Message on a Bottle

By Alessandra Wollner '10 / January/February 2017
January 4th, 2017

For most of us, education begins with the ABCs. For Mike Bronner ’97, it started with “The Moral ABC,” a dense screed his grandfather authored, chock-full of exhortations by Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, and Confucius. “He made us sit on the couch and memorize it when we were five or six,” Mike recalls. You might have been introduced to bits of this text, too, in a shower somewhere—Mike’s grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, was the “Dr.” behind Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-One-Pure-Castile Soap Company, manufacturers of the liquid soap bottles with the unforgettably word-jammed, exclamation-point-spattered labels. (A spoken-word album of Dr. Bronner's personal musings will be released in late January.)

Despite his early indoctrination, when Mike was at Brown studying English, he never daydreamed of joining the family business, much less becoming its president. Instead, he flew to Japan after graduation, on a mission to become “a citizen of the world,” and lived in East Osaka for three years teaching English as a second language. Then, in his third year abroad, something clicked. “I saw how I could bring Dr. Bronner’s to Japan,” Mike said. “From there, I realized through working for the company and being an ambassador for Bronner’s, I could become this international person I dreamed of being.”

On October 28, 2000, Mike’s first day at the Bronner’s office, the company had fifteen employees and distribution in the U.S. only. Today, Dr. Bronner’s employs 175 people, and those crazy bottles can be found all over the world, in New Zealand, Korea, Norway, Taiwan, France, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Spain, Austria, and the name a few.

“I love finding ways to bring Dr. Bronner’s to people in new markets,” Mike says. “I love engaging a country that doesn’t know anything about Dr. Bronner’s. Five years later, they’re not only loving Dr. Bronner’s for the product, but for what we stand for—biodegradability, versatility, simplicity, purity, and functionality,” a rippling out of ethical philosophy across the globe that would no doubt make Emanuel Bronner very proud.

If you’ve ever bathed with a bottle of Bronner’s, chances are you’ve wondered what on earth is up with all those words on the label. Mike was happy to fill us in on “Spaceship Earth” and more.


Née Emil Heilbronner, Emanuel Bronner was a third-generation Jewish soapmaker from Heilbronn, Germany, who immigrated to the United States just as Hitler rose to power. As soon as Emil touched down on U.S. soil in 1929, he changed his first name to Emanuel, dropped the “heil” from his last, started calling himself “Doctor,” and set to work on realizing his grandest vision: uniting all beings on “Spaceship Earth” via a blueprint of ethical action he dubbed “The Moral ABC.”


2 - THE SECOND COMING OF GOD'S LAW! [left edge of label]
During his early years in the U.S., Emanuel Bronner mounted soapboxes all over the country to espouse his eccentric philosophy of unity, equality, and peace. When he realized people were ignoring his lectures but taking the soap, Emanuel stopped lecturing and started printing The Moral ABC on his labels. The provenance of Bronner’s doctorate was, like so many immigrant identities, self-made. “He considered becoming a master chemist under the German guild system, the equivalent of earning a PhD, and when you’re a super-intense and passionate orator, have come up with your own religious philosophy, and have a thick German accent, no one really questions your credentials,” Mike says.


Mike, on the company’s extension of his grandfather’s original vision: “For my grandfather, making soap was always ultimately about social beneficence. One way of carrying that forward today is fair trade certification. We work to take what’s on the bottle and apply it to our sphere of reality. I’m inspired spiritually by the label, but for the most part, I think of it much more on the actionable level. How can we take his message and apply it to our spheres of influence? Our supply chain? Our products? Our employees? Our profits?”


Nearly all Dr. Bronner’s products are certified food-grade organic. “Theoretically, you could eat our soap,” Mike says, “though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.” Dr. Bronner’s is vociferously committed to the implementation of GMO labeling in the U.S. and contributed three million dollars to Oregon state’s “Right to Know” GMO labeling campaign in 2015. “We don’t put much money into traditional marketing,” Mike says. “We talk with people about how you can be a business that can make good by doing good.”


“Though he owned the company, my grandfather never lived an extravagant life,” Mike says, citing the origin of Dr. Bronner’s unusual commitment to fair pay. Shortly after Emanuel died in 1997, Mike, his brother David (Bronner’s CEO) and their mother, Trudy (Bronner’s CFO), changed the company bylaws to stipulate the total compensation for the highest-paid executive is capped at five times the earnings of the company’s lowest paid employee.


Mike enjoys engineering new scents. So for his wedding, he created a special edition scent, a sandalwood-jasmine mix “to remember a trip my wife and I took to India, and to represent the union of the feminine and the masculine,” he says. Hemp, which is a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis plant, is a sustainable crop Dr. Bronner’s uses to make the soap. “Hemp oil makes our soap lather smoother and less drying,” the company claims.


Deeply committed to equity, activism, and social responsibility, Dr. Bronner’s gave nearly seven million dollars in social contributions in 2015, supporting causes ranging from industrial drug reform to prisoner reentry to soil regeneration.


8 - SOAP
“One of humanity’s oldest and simplest products,” the Bronner company boasts. It’s true, Mike says—he recalls his brother David making soap from cigarette ashes and butter for a third grade science fair. “It was as bad as it sounds. But, hey, it lathered! The point is you can make soap out of anything.”


9 - FAIR FOR LIFE  [around the back]
Corporate responsibility is another high priority for Dr. Bronner’s, says Mike, again following his grandfather’s example. The company is a Benefit Corporation under California State law, which means it’s legally bound to place its social and environmental mission alongside its profit-driven mission as business imperatives.


Bronner borrowed “Spaceship Earth” from Buckminster Fuller’s call for peaceful co-existence: “We are all astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.”


“There were key phrases of the Moral ABC my grandfather would always have us kids repeat back to him,” Mike recalls, “All-One being one of them. He was very much into the magical alchemy of words and phrasing, the idea that certain language would unite all mankind and make us free. He spent his whole life trying to distill his words down to the perfect combination, something that would make people stop and say, ‘You’re RIGHT!’”


Bottle photograph by Erik Gould


Watch a brief history of Dr. Bronner's:


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January/February 2017