I still get correspondence as a result of my year 2000 interview with Ralph Bronner, the son of the founder of Dr. Bronner's soaps. The interview appeared in the January 2001 issue of The Sun magazine. Recently Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania asked my permission to reprint the piece in their anthology for incoming freshmen. (I said sure.) When the interview first came out, I got calls from New York and Seattle publishers asking me to write a book...about...soap?... cleanliness?...they weren't sure. Neither Ralph Bronner nor I was interested in writing a book about soap or cleanliness.
Ralph died in 2015 at the age of 78, but his personality was so big that I think of him as very much alive. The soap company continues, along with its amazing fairness to employees and charitable giving.
The article is readable, but choppy - it is taken from a pdf of the article that I took from The Sun website. The piece begins with a short introduction by me, then continues with a long, verbatim interview. The typeface of the introduction is small but the interview itself has a much larger font. (I was unable to make the introduction font larger.)
Ralph Bronner was such a fast speaker that to get his words down accurately, I had to use a tape recorder - something I never did in decades of freelance journalism. I'm sure Dr. Bronner's Soap company does much more than $7 million worth of business now, almost sixteen years later, and I'm sure there have been other changes. I know that the basic message of the interview - corporate social responsibility - remains true for the company today.
(You'll notice the name "Sweet" with the questions. I published the piece using my married name, Gail Grenier Sweet.)
Corporations come and go. Some fail to grow fast enough and die. Others spread like giant blobs in bad science-fiction movies. But the company that makes Dr. Bronner's Soap is different. Certainly, the $7 million business could expand. Corporations in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan have offered to import the all-natural, inexpensive soap known for its thick lather. Big chain stores have asked to sell it, using their private labels. But the answer is always no. The family behind Dr. Bronner's wants to stay small and honor the message on its label, which includes words from many of the world's great religions and philosophers. Staying small and honoring the message means remaining family owned and family run. It means making and packaging a pure castile soap in factories where no harm is done to the environment. It means keeping the same employees for twenty years or longer with out-of-the-ordinary pay, benefits, and profit sharing. The company’s founder, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, also believed in sharing profits with what he called “Spaceship Earth,” borrowing Buckminster Fuller’s term. The company once donated a thousand-acre rain forest worth more than $1 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs. Over the years, it has funded an orphanage in China, a chemistry lab in a Mexican school, freshwater wells in Ghana, homes for special children, college scholarships in foreign affairs, and homeless shelters.
Retaining family control of the company also guarantees continued use of a label that might look out of place on chain store shelves. That famous label, the hallmark of a soap favored by back-to-the-land pioneers and fashion models alike, contains the “Moral ABC” of Dr. Emanuel Bronner. While you lather, you can read thousands of tiny words, scattered with exclamation points and run-on sentences: “When half-truth is gone & we are dust, the full-truth we print, protect & teach alone lives on! Full-truth is God, it must! Help teach the whole Human race, the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith.”
Twenty years ago, I noticed a strange listing in the white pages for Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where I live, two thousand miles from the California home of Dr. Bronner’s Soap. Instead of a family name, the listing read, “All-One-God-Faith,” followed by a street address (my street) and a phone number. I learned the address was that of Ralph Bronner, son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner, soap inventor, and I heard tales about Ralph loading boxes of soap into his white van (marked “All-One-God-Faith”) and driving thousands of miles to give the goods away wherever a flood or other calamity created a need.
Last summer, I finally met Ralph Bronner, the man behind the mysterious phone-book listing. He told me about the company’s soap-bottling factory in Escondido, California, and he pushed some soap into my hand. Ralph and a photocopy machine are the entire publicity department. The company spends its money on expensive peppermint and hemp oils rather than on marketing. Ralph told me that, in his three hundred thousand miles of traveling, he hasn’t found a health-food store in America that doesn’t carry his family’s product. Yet they use no salespeople and no advertising — just word of mouth and more than fifty articles in such publications as Parenting, Backpacker, Vogue, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and others.
