dave Gilson

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The initiative, which Washingtonians will vote on tomorrow, is one of the costliest in state history: Its proponents have spent a little more than $7 million, while their opponents in biotech and agribusiness have poured in $22 million* Dr Bronner’s has donated a whopping $18 million to the Yes on 522 campaign (That’s on top of $620,000 it gave in support of a similar California ballot measure last year) At stake, Bronner says, is consumers’ right to decide what they put in their bodies “If we don’t win the right to label and enable people to choose non-GMO, then everything is going to be GMO”

Embracing lefty lifestyle politics might not seem like the best way to grow a business—until you sit on the orange velour couch in Bronner’s Tibetan-flag-draped office in Escondido and watch the phone light up with calls from buyout firms In the 15 years since Bronner took over, annual sales have grown 1,300 percent, from $5 million to $64 million Along the way, the company’s castile soaps have gone from hippie niche products to staples on the aisles at Target And yet Bronner has twice refused offers from Walmart to carry his soaps, even at full price, because he can’t stomach the chain’s politics and crummy worker pay and benefits The best way to go mainstream, he has found, is to be as unapologetically countercultural as possible

Bronner’s grandfather, Emanuel Heilbronner, was born into a German Jewish family of soap factory owners in 1908 and immigrated to the United States in 1929 His parents died in Nazi concentration camps, and he dropped “Heil” from his last name because of its associations with Hitler More interested in godliness than cleanliness, Bronner—not really a doctor—invented a Judeo-Unitarian pop religious philosophy, publicizing its tenets on the labels of the soap bottles that he gave away at his lectures He became so obsessed with spreading his All-One faith that he and his sickly wife put their three children in foster homes for long stretches so he’d have more time to travel and speak In 1945 he was arrested after a particularly fervent speech at the University of Chicago and committed to a mental hospital He escaped and fled to Los Angeles, where he founded Dr Bronner’s All One God Faith, which now does business as Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps

At first, David Bronner (Jim’s son) wasn’t sure he wanted to become the next standard-bearer for the soap-making clan After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a biology degree, he wound up in Amsterdam and immersed himself in its psychedelic drug culture “I just had my life explode on many levels of identity,” he recalls about a late-night ecstasy and LSD trip at a gay trance club These experiences and a lot of reading eventually opened his eyes to the value of his grandfather’s All-One philosophy, and the power of the soap company as a vehicle for change In 1997, he let his dad know that he was ready to work for the family business, but only “on activist terms” A year later, his father died of lung cancer and Bronner, at the age of 25, became the new CEO

Limiting executive pay and spending virtually nothing on advertising left a lot of extra cash for improving the products and funding social campaigns—which have often gone hand-in-hand For years, the soap had included an undisclosed ingredient, caramel coloring As the new CEO, Bronner wanted to remove it for the sake of purity, but feared that die-hard customers would assume the new guy was watering down the product So he decided to incorporate hemp oil, which added a caramel color while also achieving a smoother lather But there was a hitch: A few months after he’d acquired a huge stockpile of Canadian hemp oil, the Bush administration outlawed most hemp products “Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics,” Bronner recalls

The success of the hemp campaign convinced Bronner to push his company ever closer to the bleeding edge of the progressive movement In 2003, Dr Bronner’s became the world’s first soap company to win organic certification Then it sued rival companies such as Kiss My Face and Estée Lauder that were using the “organic” label as window dressing When Bronner couldn’t find certified organic and fair trade sources of palm, coconut, and olive oil, he created his own in Ghana and Sri Lanka, and scaled up small existing projects in Israel and Palestine (His coconut oil business now accounts for 12 percent of company sales, almost as much as bar soap)

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the GMO fight in Washington While many organics companies have contributed to Washington’s 522 campaign, none has gone to the mat like Dr Bronner’s, which prominently displays a Yes on 522 ad on its soap labels “Taking sides on a political campaign like that is totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling,” Robert Parker, the president of Label King, the printer of the Dr Bronner’s labels, tells me as we float among the breakers during a company “board meeting”—an early morning surf at Carlsbad’s Terramar Beach with Bronner and a handful of his employees and friends

