Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox

Dr. Bronner's soap, the bottles and bars covered with cryptic sayings and quotes from the likes of Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, have become ubiquitous in health-food stores across America. With lo-fi graphic design and all-natural ingredients, the soaps--nearly two million hand-packed bottles a year--are the brainchild of a very unusual man. Emanuel Bronner grew up in an orthodox Jewish family in Heilbron, Germany, the third generation of master soapmakers. Defying his father, he moved to the US in the 1920s. In 1938, the Nazis nationalized his family's soap factory and killed his family; this history--the soap and the memory of the Holocaust--permeated Bronner's eventual business enterprise. He built a soap-making company founded on pure ingredients, fair employment, and a deep belief that, despite what the Nazis thought, humanity is "All-One!"

Now the subject of a new documentary, Dr. Bronner's unusual beliefs are coming to light. Some are strange: the FBI has a "nut file" on Bronner, who called and wrote frequently urging the agency to investigate efforts by "commies" to take over the US by fluoridating the water supply. But, while idiosyncratic, Bronner's philosophies were productive, generous, and deeply countercultural. Often referring to the world using Buckminster Fuller's term "Spaceship Earth," Bronner used profits to help build wells in Ghana, donate over $1 million to the Boys and Girls Club, and fund an orphanage in China. And his employees are well cared for: each one receives a profit-sharing bonus of anywhere from six to $20,000 each year, according to Bronner's son Ralph, and their benefits include a pension, health, dental, and optical care.

A hugely successful company, Dr. Bronner's offers a compelling alternative to the profit-over-people mindset of most corporations. And the loyalty of its customers is ferocious. Ralph Bronner says:
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.
See a clip from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox here.

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