Shortly after I met Ralph, I traveled to California to visit my brother and his family, who live only a mile away from the soap factory, and got to see the operation firsthand. I missed my chance to meet Dr. Bronner himself, however; he had died in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine.
The low-tech Bronner factory in Escondido was a world apart from the smelly factories I saw when I was growing up in Milwaukee. Surrounded by eucalyptus trees, the building emits no noise. There’s no smoke and no odor except for the occasional whiff of peppermint, almond, eucalyptus, lemon, aloe vera, rose, or lavender. The day’s work orders are scribbled on a chalkboard. Liquid soap is stored in elevated vats and gravity-fed into tubes handled by four women who fill bottles in a room below. With fifteen employees, the company produces 1.5 million bottles a year, as well as bar soap, all packed by hand, with no machinery.
David Bronner, Ralph’s nephew and the company president, showed me around and told me about his grandfather. Dr. Emanuel Bronner was an eccentric who railed loudly and publicly against such “evils” as fluoridated water, communism, false religions, and poor health practices. Though he lost both parents in the Holocaust, he was a believer in the unity of the human family. Some saw his preaching about “uniting Spaceship Earth” as ranting, and he was once committed to an insane asylum in Elgin, Illinois. He escaped after three tries and fled to California, “where he fit right in,” the family likes to joke.
When I returned to Menomonee Falls, I had questions for Ralph Bronner, the company vice-president. Ralph is sixty-four years old, retired from thirty-two years of teaching junior high school in Milwaukee’s inner city. He now spends his days pursuing his love of folk music, practicing philanthropy, and promoting his father’s philosophy and soap. He runs a coffee house and sings for day-care centers and children’s groups. “Music, soap, and my life are so intertwined that they could never be separated,” he says.
Talking with Ralph gave me a taste of what it might have been like to meet the eccentric Dr. Bronner himself. What other company vice-president would take six cases of soap and a guitar on the train to Mardi Gras and lead the passengers in singing Steve Goodman’s famous song “City of New Orleans”?
Bronner: My wife would die if she saw this. It reminds me of my father’s office after he escaped from the insane asylum.
Sweet: Tell me what it was like being the son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner.
Bronner: I was just out of college when I first went out to LA to help him with the business in 1957. He was in an old tenement building. The room he rented — he called it a cave — was packed from floor to ceiling with thousands of documents he had written to world leaders: the President, the Russians, the United Nations. There’s a letter he wrote to Roosevelt in 1943 in which he complains that the White House hasn’t answered any of his telegrams for the past ten and a half years. He got off the boat from Germany in 1929, and by 1932 he was writing to the President.
I was the prodigal son returning. I typed the labels. (No word processors back then.) I thought we were wasting our time. I told Dad, “Nobody’s going to read this stuff.” There were more than three thousand words, in type smaller than a phone book. It was stupidity. And when I made a mistake in those days, we didn’t even have white-out. We retyped it. Finally, I went into teaching so I could become independent. In 1961, I brought my wife, Gisela, to California with me for the first time, and within half an hour, she was packing soap.
Dad never wasted time on pleasantries.
I keep scrapbooks. If you glance at them, you’ll get an idea of what goes on in this den. Some of it is business, with distributors and so on, but a lot of it is personal correspondence. 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. Three times a year, we go to a national convention. That’s the only marketing we do. The other booths have slick Madison Avenue salesmen grabbing you and handing you brochures. We’re just crowded into our little booth with a picture of Dad on the wall. And people hug us and tell us how wonderful our soaps are.
An animal-rescue operation wrote to tell us that an application of Dr. Bronner’s gets rid of fleas and ticks. We mention that, but we don’t push it, because if I say it’s good for fleas and ticks, people won’t believe it’s also a wonderful body soap.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a shark fisherman saw the sign on my car: Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. He stopped me and said our soap was the best he’d ever used for getting the fish smell off his hands. A farmer from Willard, Wisconsin, bought a case because he said it was the best for re -moving the smell of cow shit. This is the same soap Martha Stewart says is great for mosquitoes and Parenting magazine raves about for your skin. It’s also the same soap that’s number one among models, whose skin is their career. We don’t push it on them; they call us. A photographer who’d been photographing models for eighteen years once said to me, “You wouldn’t believe how often I saw your soap in the dressing rooms.”
