How a decades-old hippie soap brand became a touchstone of wellness culture

· But Brown's own go-to body-care product is Dr. Bronner's all-natural liquid Castile soap, which costs $18 for 32 ounces so concentrated that a 

Bobbi Brown’s cosmetics brand sells more than a billion dollars’ worth of products every year, including a tiny glass tub of moisturizer for $100 and a 1-ounce jar of “face oil” for $70. But Brown’s own go-to body-care product is Dr. Bronner’s all-natural liquid Castile soap, which costs $18 for 32 ounces so concentrated that a thimbleful will have you smothered in suds.

The peppermint Dr. Bronner’s, specifically, is her favorite. One time, on Oprah, Brown said that every bathroom in her house was stocked with a bottle of the tingly stuff. During another Oprah appearance, she called Dr. Bronner’s “probably the finest soap in the universe,” adding, “I’m obsessed with it! I cannot get enough of it!”

Brown is far from the only celebrity to be a die-hard Dr. Bronner’s fan. Olivia Wilde and Jason Mraz have called it, respectively, “the greatest” and “the best soap ever.” Zoë Kravitz uses the almond soap in the shower, Sandra Bullock in her DIY window cleaner recipe. Drake includes the peppermint soap on his tour rider (along with more rapper-standard items like Hennessy and rolling papers). Hollywood queens (Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig, Kate Hudson) and literal royalty (Meghan Markle) alike are devotees of the lavender soap. When Terry Richardson photographed a post-cupping-session Lady Gaga, she was bathing in Dr. Bronner’s, the uncapped and nearly empty bottle perched on the corner of her tub.

For all of this high-profile endorsement, Dr. Bronner’s has paid zero dollars and zero cents. “We’re proud to say we’ve never paid for a celebrity endorsement or solicitation,” president Michael Bronner tells me. The brand has spent the same non-amount on billboards, TV spots, magazine spreads, subway posters, and every other form of traditional advertising in the United States.

You would be forgiven for thinking that such business strategies were ill advised. But since the company’s founding in 1948, nothing about Dr. Bronner’s has been conventional. Its CEO, David Bronner, a ponytailed vegan surfer who wears tie-dyed shirts and drives a rainbow-colored Mercedes-Benz, has planted hemp seeds on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s lawn and was once arrested for locking himself in a cage outside the White House.

Michael Bronner, David’s more buttoned-up brother, says that social media, where so many beauty and wellness brands have built virtual empires, is “essentially amoral.” Dr. Bronner’s calls itself the “fighting soap company” because so much of its revenue goes toward activism. Most revealingly, perhaps, the brand claims that the first ingredient in all its products, from soap to coconut oil to household cleaner, is “love!” — exclamation point and all.

Ours are wokeness- and wellness-obsessed times. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which once advised women to put $66 polished rocks in their vaginas to treat health problems, is worth $250 million. Gillette’s ads are taking on toxic masculinity. In this climate, the quirky, family-run Dr. Bronner’s has achieved mainstream relevance. It’s a staple in the bathrooms of A-listers and Instagrammers alike, a product now sold everywhere from Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters to Walmart and PacSun — a true cultural touchstone. Dr. Bronner’s has become this not by pandering to consumers or following fads, but by being the only thing it’s ever been: its unapologetically off-kilter self.

Dr. Bronner’s was founded in 1948 by Emanuel Bronner, a German-Jewish third-generation soapmaker. Emanuel wasn’t a businessman (or a doctor, for that matter). He was an activist who, in the wake of his parents’ deaths in the Holocaust, began using his soap’s label as a, well, soapbox for proselytizing his “All-One!” thoughts and ideas. His philosophy, which he eventually named the “Moral ABC,” comprised a grab bag of religion, spirituality, environmentalism, and self-help, and its peculiarity was matched only by its ambition: peace and harmony on “Spaceship Earth.”

