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Soap made for human, home, and Earth

Soap made for human, home, and Earth

One product that has not left our side in the last two years is soap. Yet, the conversion of oils and fats with the help of an alkali into soap is one of the oldest and simplest chemical reactions known to mankind. It is believed that the first soaps were accidentally made from fat dripping into the ashes of cooking fires. Soap is the first remedy against all bacteria, viruses and fungi that can endanger humans. And soap is also a popular companion in the household: whether for washing up, cleaning or personal hygiene, there is probably no other product that is so versatile.

Founded in 1948, Dr. Bronner’s (www.drbronner.de) has taken advantage of this versatility: its 18-in-1 soaps can be used for body, hair, face, mouth and teeth, dishes, laundry, mopping and pets. Dr. Bronner’s was founded by Emanuel Bronner, a third-generation soap maker who comes from a German Jewish family. Today, the company is still family owned and honors the founder’s vision of producing socially and environmentally responsible products – and the formulation of the liquid soaps has barely changed since the early 1900s. Except, the products are now made predominantly from organic and fair-trade ingredients, are vegan and certified to the same organic standards as food. For the liquid and pump soaps, no synthetic preservatives or foaming agents are used, and the bottles are made exclusively from 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene (PET). This bottle-to-bottle recycling closes the loop, helps to conserve new resources, reduce landfill, and utilizes the energy already invested in the manufacture of existing plastic products, which results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

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As a family business, Dr. Bronner’s considers all its employees and organic farmers and producers abroad to be part of its extended family. Fair supply chains, stable prices for farmers, living wages and benefits, safe and excellent working conditions for production workers, investment in their communities and respect for the land and its people are therefore company standards. Relationships with organic suppliers are direct, local, personal, sustainable, tangible and verifiable, so customers know that the products they buy have a real and positive impact on the people and communities that produce them. 

Continuing the activist spirit of Emanuel Bronner, the company supports projects that promote regenerative organic agriculture, animal welfare, community improvement, criminal justice reform, drug policy reform, and fair wages and trade. 

aware_ sat down with Dr. Gero Leson, Vice President of Special Operations at Dr. Bronner’s. Since 2005, he has been responsible for the management of Dr. Bronner’s conversion of its supply chain to raw materials that are both organic and fair trade certified. With aware_, he spoke about Dr. Bronner’s’ approach to a greener cleaning industry.  

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aware_: How have Dr. Bronner’s’ intentions for a greener cleaning industry evolved over time? 

Dr. Gero Leson: As pioneers within the natural products industry, Dr. Bronner’s has long been committed to promoting and modeling progressive business practices and sustainability programs.

David and Michael, Emanuel’s grandsons, took over the company in the early 2000s, and their passion to learn where the plant-based ingredients were sourced from led to the company committing to first becoming organic certified. Organic did not meet their desire to guarantee beneficial social conditions at origin and so they decided to go fair-trade. Yet, none of the ingredients in the soap were available as fair-trade certified. I had met the Bronners in the late 90s and the family asked me to manage their conversion to organic and fair supplies for all key ingredients. We selected locations for coconut, palm, mint, and olive oils; recruited small holder farmers and converted them to organic practices; built mills and factories and fair-trade programs. We also engaged with partner companies who set up similar projects elsewhere. Thus, Dr. Bronner’s became the first personal care brand to become organic certified to USDA organic food standards in 2003 and in 2007, the company and its products became fair trade certified under the Fair for Life standard, as well.

As many others, we became convinced that organic certification does not address the issue of soil health and resilience. Thus, we are now on the path to having all of our major raw ingredients under a new standard we helped develop with Patagonia, Rodale Institute, and other partners, called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). ROC brings together the best of the soil health, animal welfare, and fair labor movements into a single standard. 
ROC criteria reflect the values that Dr. Bronner’s was already implementing in our supply chain, with our focus on organic and fair-trade systems, but now we are seeking the next level of environmental stewardship, and we are proud to already carry the ROC seal for our coconut oil from Sri Lanka and Samoa, our palm oil from Ghana, and our mint oil from India. Other projects are on their way to ROC. 

aware_: Can you talk us through the process of creating Dr. Bronner’s soaps? How do you ensure that one soap is so versatile? 