Sweet: During the thirty-two years you taught school, were you still as involved with the company?
Bronner: Yes and no. My father, thankfully, slowed down over the years, but at his peak, I’d get four or five phone calls a week, some an hour long, about “Ralph, we’re changing Number Six,” or “Number Thirteen” — which is how he referred to statements on the label. With faxes back and forth, I was never completely away from the business. I’d go out there for about two weeks at a time, which was all I could stand.
About ten years ago, I started taking “soap trips,” traveling at random, meeting the people who are selling our soaps, and telling them our story. On one trip through rural Minnesota, a woman told me, “My husband would love to meet you. He’s out plowing the north forty.” So I drove into the fields to find him. Seeing the tractor, I got out and waved to him. From a distance, I said, “I’m Dr. Bronner’s son.” As he walked toward me, he recited from memory a quote on the label, the one about “God’s perfect pilot.” That choked me up: a farmer in a field in Minnesota, who didn’t even know I was coming, had memorized part of the label.
For a typical soap trip, I might take thirty-nine cases and about four hundred copies of articles. When we leave, we usually don’t know where we are going to stay that night. I sometimes go on the spur of the moment. I used to take a disabled friend along. One time, we were heading to Kansas City, and on the way we decided to go to Omaha. It makes no difference; I have no appointments.
I have met people so incredibly giving that your and my and most people’s efforts pale in comparison. One of them is Rosemary Landry. Seven years ago, someone wrote to me and asked, “Could you send this remarkable lady some soap? She has adopted many handicapped kids.” That’s all he said. We drove five hundred miles out of our way to meet her. In the last twenty years, she has adopted thirty-nine children who were rejected by other families because of Down syndrome, elephantiasis, schizophrenia, tumors, and so on. She takes care of nine to fifteen kids, ranging in age from three to twenty-three. She gets no recognition, no support, and yet she feels God has blessed her. We’ve become good friends. The kids call me “Dr. Soapy.” I play the guitar for them, and we have fun together.
A lot of people think I’m a salesman, that these are sales trips, but we already have more business than we can handle. Our soap is everywhere. When my wife and I were in Hawaii for our fortieth wedding anniversary, we went to a crater, and there was a shack selling cold drinks at the bottom. Inside were six backpackers from all over America. All six loved our soap. Two of them had it in their backpacks. I had to autograph Dad’s picture for them. This happens everywhere.
Bronner: To tell the story. Of course, people can’t believe this. They all think I’m a salesman. They can’t believe Dr. Bronner is my father and I’m the vice-president. I’ll give you a good example. We were near Mount Shasta, and I walked into a health-food store and said, “I am Dr. Bronner’s son.” The owner said, “Why are you visiting me? I’m already selling your soap.” But I told her our story anyway, and by the time I left, she had tears in her eyes and was hugging both Gisela and me. She’d had no idea that our profits were helping to dig wells in Ghana and to raise Rosemary Landry’s kids, or how we shared with our workers.
Sweet: How much do you share with your workers?
Bronner: Last year, every one of our fifteen workers got from six to twenty-two thousand dollars as a profit-sharing bonus. They all have optical and dental as well as medical coverage, and a pension plan. Four times a year, we have safety meetings, which can be boring, but afterward we take all of our employees and their spouses, sweethearts, and kids out for a big party. We’ll have an eight-hundred-dollar bill. But they looked on Dr. Bronner, my father, as a sort of father, too. We are all one family, and we try to carry on what he started.
Reporters can’t believe two million bottles are packed by hand, but you saw it. Four to five people, not working fast, pack them with no machines. Corporate America wants us to believe that you have to have machinery and pollution if you want products; that we can’t make money if we share profits with workers. We are proving them wrong and loving it. The business is still run out of a California bedroom that Dad converted into an office. The two secretaries can look out the window and see our cats and orange trees.
Sweet: How do you decide which causes to help?