On the day I met with Bronner, Eidinger was arrested in Washington, DC, for posing as a Monsanto lobbyist and dumping $1,600 in dollar bills from a balcony inside a Senate office building The company’s director of social action, Eidinger is also the brain behind Occupy Monsanto and a fleet of cute “fishy foods” art cars (Fishy Sugar Beet, Fishy Tomato, etc) that have been crisscrossing Washington state to make light of how GMOs sometimes incorporate fish genes (The pro-522 TV ads have taken a tamer approach, playing up consumer rights and countering the claims that labeling will raise food prices)

Bronner brings me to a bright, 120,000-square foot warehouse down the road from a Home Depot—his company’s future headquarters and factory store There Bertine Kabellis, a spunky, Haitian-born factory manager, details the plans to make the blandly corporate space feel more like home The factory store will include a “fragrance bar,” an empty bottle refill station, and a hemp activism diorama featuring a Bronner lookalike mannequin sorting through cannabis plants in a cage “So it’s going to be really, really rad,” Kabellis says “We’re going to have Dr Bronner pinhole glasses for sale”

“Leopard-print Speedos?” Bronner wants to know “Which I have to get for Palm Springs Pride,” he adds, thinking out loud “I’m gonna rock ’em”

Kabellis is explaining the layout of the new organic, farm-to-table employee cafeteria when Bronner interrupts her with a message from Eidinger, who’s just been released from jail A photo shows him in his Monsanto lobbyist outfit rolling around in a pile of dollar bills

“Oh my gosh, he has no shame!” Kabellis says “He’s dangerous!”

“That’s so ridiculous,” Bronner says, slipping his phone back into his baggy hemp trousers with a huge smile on his face “It’s so rad”

Correction: Updates have been made to this story The original version overstated the amount of money raised by proponents and opponents of Initiative 522 It also incorrectly reported that Foam Maestro Tim Clark has tattoos Mother Jones regrets the errors

How Dr

How Dr Bronner’s Got All Lathered Up About GMOs

Best known for tingly soaps with wacky labels, the company has become one of the biggest players in the battle over labeling genetically modified ingredients

Yes on 522 logos on Dr Bronner's soap bottles: "Totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling" Dave Gilson

Looking for news you can trust?

Subscribe to our free newsletters

The initiative, which Washingtonians will vote on tomorrow, is one of the costliest in state history: Its proponents have spent a little more than $7 million, while their opponents in biotech and agribusiness have poured in $22 million* DrCetaphil, Alpha Hydrox, Philosophy and countless other face cleansers Ive settled on Trader Joes castile soap as my HG. Bronner’s has donated a whopping $18 million to the Yes on 522 campaign (That’s on top of $620,000 it gave in support of a similar California ballot measure last year) At stake, Bronner says, is consumers’ right to decide what they put in their bodies “If we don’t win the right to label and enable people to choose non-GMO, then everything is going to be GMO”

Embracing lefty lifestyle politics might not seem like the best way to grow a business—until you sit on the orange velour couch in Bronner’s Tibetan-flag-draped office in Escondido and watch the phone light up with calls from buyout firms In the 15 years since Bronner took over, annual sales have grown 1,300 percent, from $5 million to $64 million Along the way, the company’s castile soaps have gone from hippie niche products to staples on the aisles at Target And yet Bronner has twice refused offers from Walmart to carry his soaps, even at full price, because he can’t stomach the chain’s politics and crummy worker pay and benefits The best way to go mainstream, he has found, is to be as unapologetically countercultural as possible

Bronner’s grandfather, Emanuel Heilbronner, was born into a German Jewish family of soap factory owners in 1908 and immigrated to the United States in 1929 His parents died in Nazi concentration camps, and he dropped “Heil” from his last name because of its associations with Hitler More interested in godliness than cleanliness, Bronner—not really a doctor—invented a Judeo-Unitarian pop religious philosophy, publicizing its tenets on the labels of the soap bottles that he gave away at his lectures He became so obsessed with spreading his All-One faith that he and his sickly wife put their three children in foster homes for long stretches so he’d have more time to travel and speak In 1945 he was arrested after a particularly fervent speech at the University of Chicago and committed to a mental hospital He escaped and fled to Los Angeles, where he founded Dr Bronner’s All One God Faith, which now does business as Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps

