December 10, 2018

Who are you calling a ‘dirty hippie’?

“We’re here to freak the straight culture out,” David Bronner says excitedly, dressed in hemp sneakers and a gold foam helmet emblazoned with a red heart.

The 6-foot-4 president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps has just finished his first Spartan Race — an obstacle course/mud bath that drew thousands of weekend warriors to Temecula on a Sunday in late January.

By “we,” Bronner means his legion of Spartan-clad employees, who are blasting Dr. Bronner’s certified fair-trade organic soap foam onto a huddled mass of mud-soaked runners. Stripped down to their sports bras and spandex, some 30 athletes are packed into a plexiglass cage.

From a catwalk 10 feet above, a buff male dancer in a red cape whips his rainbow-colored braids and yells down, “I love you!” while a DJ parked in front of a blue psychedelic fire truck pumps a techno version of “Sexual Healing.” Bronner — a Glendale native and grandson of the original German-Jewish “Dr.” — runs up a fire ladder, grabs a hose and starts dousing.

The 41-year-old visionary behind his company’s mind-blowing success — last year, sales topped $80 million — has had a lifelong love affair with foam. His father, Jim Bronner, was an industrial chemist who invented firefighting foam and later modified it to make artificial snow for movie sets. Growing up, David and his younger brother, Michael Bronner — the company’s vice president and director of international markets –– sprayed their dad’s concoction on backyard trees for fun.

It wasn’t until David Bronner met Tim Clark –– the company’s official “foam maestro” –– at Burning Man that he took his foam obsession to the next level. He commissioned Clark and his event production team to build the Magic Foam Experience, a mobile shower unit flanked by two 60-gallon soap tanks that makes appearances at events ranging from the San Diego Gay Pride Parade to Reebok-sponsored mud runs in Temecula.

In the 17 years since he took over the family business, Bronner has transformed what was once a niche hippie product into the country’s top-selling natural soap brand. But perhaps more compelling than his increasing profits by some 1,700 percent and securing placement on the shelves of Walgreens and Target is that he caps his own salary at five times that of the lowest-paid worker and donates some half of Dr. Bronner’s annual profits to activist causes.

“This corporation is leading the way in making social and environmental concerns central to what they do,” said Julie Battilana, an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. “In so doing, they are changing the face of capitalism.”

Founded by Emanuel Bronner in 1948, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps –– legally registered as All-One-God-Faith, Inc. –– has long prized social mission over profit motive. Emanuel Bronner famously refused to sell his Pure-Castile soaps to customers who wouldn’t indulge his wacky spiritual musings, and the current heir to the family soap throne also can be picky. David has twice refused Walmart’s offers because of the company’s historic policy of poor wages and worker benefits, he said.

Bronner’s grandfather — born Emil Heilbronner — was the eccentric scion of a third-generation Orthodox Jewish soap-making family from the southern German town of Heilbronn. He immigrated to America in 1929, but despite repeated entreaties, his bourgeois parents stayed behind and died in concentration camps in the 1940s.

On a recent visit to Dr. Bronner’s factory headquarters in the northern San Diego County city of Vista, David showed me a copy of the official Nazi letter declaring that Madaform — his great-grandfather’s company and the one responsible for the invention of liquid soap — had been Aryanized. The 1939 letter closes with “Heil Hitler!” — the reason Emil (later Emanuel) dropped the “Heil” from his family name.

After settling in Milwaukee, Emil consulted to U.S. soap companies and preached his gospel of world peace to anyone who would listen. Following the murder of his parents and subsequent death of his German-Catholic wife, the master soap maker’s “All-One Or None!” philosophy — a universalist vision rooted in Judaism and formed in reaction to the Third Reich — became his raison d’être.

“The trauma hugely affected him,” David said of his grandfather, who left his two young sons in foster care so he could devote his full attention to promoting his plan for religious and ethnic unity. By 1948, the proud Zionist had been committed to a mental institution, escaped to Los Angeles and founded his Pure-Castile Soap company, presumably inspired by the creation of the State of Israel.

But it wasn’t long before the soap became a means of spreading his message. When Emil — reinvented as “Dr. Bronner” despite his lack of a doctorate — realized people were attending his lectures not to hear him pontificate on world peace but to take home a bottle of his tingle-inducing peppermint soap, the self-proclaimed “Essene Rabbi” began printing snippets of his mystical belief system on his products’ labels.

