The Moral ABCwith Michael Bronner
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, which bills itself as the top-selling natural soapmaker in North America, wasn’t founded to sell soap. The company was started to promote a religious philosophy developed by Emanuel Bronner, a third-generation German Jewish soapmaker, who printed his message on the labels of his potent peppermint liquid soap. Successive generations of the Bronner family have used the label’s message of a united humanity to guide the company, which spends much of its profits on charitable causes and is outspoken on issues like wage equality and fair trade. Today, even as the idea of a united humanity seems more distant than ever, Dr. Bronner’s continues to spread its soap and message worldwide.
- Take A Stand (previous Rework episode) - 00:10
- Dr. Bronner's annual All-One Reports - 1:28
- David Bronner's hemp policy protest at the White House - 1:37
- Dr. Bronner's executive team bios - 3:08
- What are B corps? - 9:26
- Dr. Bronner's salary cap policy and other employee benefits - 9:49
- "How Dr. Bronner's Got All Lathered Up About GMOs" (Mother Jones) - 10:42
- Dr. Bronner's on wage equality and raising the minimum wage - 11:06
- "If" by Rudyard Kipling (Poetry Foundation) - 15:17
- "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley (Poetry Foundation) - 15:17
- Sisters & Brothers album - 15:44
- Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox - 15:56
- Tribute to Ralph Bronner - 16:03
The Full Transcript
Wailin: [00:00:00] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:06] And I’m Shaun Hildner. So, last time on Rework, we talked about businesses taking a stand for values they believe are important. We’re gonna keep that theme going this week by devoting this entire episode to the story of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a company that’s made ideology part of its brand and mission from the very beginning.
Wailin: [00:00:22] In 1929 a third-generation German-Jewish soap maker named Emanuel Bronner came to the US. Back in Germany, the Nazis would later nationalize the family soap factory and kill his parents in death camps. In the US, Emanuel Bronner started developing a philosophy he called the Moral ABC, which centered on the idea of an All One God that would unite people across traditional religious and ethnic divides. He also gave himself the honorific of Doctor. To spread the Moral ABC across what he called Spaceship Earth, Dr. Bronner used his homemade soap, or more specifically, the labels on his soap bottles.
[00:00:59] If you walk into a Whole Foods, Target, or your local health foods store today, you’ll spot Dr. Bronner’s soaps. They’re cylindrical bottles with labels that are densely covered in text. That’s the Moral ABC and you can read it while showering, brushing your teeth, or doing laundry, all recommended uses of the soap.
[00:01:17] Today, Dr. Bronner’s grandsons own the company, which turns 70 next year. And they’re still using their products to support the causes they believe in. In 2016, Dr. Bronner’s sent 8.7 million dollars on charitable contributions. That’s 41% of their profits before taxes going to issues like fair trade, wage equality and drug policy reform.
Shaun: [00:01:41] So, we’re going to get out of the way now and let Michael Bronner and his grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, tell the story.
[00:01:47] Background music on Emanuel Bronner audio.
Emanuel: [00:01:58] Five, six billion people on this space ship cannot evolve without the Moral ABC. Cannot so lively, so in victory help teach the moral ABCs six billion strong and overnight we’re all free, all one! All one. All one.
[00:02:16] Have courage and smile, my friend! Think and act 10 years ahead! And the man without fault? He’s dead! Do one thing at a time! Work hard! Get done! Then teach friend and enemy how to work and how to love, for love is God and God is love, uniting all one above. Above. Exception eternally, absolute none!
[00:02:34] Sounds of radio tuning from one channel to another.
Michael: [00:02:39] Back in the day, the label was black and gold and didn’t mention anything about the Moral ABC. It was when my grandfather was giving lectures about uniting Spaceship Earth and handing out free samples of his soap and word got out that it was pretty darn good soap and people started coming, taking soap, and leaving. And not listening to him. That’s when he started putting his philosophy on the bottles.
[00:03:08] My name’s Michael Bronner. I am the president of Dr. Bronner’s.