People embraced Dr. Bronner’s with cultish fervor. In 1945, when Emanuel was still a roving preacher with a sudsy side business, a Chicago man crucified himself in the name of Emanuel’s “Peace Plan.” (He was injured, but survived.) Two decades later, the soap that Emanuel used to sell from his Southern California garage was a bohemian cultural icon.

For long-haired hippies who embraced all things “green,” who saw “peace and love” not as utopian abstractions but as a way of life, the all-natural, anti-corporate, and transparently pacifist Dr. Bronner’s was their soap. Emanuel became a minor celebrity in environmentalist and countercultural circles. He spoke widely at peace rallies; befriended Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party; and, in 1971, appeared in the trippy hippie documentary Rainbow Bridge alongside Hawaii-based eccentrics and Jimi Hendrix.

By the mid-1980s, Dr. Bronner’s wasn’t the only all-natural personal care product on the market. New brands like Aveda, Herbal Essences, and the Body Shop were encroaching on Dr. Bronner’s green turf. And with Emanuel owing $1.3 million in back taxes to the IRS (he’d previously registered his company as a nonprofit religious organization, much to Uncle Sam’s chagrin), Dr. Bronner’s was at risk of going the way of the Rainbow Bridge in the sky.

Other members of the Bronner clan soon stepped in to save the company. First, Emanuel’s son Jim helped lift Dr. Bronner’s out of bankruptcy by restructuring it as a for-profit company. Then in 1998, Jim’s son David, following an eye-opening post-college psychedelic sojourn in Amsterdam, became CEO — cosmic engagement officer, that is.

Even if you’ve never gone hiking, gone vegan, gone to Whole Foods, or gone on a psychedelic trip, you might recognize Dr. Bronner’s infamously loquacious label, a 3,000-word wall of text that’s as microscopic as it is cosmically odd. Next to the quietly impersonal sans-serif branding of most personal care products, the Dr. Bronner’s label is a barbaric yawp.

With all its erratic punctuation and grammatical incoherence, its non sequiturs and obscure historical references, it appears to have been written by a pacifist polymath gone amok. (Emanuel was thought to have mental health issues. After a particularly fervent sermon in Chicago, his sister committed him to a mental hospital, where he was placed in solitary confinement. He soon escaped through a bathroom window and fled to California.) Jesus, Einstein, Mohammed, and Lincoln get mentions on the label, but so do Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. Jewels, dinosaurs, and “work-love-song-art-play-law-beauty” are noted, but so are slavery, starvation, and multilevel marketing.

On Twitter, the Dr. Bronner’s label has become a yardstick against which inane ramblings are measured. Say something thoughtless, incoherent, and verbose? You’re likely to be pilloried via organic soap label. The most frequent target is an expected one: President Donald Trump, whose misspelled, inconsistently capitalized, outdoor-voice-used-indoors tweets are often likened to a racist Dr. Bronner’s label.

Save for a minor “Old & Improved” redesign in 2015, the label hasn’t changed in decades. “We have a look and feel from another era, like a kind of apothecary,” David says. “Maybe people are yearning for that, to connect to something with a real history.” He contrasted his company with Kiehl’s, a competitor whose retro-chic branding plays up the year of its founding, 1851. “They’re a little bit of a fake brand,” he told me, chuckling. “I mean, okay, they’re not fake, but there’s not a soul behind it. They tout the age and heritage of the brand, but it’s just changed hands so many times.”

As the word “authentic” gets bandied about by every brand trying to sell a product by first selling us on a noble philosophy or tearjerking founding tale, Dr. Bronner’s has aimed to practice what it’s been preaching since 1948. “We’re a real family company, fifth generation, and we just have really deep roots,” David says. “We’re just staying true to what we’re doing.”

The fringe beliefs, practices, and products of the counterculture have gone mainstream, driven by our collective desire to get back in touch with ourselves, with nature, with each other — without technology. But if the relationship between hippiedom and capitalism was once antagonistic, it’s now symbiotic. For contemporary brands, instilling us with a core hippie-inflected belief — that what we consume reflects who we are, and that our purchases should therefore be “cruelty-free” and “activated” and “clean” — has never been more lucrative.