His “Moral ABC” — a 30,000-word religious screed –– draws from various faith traditions but opens with a riff on Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

While the current generation of Bronner-family soapmakers grew up Protestant and their mother, Trudy — the company’s longtime CFO — raised them on a diet of Easter and Christmas, both David and Michael expressed a deep feeling of connection to their Jewish roots. Michael, 39, said his best friend from elementary school in Glendale was the only Jewish kid in their class, and when he attended Brown University, most of his friends were also members of the tribe.

While David was studying at Harvard, where he majored in biology, he spent time with his grandfather’s estranged sister, Luise, who had left Heilbronn in the 1930s and reinvented herself as a professor of German literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. It was her poetry, written in Hebrew, German and English, David said, that sparked his interest in Jewish mysticism.

Emil’s youngest sister, Lotte, immigrated to Palestine and settled on the Ein Gev kibbutz. On the day that I visited the fair-trade company’s 125,000-square-foot headquarters, David was wearing baggy hemp pants, a Rasta-striped belt and a black Ein Gev kibbutz T-shirt from his first trip to Israel.

In 2008, the Bronner brothers fulfilled one of their grandfather’s longtime dreams and launched his “18-in-1” soaps in the Holy Land. So committed was Emil to the Zionist cause that in 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, he changed his iconic soap label from black and gold to blue and white.

Shai Friedman, CEO of Tel Aviv-based natural-products distributor Ecogreen, introduced the brand to the Israeli market at a time when the concept of a natural soap was still foreign to most consumers. “We managed to build this category from scratch in Israel,” Friedman said. “Now we have a lot of competition, but we are still No. 1.”

Retail sales is not Dr. Bronner’s only business in the region. For the past eight years, the soap company has sourced 90 percent of its olive oil — a key product ingredient — from a fair-trade collective that employs small farmers in the West Bank. The remaining 10 percent comes from an Arab-Israeli women’s fair-trade collective in the Galilee and the Jewish-Israeli Strauss family farm (coincidentally, the Strausses turned out to be German cousins).

And then there’s the cannabis connection. More than a decade ago, David helped jumpstart Israel’s booming medical marijuana industry when he seed-funded the country’s first cannabis dispensary, Tikkun Olam, to the tune of $50,000.

In the years since, the ponytailed activist has locked himself in a steel cage with a dozen hemp plants in front of the White House and been arrested for planting hemp seeds on the lawn of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Washington, D.C. headquarters –– all to protest the fact that hemp, an industrial-use plant that can no more get you high than a poppy-seed bagel can get you stoned on heroin, is still banned under federal law.

In 2001, that fact (currently under reconsideration, pending a congressional bill to legalize commercial hemp production) produced a snag for the soap company when the DEA began seizing their stores of hemp oil imported from Canada. The previous year, Dr. Bronner’s had begun adding the non-psychoactive oil to its soaps and lotions in order to produce a smoother lather and after-feel.

Determined to fight, David –– who has led his family’s business since the age of 25, when his father died of lung cancer — launched and funded a lawsuit to allow hemp imports into the country. In 2004 (on Bob Marley’s birthday, the company’s loquacious website points out), David and allies won a protracted legal battle in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’re fighting to win,” David  said during an interview overlooking his company’s liquid soap factory, which churns out more than 40,000 brightly colored bottles per day. “We want to reform cannabis, and we want GMO [genetically modified organism] labeling.”

Last year, more than $2 million — about one-third of Dr. Bronner’s total contributions to social and political causes — went to fund Oregon’s Right to Know campaign, which would have required companies to clearly label food products made with genetically modified organisms. The hotly contested initiative lost in a recount by 837 votes after Monsanto, the agribusiness giant responsible for introducing GMO crops into the American food supply, pumped more than $20 million into efforts to defeat its passage.

Fair-trade projects also have been high on the Dr. Bronner’s agenda. When the progressive company couldn’t find a reliable source of fair-trade coconut oil for use in its liquid and bar soaps, it opened its own organic fair trade coconut mill in Sri Lanka. Coconut oil now accounts for 15 percent of total sales, and Serendipol, which employs more than 1,000 rural workers and farmers, has since become the world’s largest supplier of fair trade virgin coconut oil.

According to the vegan soap company CEO, it’s a marriage of high-minded ideals and down-to-earth business that drives his family’s enterprise. “We’re uniting the cosmic vision of my grandfather with the practical, community focus of our father and uncle,” David explained.

They’re also out to spread some love.

Asked why he sends the Magic Foam Experience up and down the West Coast, from the Oregon Country Fair to the recent Spartan Race in Temecula, David Bronner had a simple answer:

“We bring the foam to bring more joy,” he said.