Friday, July 17, 2009

In a lather: The chemical conscience of Dr. Bronner

Because cleanliness is next to godliness, there once was a man who thought universal peace and harmony could be brought about through a tingly, peppermint-scented soap

Regular visitors to health food shops or co-ops in the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have probably seen the distinctive bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the epitome of strange American success story.

Not that the shape of the bottle is unique, it’s the label: after the product’s logo, ingredients and the standard US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) necessities, the label is crammed almost to the point of illegibility with a multitude of sayings, homilies, advice regarding the multiple uses of the soap – in addition to bathing, the soap can also be used, it is suggested, as mosquito repellant and toothpaste - and quotations from historical figures, all rendered in an English that might be best described as broken.
Nonsense, utopia and an anionic surfactant delivery system in a hypnotic design.

As the arcane knowledge and urban legend website The Straight Dope put it,
“Can you imagine a slogan like, ‘Eternal Father, Eternal One! Exceptions eternally? Absolute none!’ on the side of a Tide box?”

It is all part of the philosophy the soap’s creator, the late Emanuel Bronner (1908-1997), called the “Moral ABCs,” otherwise known as his “All-One-God-Faith.”

[Sorry, but the label is just too dense to reproduce here properly, please go HERE to have a better look. It’s amazing: by the way, my favorite phrase is, “Dilute! Dilute! OK!”

[Meanwhile if you’re interested in a much more legible transcription of Dr. Bronner’s amazing label, go HERE.]

Bronner was certain his “Moral ABCs” would teach humans to love thy neighbor and put aside war, and eventually save “Spaceship Earth.”

But as Bronner’s sister pointed out in a letter to family members over 50 years ago, unfortunately, “it is not normal to unite Spaceship Earth.”

In 1947, Bronner escaped from a mental institution in Illinois (he’d been locked up for promoting the “Moral ABCs” too vociferously in Chicago) and made his way to California where, the next year, he started making his soap.

Be that as it may, Bronner was at the vanguard of the organic or green movement using “natural” ingredients from the beginning, and with the help of his more business-minded sons—when Jim Bronner returned home from the Navy in the mid-1960s, he said he was “disgusted” at his dad’s “Mickey Mouse operation” and began implementing changes— turned the peppermint-scented business into something successful.

Maybe nothing to give Proctor & Gamble sleepless nights, but a steady and faithful clientele that have supplied the company with approximately $6m/year in sales from at least 1997 to 2005. Yearly, the company sells roughly 400,000 gallons of liquid soap and 600,000 lbs. of bar soap.

Fan of the soap include rapper Eminem and actors Drew Barrymore and Sandra Bullock.

A documentary about the man and his soap has been recently released to DVD, titled Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, and it’s a worthwhile view: Showing the good and bad this obsessed businessman caused: often he’d have to abandon his children with foster parents as he took to the road, pitching soap and his “All-One!”

Interestingly, Bronner, a hero to the counterculture (the company’s CFO—Jim’s wife—says in the film, “The backbone of the company is the counterculture”), was a fervent anti-communist; and a bit of a crank about it, as well: He sent many letters to the FBI regarding his fears that the fluoridation of drinking water was a communist plot. Shaking any expectations you might now have about Bronner, consider this: he became friendly with former Black Panther Eldritch Cleaver after they bonded over health foods.

Putting aside what you might feel about Bronner’s seemingly contrasting beliefs, here’s a poor immigrant chemist who set out on his own, turning his rented apartment into a lab where he manufactured his product, who then tried to sell it everywhere he could out of the back of his truck.

And according to Bronner’s sons, he would give the soap away until the customers bought it. He may have been the archetypical “absent minded professor,” but he believed strongly in hard work.

I’m impressed: Bronner has made a product with a philosophy that has never wavered. Sure you can call him a Grade-A Kook, but he’s done what he’s believed in, using chemistry.

And grandson David Bronner (Jim’s son), now president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, keeps fighting the good fight:

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps was the first US company to use 100% post-consumer recycled plastic for its bottles, and it routinely gives away about 70% of net profits to a variety of charitable organizations.

The company is also especially fervent about how terms like “organic” are misused.

At the beginning of July, the family-owned business filed its Second Amended Complaint against several personal care companies. At the hearing, David said,

"Organic consumers expect that the main cleansing and moisturizing ingredients in ‘Organic’ or ‘Organics’ products are in fact made from organic material, and are not simply conventional formulations with some organic tea on top. If defendants cannot live up to their organic claims, they need to drop those claims. The misleading organic noise created by culprit companies' labeling practices, confuses, misleads and deceives organic consumers who want to buy authentic organic personal care products, the main ingredients of which are in fact made with certified organic, not conventional or petrochemical, material, and are free of synthetic preservatives."


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