Emanuel: [00:03:12] And I’m soap [inaudible]. When I was in Germany, I was fortunate to be the son of a very hard-working man. And a very successful man. He [inaudible] build a soap factory two blocks long.
Michael: [00:03:29] Usually labels are there to sell the product, but for him the product there is to sell the label. He didn’t come out with new fragrances because he did his consumer insight research. He simply ran out of room on the current label and needed another label to start writing some more. He went from having peppermint to I believe, almond, and then eucalyptus, and then lavender and so on and so on.
Emanuel: [00:03:57] Then every human being created by man on God’s Spaceship Earth, can evolve united, inspired-raised-trained-skilled-disciplined, guided lightning-like by a new birth! Without it, we destroy God’s Spaceship Earth.
Michael: [00:04:22] For me, I mean, the Moral ABC was what my grandfather would lecture me about when I would sit on his couch as a five year-old with my legs dangling off and kind of staring at the cracks in the ceiling, mildly aware that he had paused and he had asked me a question. And I would answer, “All-One, Grandpa, all-one!” And he’d be like, “Very good.” And he’d continue.
[00:04:44] There was never a time when we would talk about the Padres or, you know, a movie or anything kind of relevant to my life.
Emanuel: [00:04:54] Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed. Inspired by the Messiah, Halley’s Comet, teach. A fire, a mist, a planet, a crystal, and a cell. A jellyfish, a dinosaur, caves where cavemen dwell! Then a sense for work-love-song-art-law-beauty…
Michael: [00:05:19] When I was older and trying to kind of meet the man behind the myth it was more out of interest. A very grounded desire to know him better. It wasn’t, you know, to meet the “grandfather I never had.” That wasn’t the case. But it’s interesting. I see how my father-in-law is with my son. Pulling him in a boat on an innertube, you know, in Canada. And I’m just like, wow. That is like, such a different relationship than I had. It really wasn’t until—and I say this, not cheekily, but I really had to kind of understand Shakespeare before I understood the Moral ABC. It’s a dense text. You kind of have to penetrate it. And I always understood the jist of it, but it wasn’t until I was in high school I really started to appreciate it and the vision that my grandfather had.
Emanuel: [00:06:10] It is constructive evolution guided by one all-embracing, ever-loving, ever-creating God! That guides all mankind up from dust in his eternal kingdom in All-One-God-Faith! We’re All-One or None. All-One! All-One!
[00:06:32] Sound of radio changing and then instrumental classical music plays.
Michael: [00:06:40] You know, my grandfather did try to classify our company as a religious non-profit organization. Our corporate name is All One God Faith Inc. That didn’t work out too well for him. The IRS said no, and pay us back all that money in back taxes, and it ended up making my grandfather, he had actually had to declare bankruptcy at one point before his kids helped pull him out.
[00:07:05] You know, my dad had been put in foster homes for the majority of his childhood and he kind of saw the Moral ABC and just religion in general as just kind of being a replacement for, like, a family because in truth my grandfather pursued his peace plan more than he pursued raising a stable family.
[00:07:44] My dad was definitely the scientist. He was more of the entrepreneur. The one who was all about business logic, science, and reason. He was not about lofty ideals as much as like, impact on the ground. For him, it was essential to raise a really strong family. Really caring and attentive parents, along with my mom.
[00:08:12] When my grandfather passed, he didn’t account for succession really at all. You know, miracle is a big word, but it was a long shot that we actually were able to keep this company going in the family. We were a $3 million in revenue company with about $2.5 million dollars in debt. We were able to make this company what it is today and not have any outside shareholders and be completely self-funded. I mean, obviously we work with banks but we are our only shareholders. And as a corporation, as an S corporation, your only mandate is to maximize the profits of your shareholders. There is no wiggle room for anything else, so we were okay because we owned all the shares. When we were donating over a third of profits to charity, nobody was arguing. If we had anybody on the outside, they could have said to us, hey, wait a second? Don’t donate that money away, that’s my money. And they could have successfully sued us.
