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Will Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap Continue to Defy Selling Out to Corporate Culture?

The historic company was founded by "the godfather of today's green brands." Will his grandsons keep the vision alive?

You can use it in a river. You can use it in the shower. You can lather up outside, and it doesn't hurt a flower! Yes, you got it. It's Dr. Bronner's magical soap.

Started by Emmanuel Bronner, a third-generation soap maker, rabbi, and wacky spiritual guru, Dr. Bronner's soap has been hot since the 60s and is still going strong. Mr. Bronner rejected the use of industrial chemicals way ahead of his time, and now, more than forty years later, his grandsons run the business. So with a mega-historic company whose founder is called "the godfather of today's green brands," how will his grandsons keep the vision alive?

The following is an excerpt from The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today's Most Visible Green Brands by Richard Seireeni.

Emanuel Bronner was on a lifelong spiritual mission (his Hebrew name means "search for truth"). He espoused the view that a prophet arrives on earth every seventy-six years, inspired by Halley's comet, to bring man back to God. These prophets, to name a few, are thought to have included Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Hillel, Lao-tzu, and Gautama, the Buddha.

The doctor's obsessive passion was sometimes mistaken for mental illness, due in part to his tendency to rant about his opinions. "He was often yelling," says Michael Bronner.

In 1947, while giving a talk on the importance of free speech at the University of Chicago, Bronner was detained by authorities, who eventually contacted his sister, then living in Rhode Island. She agreed to commit her brother to the Illinois State Asylum in Elgin. There he underwent shock treatments, says Michael, for what they saw as his "crazy beliefs that we're all children of one divine source, and we will destroy ourselves if we don't realize this."

Bronner ultimately escaped the asylum after stealing twenty dollars out of his sister's purse when she was visiting. He headed west, thereafter referring to the mental institution as the time he spent in a "concentration camp." "I think he did have some slight schizophrenic tendencies that were exacerbated by the asylum's persecutory environment," says David.

Michael adds, "He ended up setting up shop in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of political activity at the time. He was a very passionate speaker. People would come and listen to him."

Product storytelling with a spiritual message

As the company's Web site states, "Bronner's essential vision and philosophy were born out of the fate of his family and the Holocaust, and are emphatic that we are all children of the same divine source: People must realize that we are 'All-One!' and that the prophets and spiritual giants of the world's various faith traditions all realized and said this."

"Constructive capitalism is where you share the profit with the workers and the earth from which you made it," the site continues in its summary of Bronner's teachings. "We are all brothers and sisters, and we should take care of each other and spaceship earth!"

Following his speeches in Pershing Square, Bronner would hand out a bottle of peppermint soap made with his family's secret formula.

"People would come for the soap because it was so darn good, and then leave and not always listen to him," Michael says.

It wasn't long before Dr. Bronner was putting his "Moral ABC" message on the bottle labels. "Whereas no 6 year old can get by without learning the ABC's, no 12 year old can get by without learning the moral ABC's," he was fond of saying. He didn't waste any space, squeezing in as much text as possible, eventually adding well over two thousand words per bottle. To this day, approximately thirty thousand words of the doctor's teachings are spread across the range of the company's products.

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