The twinned trends of conscious consumerism and holistic personal wellness are dictated largely by companies with a vested interest in stoking our desire to feel healthy, ethical, enlightened, and environmentally responsible. Think, for example, of the “vanlife” phenomenon, an aestheticized version of sticking it to the Man by being tied not to a condo or a 9-to-5 job but to a van and Mother Nature, a commodified desire largely propelled by brands sponsoring attractively rugged couples to “live the dream” (while using their products).

Think, too, of yoga, Pilates, and meditation, all of which can be done for free at home but which we now spend $40 to do in an aesthetically sedate “studio.” Think of the historically harmful fashion industry, in which brands like Everlane (tagline: “Radical Transparency”) and Toms shoes (a “purpose-driven, for-profit company”) do well by inflating the ways they’re doing good.

The trend of commodified hippiedom is most obvious, though, when it comes to things we put inside ourselves. Today, without so much as leaving my neighborhood, I can drink an organic smoothie with “healing spices” ($9), eat a bowl of ancient grains and ethically sourced greens ($13), and treat myself to a vegan brownie infused with CBD oil (extracted from cannabis, $5). I won’t be denigrated as a hippie because the staples of the hippie lifestyle — nondairy milks, tofu, marijuana — have been given the corporate makeover. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods for $13.7 billion is a money-colored indicator that the organic food movement has jumped the shark.

But the organic personal care market is still flowering. CBD- and hemp-based beauty products are popping up everywhere. Target recently began giving natural products a prominent space in the beauty section of its stores. “Clean beauty” now makes up nearly half the global beauty market, and the organic personal care market is expected to nearly double in size, to $25 billion, by 2025.

You’d expect Dr. Bronner’s to have capitalized on these changing attitudes, on moneyed millennials’ desire to patronize brands that aren’t wrecking the planet somewhere along the supply chain. David says that Dr. Bronner’s “isn’t completely ignorant about marketing and sales and stuff.” But the company is doing what it’s always done. Consumers are the ones who’ve changed.

“Ways of being and thinking that were sidelined are now embraced more and more for their inherent health and vitality in protecting the human organism,” David says. “I think these mega-trends of environmental awareness and wanting to simplify, to use products that reflect that ethos, that don’t go to hell and back when they’re made — you know, we’re just really well positioned.”

What makes Dr. Bronner’s unique as a personal care product is how it’s positioned itself. Or, rather, how it hasn’t. For much of its history, Michael says, Dr. Bronner’s had “no salespeople, no advertising, and was run by a man who had no eyesight” — Emanuel went blind toward the end of his life — “with a label that violated every tenet of label design.” Strictly through word of mouth, Dr. Bronner’s became the best-selling liquid soap in the country. Even now, the closest it gets to big-money marketing is bringing its Magic Foam Experience, a mobile shower unit that blasts snow-like foam from massive soap tanks, to summer festivals, Pride parades, and, naturally, Burning Man.

Dr. Bronner’s doesn’t “do” social media, either. It doesn’t “play the game” the same way, in Michael’s words, paying influencers or otherwise artificially inflating its following. Social media, David told me, “isn’t some kind of overwhelming marketing focus for us.” The company uses social media to advertise and communicate with customers, but also to champion, often in all caps, various causes: raising the federal minimum wage, ending factory farming, “CLIMATE ACTION NOW.”

A perusal of Instagram, however, reveals that Dr. Bronner’s has been co-opted by the very people it claims to care so little about: the trendsetters for whom social media isn’t a diversion but a career, a lifestyle. On Instagram, Dr. Bronner’s is often tagged by users with handles like @cleanandcrueltyfree_ and @littlewaste.lottalove, and appears in pictures alongside products from expensive-sounding brands: Ouai, Norvina, Pinrose, Glossier.

