Here’s a good news story. One of those classic “Burner trips and makes good” type of stories, that you don’t read so much in the New York Times.
A Burner went to Amsterdam and did a ton of acid and ecstasy (aka, “candy flipping”), and developed a whole new sense of identity in a gay trance club. Then, he took over the family business, and turned sales from $5 million to $64 million. He implemented a rule that no executive could earn more than 5 times the lowest paid worker – brilliant. Then he channeled the company’s profits into activism, fighting against GMO’s and mega-corporations and the DEA – and winning.
It’s midmorning at the hive of cheap buildings that serves as the global HQ of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and, as usual, David Bronner isn’t working on anything to do with soap. Sure, his phone is ringing off the hook with business calls and a rep from Trader Joe’s is visiting tomorrow, but the 40-year-old CEO—who looks like a 6-foot-5 raver version of Captain Jack Sparrow—could care less. A Burning Man amulet dangles on a hemp necklace over his tie-dye shirt as he leans in toward his computer screen, staring at what really matters to him: the latest internal poll results for Washington Initiative 522, a ballot measure that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
The initiative, which Washingtonians will vote on tomorrow, is one of the costliest in state history: Its proponents have spent a little more than $7 million, while their opponents in biotech and agribusiness have poured in $22 million.* Dr. Bronner’s has donated a whopping$1.8 million to the Yes on 522 campaign. (That’s on top of $620,000 it gave in support of asimilar California ballot measure last year.) At stake, Bronner says, is consumers’ right to decide what they put in their bodies. “If we don’t win the right to label and enable people to choose non-GMO, then everything is going to be GMO.”
At first, David Bronner (Jim’s son) wasn’t sure he wanted to become the next standard-bearer for the soap-making clan. After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a biology degree, he wound up in Amsterdam and immersed himself in its psychedelic drug culture. “I just had my life explode on many levels of identity,” he recalls about a late-night ecstasy and LSD trip at a gay trance club. These experiences and a lot of reading eventually opened his eyes to the value of his grandfather’s All-One philosophy, and the power of the soap company as a vehicle for change. In 1997, he let his dad know that he was ready to work for the family business, but only “on activist terms.” A year later, his father died of lung cancer and Bronner, at the age of 25, became the new CEO.
Early on, Bronner decided that he’d rather feel good about his job than worry about making a ton of money. In 1999, he capped the company’s top salary at five times that of the lowest-paid warehouse worker. He employs a lot of people he met at Burning Man, including Tim Clark* (official title: Foam Maestro), a buff guy whose job mostly consists of driving a psychedelically painted foam-spewing fire truck to music festivals, which is about as close as the company gets to actual marketing.
Backing hemp gave him some problems with the DEA. So, he sued the DEA. And won. Then, he sued the giant corporations for pretending to be organic, and he won that too. Bad ass!
Limiting executive pay and spending virtually nothing on advertising left a lot of extra cash for improving the products and funding social campaigns—which have often gone hand-in-hand. For years, the soap had included an undisclosed ingredient, caramel coloring. As the new CEO, Bronner wanted to remove it for the sake of purity, but feared that die-hard customers would assume the new guy was watering down the product. So he decided to incorporate hemp oil, which added a caramel color while also achieving a smoother lather. But there was a hitch: A few months after he’d acquired a huge stockpile of Canadian hemp oil, the Bush administration outlawed most hemp products. “Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics,” Bronner recalls.
Rather than destroy the inventory, he sued the Drug Enforcement Agency to change its stance on hemp, which comes from a nonpsychoactive strain of cannabis. Adam Eidinger, who now heads the company’s activism efforts in Washington, DC, served DEA agents at agency HQ bagels covered with poppy seeds (which, in theory, could be used to make heroin) and orange juice (which naturally contains trace amounts of alcohol). In 2004, a federal court handed Bronner a victory, striking down the ban and allowing him to keep his stores of hemp oil.
The success of the hemp campaign convinced Bronner to push his company ever closer to the bleeding edge of the progressive movement. In 2003, Dr. Bronner’s became the world’s first soap company to win organic certification. Then it sued rival companies such as Kiss My Face and Estée Lauder that were using the “organic” label as window dressing. When Bronner couldn’t find certified organic and fair trade sources of palm, coconut, and olive oil, he created his own in Ghana and Sri Lanka, and scaled up small existing projects in Israel and Palestine. (His coconut oil business now accounts for 12 percent of company sales, almost as much as bar soap.)
Bronner has been arrested twice for his hemp activism—first in 2009 for planting hemp seeds on the DEA’s lawn to protest a ban on domestic cultivation, then last year for milling hemp oil in front of the White House inside a metal cage designed to thwart the cops. Now he’s talking about partnering with renegade American farmers to manufacture the nation’s first line of domestically grown hemp-based foods. Obviously, that sort of thing isn’t on the agenda of competing green brands owned by corporate multinationals. “The activism side of the company enables us to take risks that no sane company would,” Bronner notes. “But the point of what we are doing is to fight, and the products serve that.”