At first, David Bronner (Jim’s son) wasn’t sure he wanted to become the next standard-bearer for the soap-making clan After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a biology degree, he wound up in Amsterdam and immersed himself in its psychedelic drug culture “I just had my life explode on many levels of identity,” he recalls about a late-night ecstasy and LSD trip at a gay trance club These experiences and a lot of reading eventually opened his eyes to the value of his grandfather’s All-One philosophy, and the power of the soap company as a vehicle for change In 1997, he let his dad know that he was ready to work for the family business, but only “on activist terms” A year later, his father died of lung cancer and Bronner, at the age of 25, became the new CEO

Limiting executive pay and spending virtually nothing on advertising left a lot of extra cash for improving the products and funding social campaigns—which have often gone hand-in-hand For years, the soap had included an undisclosed ingredient, caramel coloring As the new CEO, Bronner wanted to remove it for the sake of purity, but feared that die-hard customers would assume the new guy was watering down the product So he decided to incorporate hemp oil, which added a caramel color while also achieving a smoother lather But there was a hitch: A few months after he’d acquired a huge stockpile of Canadian hemp oil, the Bush administration outlawed most hemp products “Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics,” Bronner recalls

The success of the hemp campaign convinced Bronner to push his company ever closer to the bleeding edge of the progressive movement In 2003, Dr Bronner’s became the world’s first soap company to win organic certification Then it sued rival companies such as Kiss My Face and Estée Lauder that were using the “organic” label as window dressing When Bronner couldn’t find certified organic and fair trade sources of palm, coconut, and olive oil, he created his own in Ghana and Sri Lanka, and scaled up small existing projects in Israel and Palestine (His coconut oil business now accounts for 12 percent of company sales, almost as much as bar soap)

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the GMO fight in Washington While many organics companies have contributed to Washington’s 522 campaign, none has gone to the mat like Dr Bronner’s, which prominently displays a Yes on 522 ad on its soap labels “Taking sides on a political campaign like that is totally unprecedented in the world of product labeling,” Robert Parker, the president of Label King, the printer of the Dr Bronner’s labels, tells me as we float among the breakers during a company “board meeting”—an early morning surf at Carlsbad’s Terramar Beach with Bronner and a handful of his employees and friends

On the day I met with Bronner, Eidinger was arrested in Washington, DC, for posing as a Monsanto lobbyist and dumping $1,600 in dollar bills from a balcony inside a Senate office building The company’s director of social action, Eidinger is also the brain behind Occupy Monsanto and a fleet of cute “fishy foods” art cars (Fishy Sugar Beet, Fishy Tomato, etc) that have been crisscrossing Washington state to make light of how GMOs sometimes incorporate fish genes (The pro-522 TV ads have taken a tamer approach, playing up consumer rights and countering the claims that labeling will raise food prices)

Bronner brings me to a bright, 120,000-square foot warehouse down the road from a Home Depot—his company’s future headquarters and factory store There Bertine Kabellis, a spunky, Haitian-born factory manager, details the plans to make the blandly corporate space feel more like home The factory store will include a “fragrance bar,” an empty bottle refill station, and a hemp activism diorama featuring a Bronner lookalike mannequin sorting through cannabis plants in a cage “So it’s going to be really, really rad,” Kabellis says “We’re going to have Dr Bronner pinhole glasses for sale”

“Leopard-print Speedos?” Bronner wants to know “Which I have to get for Palm Springs Pride,” he adds, thinking out loud “I’m gonna rock ’em”

Kabellis is explaining the layout of the new organic, farm-to-table employee cafeteria when Bronner interrupts her with a message from Eidinger, who’s just been released from jail A photo shows him in his Monsanto lobbyist outfit rolling around in a pile of dollar bills

“Oh my gosh, he has no shame!” Kabellis says “He’s dangerous!”

“That’s so ridiculous,” Bronner says, slipping his phone back into his baggy hemp trousers with a huge smile on his face “It’s so rad”

Correction: Updates have been made to this story The original version overstated the amount of money raised by proponents and opponents of Initiative 522 It also incorrectly reported that Foam Maestro Tim Clark has tattoos Mother Jones regrets the errors