Dr. Gero Leson: Soap itself is a versatile way to clean away dirt, grease, bacteria, viruses, and more – and if you have a good recipe even more so. While some soaps, detergents, and cleansers use petroleum-based chemical surfactants, Dr. Bronner’s simple, plant-based castile soap recipe is effective, safe, and made with fair-trade certified and organic certified ingredients sourced raw from our suppliers around the world. The recipe itself has changed little since Emanuel made the soap a cultural icon in the 1960s in America.

The liquid soap is made through the “saponification” of a blend of coconut and olive oil with potassium hydroxide. That mixture of the two main fatty acids – lauric from coconut and oleic from olive oil – gives the soap its lather and makes the soap molecules more water-soluble, even at low water temperatures. Saponified olive oil also acts to moisturize the skin – one more feature to distinguish Dr. Bronner’s from other liquid soaps.  
Unlike most commercial soap makers, Dr. Bronner’s does not skim off the glycerin yielded as a by-product of the saponification reaction, and the glycerin acts as an added moisturizer.

Our bar soap is made from a different oil blend to balance lather stability and the hardness of the soap bar. Including saponified palm oil keeps the bar soap from rapidly softening and dissolving in the soap dish, a disadvantage of pure coconut oil soaps. Olive oil is added for the same moisturizing skin feel as with liquid soaps. Since Dr. Bronner’s still does not have sufficient fair-trade certified and organic certified coconut oil to feed our fast-growing soap production, we use some organic and fair-trade palm kernel oil as their fatty acid composition and performance are very similar.

Fatty oils are the foundation for our soaps, but they are not the whole story. What distinguishes Dr. Bronner’s from most other soaps, natural as well as synthetic, is a good, punchy shot of essential oils. Peppermint soaps are our best-selling scent worldwide. Lavender, Citrus, Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Rose, and Almond are our other traditional scents. And in Germany, Cherry Blossom and Sandalwood-Jasmine is also available. We do also offer fragrance-free liquid and bar Baby-Mild, too.

One important change to the soap recipe was the addition of hemp oil in the late 1990s. It made the lather smoother and increased moisturization of the skin. It also added a dose of symbolism and gave us a stake in hemp activism in the U.S. and beyond, though for soap stability we eventually limited the hemp oil content in liquid and bar soaps. Two more ingredients: jojoba oil as an emollient in the liquid soap, and tocopherol, derived from non-GMO sunflower oil, as a preservative.  

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aware_: Since you are responsible for managing the transition of Dr. Bronner’s supply chain, what are the advantages of Castile soap and, moreover, of raw materials that are certified both organic and fair trade? 

Dr. Gero Leson: Castile soap made from “the right blend” of oils and fats – coconut, olive, palm, jojoba, and hemp seed oils – is excellent for cleaning the entire body. It performs well even in hard water, yet soft and nourishing to the skin. Because of its effectiveness, it can clean not only face, hands, and body, but also many other surfaces effectively.

The advantages of using organic and fair-trade plant-based ingredients go far beyond the properties of the finished product, the soap. Choosing to directly source ingredients from organic and fair-trade sources has allowed us to develop relationships based on transparency and respect with the farmers who are at the beginning of our supply chain and the people who produce the oils. Dr. Bronner’s Special Operations team is integrally involved in all aspects of planning, operation, and expansion of our key projects. We do not just buy ingredients; we actually help produce them! Growing together that way has ensured the integrity of organic and fair-trade certification, has helped us develop meaningful relationships with people at our projects, and facilitate the use of business as a force to promote fair and respectful cooperation while improving environmental resilience. These practices are collectively regenerating soil and sequestering carbon as plants grow and raw materials are produced. The fair trade and organic premiums paid to our partners provide incentives for farmers to “go regenerative” and financial resources for community development projects – to decide themselves whether to build schools, health facilities, and other infrastructure that contributes to human flourishing. 

aware_: Could you tell us about some of the more problematic issues surrounding the household cleaning and personal care industry? 