One designer photographs the soap beside a flowering succulent in a LaCroix can, the turducken of trendy DIY home decor. A #plantbased Instagrammer calls Dr. Bronner’s one of her top “lifestyle secrets for staying slim and healthy.” A “natural lifestyle shop” features Dr. Bronner’s in a “shelfie” with a bevy of natural skin care products whose descriptions are a Mad Libs of wellness buzzwords: “culturally inspired,” “free-from,” “made with spirit,” “high vibration with purpose.”

“A lot of brands on social media talk about self-care, and that’s so important,” says Annie Nolan, an Australian wellness blogger and activist. “You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.” Nolan, who’s been sponsored by Dr. Bronner’s to give talks on regenerative agriculture and LGBTQ issues, has amassed 60,000 Instagram followers by sharing cute pictures of her bright-eyed, rainbow-haired children alongside messages espousing veganism, open-mindedness, and other liberal virtues. She laments that most personal care companies are “all about looking attractive.” But Dr. Bronner’s, she explains, “also believes in collective wellness.”

“If we don’t look after other people and the people around us and those who are marginalized and the land we live on, and future generations and animals and everything, then we literally can’t look after ourselves,” Nolan says. Dr. Bronner’s slogan, she points out, is “All-One!”

Despite being of a personal care world focused on surface appearances, Dr. Bronner’s “doesn’t do things because they’re cute,” Nolan says. “Every company is quite happy to say they don’t torture bunnies, but Dr. Bronner’s says real things, like, ‘We want immigration reform.’ That’s one of the biggest things for me. They walk the walk.”

Under David’s leadership, activism has been Dr. Bronner’s business, and business has been very, very good. So good that rejecting buyout offers is a regular part of being David Bronner. When he became CEO in 1998, Dr. Bronner’s annual revenue was $4 million. In 2018, it was $122.5 million. Of that, $8.4 million went to charitable causes: regenerative organic food and agriculture ($1.3 million), animal welfare ($755,000), criminal justice reform ($500,000), child and youth services ($265,000), and more. Most of Dr. Bronner’s activism has implications for both people and the environment. Last spring, it announced the Regenerative Organic Certification, a rigorous sustainability standard with the motto “Farm like the world depends on it.”

The lion’s share of that $8.4 million went to advocating for drug policy reform. Since 2001, Dr. Bronner’s has given $5 million to the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and more than $5 million to the hemp and cannabis legalization movement. David’s love of the cannabis plant species is no secret. He wears clothing made from hemp, was instrumental in adding hemp oil (for a smoother lather) to Dr. Bronner’s list of ingredients, and in 2016 received the Seattle Hempfest’s Cannabis Activist of the Year award.

It goes without saying that he smokes weed. And on Earth Day this year, he launched Brother David’s, his own ethical, Sun+Earth Certified, nonprofit cannabis company. Brother David’s website reads like a 4/20-themed Dr. Bronner’s label: “Cannabis is our sacred ally, helping us heal, connect and appreciate each other, and elevating our consciousness into the magical living moment.”

But Dr. Bronner’s activism doesn’t just benefit external parties. David and Michael have made their company a model of workplace equality. Employees’ health care is fully covered, and they can receive up to 25 percent of their salary as a bonus. In a country where the median CEO-to-worker pay ratio exceeds 300 to 1, David and Michael make roughly $200,000 a year. They’ve capped their salaries at five times that of their lowest-paid workers, who make a minimum wage of $18.71 an hour in a state, California, where the minimum wage for companies with 26 or more employees is $12 an hour. More than half of Dr. Bronner’s employees are women, and nearly 60 percent are people of color.

“We’re an activist company,” David tells me. “Our focus is mostly on trying to leverage our business to promote social change for the good.” Michael calls Dr. Bronner’s “a for-profit with the DNA of a nonprofit.” You can’t buy the physical product on the shelf without implicitly supporting “the mission-oriented side, the cause, the things that impact the vibe.” Dr. Bronner’s, in a nutshell, is about the overlapping areas — not, Michael corrects me, a dichotomy — of “soap and soul.”

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