[00:09:18] By codifying all these principles not only into the DNA of our company but also enshrining that in law by becoming a benefit corporation, our corporate governance mandates that profits for the company have to be used for social and environmental endeavors, not just to maximize profits for the shareholders.
[00:09:44] We are in the business of doing good. My brother and my salary will not rise unless we raise the lower paid salary in the company. When we do expand into a new market, when we went into Costco, into Target, selling on Amazon. When we open up different markets around the world, we are doing so so we can maximize profits in order to give those profits away. You know, in an impactful way, not mindlessly.
[00:10:19] What generation is really trying to do is to take that message on the label, the one that my grandfather said would lightning-like unite the human race and really apply it to our spheres of influence. Apply it to reality in very tangible ways. On three different occasions for three different state initiatives to label GMOs, genetically modified organisms, we actually changed our entire label. We changed it so that it would just talk about GMOs and why the need to label them. We just slotted them into stores. It wasn’t a new product, or special, or anything. We just sent that out there and for the most part, the industry really liked it. Right? We’re in the natural products industry. But we ended up doing it again for raising the minimum wage and that one even in the natural products world is a very divisive issue. You know, there’s a lot of stores, I’m sure that don’t agree in raising their employee salaries to, you know, $15 an hour by 2023. But, when it comes to these big issues we will use our leverage to play a game of chicken. Be like, okay, we’re gonna put this label on and you can either buy it or not stock your shelves. They usually buy it.
[00:12:05] You simplify the Moral ABC down to one phrase of two words and it’s All One. Right, that’s what it is. It’s All One. We are All One. There’s more that unites us than divides us. We share a common humanity. We need to look past differences. We all love, laugh, eat, play. That resonates. The overall message. There was a time in our past even worse than now, as bad as it seems like the current divisions are, there was a time that was worse. My grandfather survived extreme tragedy when his parents were lost in the Holocaust. And he reacted with love, right? And a need to unite, not a need to hate and get revenge. And, you just have to keep your eye on that. Because that is, as cliché as it is, it’s about love. It’s about acceptance and it’s about finding common ground. Trying to keep from fear. Trying to keep your head above others.
[00:13:14] He loved Kipling’s “If”, you know, “keep your head when those around you are losing theirs.”
Emanuel [00:13:17] when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. You trust yourself when all men doubt you. And yet make allowance for their doubting, too. If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies. Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, and yet don’t look too good, nor…
Michael: [00:13:45] Kipling, I know, had his issues, but Kipling’s If is pretty amazing. That definitely inspires me. It’s more resonant than ever and I think that for a lot of people the political class has kind of failed them. We hope to inspire and we know that there are other businesses out there that are kind of holding the mantle of like, trying to do positive good in this world where our official policies are not.
Emanuel: [00:14:13] If you can dream—and not make dreams your master. If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; if you can meet with Triumph or disasters and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can bear to hear the full truths that you have spoken twisted by crooks to make a trap for fools. Or watch to see the things you’ve given your life to, broken and stoop to build them up again with worn-out tools!
[00:14:56] If you can work hard to teach each unforgiving minute the Moral ABC to unite all mankind free. Come hell, hate, ban, you’ll enjoy God’s Spaceship Earth and great work within it. You are the captain of thy ship. The master of thy soul.
[00:15:30] Static sound.
[00:15:32] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:15:34] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:15:39] The recordings of Emanuel Bronner that we used in this episode came from an album called Sisters & Brothers that the company released earlier this year. It’s available online and I’ll link to it in the show notes. I’ll also link to a great documentary that was super helpful in my research for this episode. It’s called Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox by a filmmaker called Sara Lamm and it focuses a lot on Ralph Bronner who was Michael Bronner’s uncle and a big part of the Dr. Bronner’s story. I really recommend that film.
Shaun: [00:16:07] You can find us online at Rework.fm or on Twitter @reworkpodcast. Thanks for listening and see you in two weeks.
Michael: [00:16:24] Yeah, the core labels haven’t really changed that much. We did remove the part about using our peppermint soap as birth control. That’s just too spicy. Too spicy. Even—you could just imagine potential lawsuits.