Bronner: It’s usually a call from someone who loves the soap. A woman I’ve never met named Adaku Nzeribe called five years ago. She’d just come from Nigeria and was depressed by the sight of Nigerian street women being forced into unwanted marriages, prostitution, and homelessness. She wanted to get some soap for them. We sent her soap and money for getting those women jobs and clothes. Churches and organizations often ask if they can buy it cheaper to ship it to Third World countries. We tell them it’s no charge.
We’ve donated money to the Black Holocaust Museum, and two months ago, I met its founder, Dr. James Cameron. He reminded me of my father, eighty-five years old and going strong. Dr. Cameron said, “The world is our country, and we are all children of the same God.” I showed him my father’s label from 1950: “The whole world is our country, our fatherland, because all mankind are born its citizens. We are all brothers and sisters because one ever-loving, eternal Father is our only God.” That’s from Thomas Paine. My father added the part about brothers and sisters. He always changed things.
Two months after floods hit Mississippi, Gisela and I took thirty-nine cases of soap down there to give away. The devastation was shocking. Some of the homes had been filled with stagnant water four to six feet high for months. There was plaster in the yards, and the owners were cleaning the mud off the two-by-fours because the homes were not going to be replaced by insurance. As I gave away the soap, I said, “It smells better than mud and dead fish.”
The reason we love helping Adaku Nzeribe, Rosemary Landry, and others directly is that we avoid the bureaucrats. Now, the Red Cross and others do wonderful work, but there are people paid two hundred thousand dollars a year to be executive directors of those organizations. Rosemary doesn’t get a cent and sometimes doesn’t know where her next rent check is coming from.
Bronner: My father was the most dedicated person I’ve ever heard of or come across, and that’s what made him somewhat impossible to work for. We all loved him, but his drive and intensity made it hard to be with him continually. I would say, though, that the more I do this work, the more I appreciate how far ahead of the rest of the world he was.
Bronner: I never tire of telling Dad’s story, whether it’s to you, the guy stuck next to me on a plane, or to two million listeners on National Public Radio. I think I was born to tell it.
Sweet: What is your dad’s story? I know he lost his folks in the Holocaust.
Bronner: Yes, but Dad was already writing long before his parents perished in the concentration camps. He was already saying that we’re all children of the same God. I think it started because he was fed up with his father overemphasizing Jews as the chosen people. So he married my mother, a Catholic hotel maid. After that, he read the Bible, as well as the Torah.
He was dedicated to getting other people to find God, but his intensity sometimes got him into trouble. Once, he was speaking to student groups and organizations on the University of Chicago campus, but he hadn’t bothered to ask permission. He was brought to the president’s office. Dad claimed freedom of speech and refused to leave, so the president called the police, who used a parking ticket as an excuse to haul Dad off and put him in a straitjacket.
Eventually, they put him into Elgin Insane Asylum, which he called a concentration camp. He escaped and spent his first few nights of freedom on the roof of a YMCA in LA. With no identification and no money, he got a job fighting forest fires. In his head, he had the soap formulas that he learned from the masters in Germany. He turned them into a soap so good that the twenty-fifth-anniversary issue of Natural Health said, “Since the fifties, all sorts of companies have put out natural soaps, but none beat Dr. Bronner’s.” He never apologized for the fact that he didn’t have a Ph.D.; his knowledge of soap was equivalent to one. Real doctors are making soap that isn’t as good as ours.
Sweet: What was Emanuel’s early life like, before he became a visionary soap maker?
Bronner: He seemed to have been born a visionary. He was a member of a wealthy Jewish soap-making family, yet he felt he had to show the world that Jews could work with their hands and were not the chosen people. He also couldn’t understand the prejudice and hatred of the times. At four years old, he had a bucket of urine thrown on him by other boys, who called him a “goddamn kike,” and he had to go in and ask his parents what the word meant.
In his teens, in the 1920s, he joined the Zionist movement, but his father said, “Politics and soap don’t mix. You bring up Zionism in the plant one more time, and you’re out.” So my dad left for America. It was 1929. Later, as the flames of Nazism spread, he tried to rescue his family. Luckily, he got his two sisters out, but even as late as 1938, he couldn’t convince his mother and father to leave. They were proud to be Germans.