Dr. Gero Leson: We find the synthetic ingredients commonly used in household and personal care problematic for several reasons. Some are endocrine-disruptors untested for their long-term exposure. The potential risks caused by synthetic surfactants to skin, body, and the environment are furiously debated. Some are skin irritants, while some are toxic to animals, ecosystems, and humans. They may be poorly biodegradable or cause foaming when discharged into rivers, and their surfactant properties may increase the diffusion of other environmental contaminants. Such effects vary widely with the chemistry of a particular surfactant. Yet, all of them come from a fossil-fueled chemical industry with a large carbon footprint and structural hurdles to being clean and responsible. So, our attitude is: Why not make well-performing products, such as our soaps, using low-energy and environmentally benign processes from ingredients whose origin we know and benefit?

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aware_: Dr. Bronner’s takes a number of measures to reduce waste generation, water use and energy consumption. Can you name one that stands out for you and tell us why? 

Dr. Gero Leson: Industrial Agriculture has a major detrimental impact on the planet when it comes to resource consumption and its pollution footprint. Dr. Bronner’s gradual shift to regenerative ingredients counters that impact on many fronts. Swapping chemical nitrogen fertilizer for compost and mulch eliminate energy consumption and high emissions of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) a most powerful greenhouse gas. Building up soil humus – applying compost generously, plant cover crops, shift to conservation tillage – as we are doing in India with now 3,000 mint farmers, retains soil moisture and cuts irrigation needs. It also reduces soil erosion. Growing trees in mixed dynamic agroforestry increases productivity and carbon sequestration per hectare. And increasing biodiversity on fields and in agroforests reduces pest pressure while improving food security.

Similarly, in our processing operations we improve energy efficiency and use “sustainable biomass” as fuel where it makes sense – e.g., by using coconut shells to produce steam at Serendipol in Sri Lanka, or by redesigning our wastewater treatment there to produce reusable water and spare the groundwater. In effect, regenerative agriculture both serves to mitigate climate change and helps farmers adapt to it.

But Dr. Bronner’s efforts to shrink its environmental footprint go beyond the production of our ROC ingredients. As our output of soap grows, we have cut energy consumption through smart heat recovery in soap production and will add a solar thermal system to reduce the balance demand for natural gas. Water consumption and wastewater generation per unit is also reduced and wastewater quality is improved.  

aware_: There is more and more plastic-free packaging for cosmetic products. How is Dr. Bronner’s approaching this issue, and do you believe that a change is on the horizon in the industry? 

Dr. Gero Leson: While we were one of the first companies in the world to use 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) PET plastics back in 2003 for our small and medium size bottles, we want to further reduce our output of plastics packaging even as our production continues to grow. We are working on both ensuring the recyclability of the plastic and paper we use and also are looking into alternatives for plastic entirely.

First, we are innovating our packaging to minimize its negative impact on the environment and are evaluating promising technologies and programs to further reduce our use of virgin and petroleum-based plastics while increasing the recyclability of all of our packaging. Notably, we are evaluating the shift from PCR to fiber-based materials for some of our liquid soap sizes. We are exploring how to improve refill programs with retailers and co-ops while keeping an eye on like-minded companies and partners who are exploring closed-loop programs. In the meantime, we are shifting to the use of 100% PCR bottles from PET and HDPE plastics for all of our liquid soaps and Sal Suds bottles. 
And finally, we are starting to cut our still significant plastic footprint through a plastic waste collection and recycling project at our Serendipalm palm oil and cocoa project in Ghana to reduce the ugly plastic trash littering villages, towns, and countryside.

– by Marie Klimczak

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