Bronner: It’s made the world more human. In this den, I got a phone call from a woman in Australia. She said, “I wanted to let you know that your father saved my life.” Twenty years earlier, she’d been a hippie in Syracuse, New York. Her mother was about to kick her out because of drugs and sex. She was depressed and suicidal. In desperation, she called my father. (Our phone number is on every bottle, and we still answer every call.) My father listened to her story and said one sentence that saved her life: “Clean the house and call me back!” And he hung up. Now, a psychiatrist would say, “See me for a year” — at $150 an hour — “and I’ll cure you.” But my father’s advice worked. She stopped whining. She felt good to be doing something constructive. Her mother almost fell over. She called Dad back twice, and he spent hours talking to her.
Sweet: Your dad’s goal was to unite all religions. Some people fear the coming together of all religions as a sign of the apocalypse.
Bronner: A few times a month, I’m asked whether we’re a New Age religion or a cult. Well, we’re not, or if we are, we have no members. Our family is running a soap business based on Dad’s teachings. All he did is what any religious person does: he read the great works — the Torah, the Bible, Thomas Paine — and picked what he liked. His theology was a sort of cosmic soup.
Bronner: Dad once wanted to change the name of our company to “With Atomic Weapons and Guns, We Are All One or None.” We told him that was too long. So he settled on “All-One-God-Faith.” But it really isn’t so much a faith as a collection of ideas. There is no collection box, no clergy. It’s a collection of one man’s favorite teachings. He saw his soap as a way of getting his message across. As he said, “Jew or gentile, everyone needs soap.”
Bronner: My wife and I are members of the United Church of Christ. The church impressed me because its members were doing things. I read about them helping prostitutes in Las Vegas, prisoners in California, and migrants. Since we joined, they’ve let me loose, and I’ve helped with the food pantry, an inner-city meal program, and a home for mentally retarded adults. Jesus didn’t spend his time interpreting words. Jesus was with the prostitutes and the lepers and the poor.
Bronner: For him, spirituality and the universe were connected. I have this postcard from Pete Seeger that shows the galaxy with an arrow: “You are here.” Dad would have loved it, because he loved the Mount Palomar Observatory. When he could still see, he’d take me to the observatory, where there’s a mural of the galaxy that covers a whole wall. Dad would point his finger at one speck and say, “Ralph, this is a sun ten times bigger than ours — now step back and see the majesty of God’s creation.” Dad thought every church should be tied in with an observatory — a “planet temple” — so we would know how insignificant we are and how mighty God is.
Here’s another example of Dad’s spiritual focus. Three years ago, a woman named Karen Logan called. She was writing a book titled Clean House, Clean Planet, and she wanted some help. She was a big believer in our product. When her book was finished, I brought Karen to meet Dad, who was eighty-seven and lying in bed. His body was weak, but his mind was still bright and alert. Karen told him she was writing a book called Clean House, Clean Planet. He paused, pulled her down, and whispered into her ear, “It needs a third thing: Clean House, Clean Planet, Clean Soul.” Karen called her publisher immediately to change the title, but it was too late.
Sweet: Your nephew David is now president of the company, and I talked with him at the plant in Escondido. He told me the people at the plant loved your dad.
Bronner: He was like a father to everybody, even though it was difficult for his family members to get along with him. If you worked in the office, his intensity sometimes drove you crazy. With me, it was always “Ralph, you are no longer my son unless you fly with me to the Soviet Union to present the Moral ABC to Brezhnev.”
He’d say things like “You are no longer my son if you don’t memorize that label.” The label was three thousand words long, and it kept changing.
Bronner: Yes, even when I was in Menomonee Falls and Milwaukee, if the phone rang at six in the morning, I’d know it was Dad. I couldn’t complain, though, because it was four in the morning for him.
Sweet: You say your dad saw his soap as a way to get his message out, through the label. But you’ve actually excluded several countries from your market. Don’t you want to spread your message there?
Bronner: We refuse to sell the soap in a country if it requires us to change the label. For example, in a Moslem country, the word God cannot appear in the bathroom. What are we going to do — tell people to wash in the kitchen? Another problem is that we don’t want to get so big that we can’t pack with five, six, or seven people. We want to stay a family business. The liquid soap is so concentrated that it’s one percent away from being a solid. Can you imagine what would happen if we went public and the stockholders found out that all you have to do is add water and we could make more soap, more money?
Bronner: I tried to get it on tape, but he’d tell only a little about his life and then go into the Moral ABC. I’d say, “That’s already on the label.” And he’d say, “What’s more important — my life or uniting Spaceship Earth?” That was his favorite line.
“What’s more important — eating or uniting Spaceship
At Dad’s funeral, my son Mark cracked everyone up when he said, “Grandpa wasn’t your ordinary grandpa. If you asked him, ‘What do you think the San Diego Padres are going to do this weekend?’ he’d say, ‘Who cares? Let’s unite
Spaceship Earth!’ ” [Scroll down a few lines, please.]
Once, Dad and I were working outside. Dad liked lying in the sun with his leopard-skin bathing suit on. (Actually, he liked lying there nude; we had to talk him into the suit.) We were working on the label for the millionth time, going over and over the words, when the phone rang. He answered it and nodded his head silently for thirty seconds — a long time for him not to speak. Finally, he said, “I don’t have time. Call me back when I’ve united Spaceship Earth!” And he slammed the phone down.
My eyes bulged. “What did they want?” I asked.
“They wanted to write a feature, but I don’t have time. Now, where were we? Oh, yes, Number Thirteen.”
He was totally blind for his last twenty-five years and legally blind for twenty years before that. He called himself the happiest blind man in America, because he was helping the earth.
I believe Dad’s slow passing from Parkinson’s was God’s way of letting us continue the business. If he’d been hit by a truck, the business would have collapsed. Everything was in this blind man’s head. He was running it absolutely by himself. He would say to my brother, “Jim, I want you in the business,” but as soon as Jim made a move, Dad would undercut it. Jim would find a peppermint-oil supplier and sign a contract, and our father would get on the phone (a blind man on the phone is dangerous) and find it two cents cheaper somewhere else. But when the Parkinson’s hit, we slowly got involved, year by year, so that when Dad finally passed away, there was nothing different to do the next day. We had been running it for three years by ourselves.
I was concerned about what to put on the gravestone of a man who took all religions to heart. Then it came to me, without one word changed. All our family loved it. On his grave, it says, “A life dedicated to God, mankind, and Spaceship Earth,” with the dates: 1908-1997.
In his last years, Dad was wondering why he was alive. I said, “So you can hear people tell you what a great thing you did, Dad.” I would read him letters and tell him what people had said. Here’s a letter I’m glad I got to read to him. Although people like to dismiss our customers as uneducated hippies, this letter writer had a master’s degree. He wrote: “Your father’s accomplishments may remain largely unsung in the public eye, but his contributions were great. He brought about a good far more sublime than any general or politician ever accomplished, and his soap will yet save the world.”
The letter I picked from thousands to read at his funeral was written in red ink on a table napkin. It said simply, “Dear Dr. Bronner: Thanks for having the courage to care about world peace. We love you. The Brodys.”
The Brodys were in their eighties. They had never met Dad. They knew him only from a label. And I got choked up reading, “We love you.” Have you ever loved someone you know only from a product label?
We have three scrapbooks filled with photos, letters, and wonderful anecdotes. My favorite is an autograph from Muhammad Ali. Gisela and I spent an hour with him once and gave him a case of soap. And guess why he loved it.
Bronner: Because the prophet Mohammed is quoted on the label. I still have the book that Muhammad Ali autographed with a shaking hand — he has Parkinson’s, too, you know. He wrote: “To Ralph and Gisela Bronner, from Muhammad Ali. Serve God. He is the goal.” It’s the same thing Dad would have written.
Gail Grenier is the author of Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, Dessert First, and Calling All Horses, all available from Amazon.com. See links to the right.