All-One or All-None: A Conversation with David Bronner and Gero Leson




IN 2005, DAVID BRONNER, the grandson of the founder of Dr. Bronner’s soap company, put forth the idea of creating an ethical and sustainable supply chain. To be organic simply wasn’t enough; every worker had to have a livable wage, and the raw materials had to be acquired in a responsible way. To put this idea into action, he called on Gero Leson, a gregarious scientist and agitator for ethical business practices whom he met while scrapping with the DEA over whether or not hemp should be scheduled as a drug. Gero, the Indiana Jones of Dr. Bronner’s soap, had already spent years in Sri Lanka working in a sustainable aid program. Gero is a physicist by training, and his natural curiosity and connections made him the perfect choice to solve the ethical supply chain dilemma extending from Southeast Asia, to Palestine, to Ghana, and beyond. 

Once the project was completed, Gero wrote a book about it. In Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain, the reader will find little reference to the iconic creed — the “Six Cosmic Principles” — of the family patriarch, Emanuel Bronner. Nor is the book just about the supply chain. Instead, it’s a country-hopping, compassion-driven tale that covers Gero’s life, the struggles of the Bronner family, ecological disaster, psychedelic enhancement, and hope. I spoke with David Bronner and Gero Larson via Zoom.

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AYIZE JAMA-EVERETT: You start your book about the supply chain with a natural disaster. What lessons should we take from climate-disaster relief efforts?

DAVID BRONNER: When a disaster hits, initially there’s vast response — money and clothes and all that — but then the media cycle moves on. People forget, and the hard work of rebuilding the cottage industries, which are needed for long-term recovery, is short-changed. Gero’s group Second Aid, a microloan program before that was a thing, had good friends who were doing that sort of work. We gave some money, but it went hand in hand with our intention to go fair trade and establish direct relationships with the farmers who produced our raw materials. So, we had that general intention. We were trying to leverage Gero’s relationships with the coconut industry to pursue our desire to have fair and equitable relationships with local farmers.

We had this tension as a company because we realized that “organic” didn’t tell us about the people’s general conditions, whether they were getting a fair price or had fair working conditions. We already had that intention, and Gero was already there.

GERO LESON: The Bronners didn’t all sit down together one day and say, “I think we’re going to do an ethical supply chain, and here are all the steps, and we’ll be done by 20-whatever.” That’s not how it happened. David had a crazy idea, and we looked around to see how we could implement it. Over time, we learned, and we just ran with it. Nobody in their right mind would’ve done otherwise. That’s the theme of us.

Some people would be disappointed that the old Bronner label wasn’t printed in full somewhere in this book. How does the book connect to Emanuel Bronner’s legendary “Moral ABCs”?

GL: David, forgive me, but I have a tough time with the Moral ABCs. It’s the wording. Your grandfather reminds me of my high school teachers, the way they wrote and spoke, like the German poets. I never considered it my spiritual guide. My guide was David and the family, actually, and their commitment to action over words. It’s a fabulous document that needs to be seen in its historical context. Buy my reading glasses don’t go that small. [Laughs.] David and Penguin agreed on the title; I didn’t give a shit. The label’s ideas still drive us, but I don’t consult the Moral ABCs when making decisions.

DB: I get it. I don’t either. I don’t say, “Hold on, let me consult it,” like the I Ching. But I think the motivating principles drive us: business as an engine for good, not just for rapacious profit, but to benefit the world. That ethos informs all our work.

When I was growing up, my granddad was always coming down from the mountaintop. “We must unite the Spaceship Earth! We are all One or None!” I had no idea what he was talking about. My grandma died when my dad was four, so my dad, aunt, and uncle grew up in a series of foster homes while grandpa was promoting his visions of peace — he wasn’t around. He was locked up in a mental institution and was afraid he’d have his kids taken from him. Eventually, my granddad calmed down and became less intense.

Years later, I was in a gay trance club in Amsterdam on Ecstasy and died five ways into my small ego, into the love and light at the center of existence. I realized this transcendent love is at the heart of all faith traditions: this was what my grandpa had been talking about. I felt that granddad had an All-One perspective, showing the wisdom in all faith traditions: “If I’m not for me, who am I? Nobody! If I’m only for me, what am I? Nothing!”

His notion of constructive selfishness resonates with this whole program. Aid programs not linked to economic self-sufficiency are doomed to fail. If there’s no community investment for financial return, it’s just not going to go anywhere. Working within this idea of constructive capitalism, private ownership of capital, the ability to generate wealth, and a non-dependency on philanthropic gifts resonates with my granddad’s ideals to enable economic self-sufficiency, to help others through capitalism. This resonates with what we do now — these independent projects that benefit all the stakeholders.

The connection between advertising and soap takes up a few pages in the book. Thanks for the reminder about soap operas being one of the earliest forms of mass advertising in the US. But you guys don’t advertise. Is that an ethos of the company? Does this book serve as a kind of alternative advertising?

DB: We do point-of-sale, in-store advertising but generally no paid mass media. We’ve made a few exceptions, but usually for our issues, not our brand. It’s a general principle to invest in activism and leverage to promote the brand rather than support a crap ton of advertising. One of my sayings is, “Whatever your subculture is, we’re your soap.”

I definitely feel like I have a sense of people’s politics and ethics when I walk into their home and see Dr. Bronner’s soap. So, in that sense, I think you’re spot on.

GL: Giving up on paid advertising doesn’t mean you give up on intelligent promotion. Word of mouth is fantastic PR. We do great marketing. I love selling soap. I love telling stories. One on one — that’s what I’m good at. So, this book is the most fantastic tool I’ve ever had. I do a lot of public speaking about the work we do. But the book is a beautiful way to tell people what we do and that it’s real. We have a hardcore group of followers, and also some skeptics. I love talking about our activist agenda. I wanted people to see this is for real; this is what we do.

A teammate this morning wrote me and said, “Gero, thanks for writing this book. My family now know what I’ve been doing these past few years.” Nobody knows what we do; it’s too difficult to imagine. This book helps to contribute to the credibility of the brand. It’s a labor-intensive piece of advertising.

If this were a pure advertising tool, it wouldn’t be a good one, in part because there are just so many stories here: David’s, Emanuel’s, the family’s, Gero’s, and then all the serendipitous meetings and chance associations. It’s too personal. Why weave them all together?

GL: I think it’s a bit of psychotherapy. You have to tell your story if you don’t want it to get lost. I come from a family of publishers, so I know no one knows what I’m doing. Crystal, my wife, said you should start writing about this. But who gives a shit about my personal story? So why not combine my work on the supply chain with the ethical principles, the Bronner story?

In 2013, I approached the author Michael Pollan, sent him a note asking him if he was interested. I knew he and David were talking at the time. He was pretty busy with his book on psychedelics. But I knew our book had to be a narrative, couldn’t be a textbook. I’d never written a history before. So, this was an opportunity to do psychotherapy.

But it also had to be factual — I’m a scientist, after all. I couldn’t have done this without my ghostwriter, Sarah. She showed me how to structure. It was Sarah who wrote the proposal for the book. She and our agent did a great job of making a proposal that was interesting to publishers. But once I started writing on the right drug, I started enjoying the process. I had to use the tricks of narrative writing over two or three years to make it happen. I liked it, but I’m glad it’s over.

Thinking about ethical supply chains, sustainability, and community, what does it mean for this book to come out during the time of COVID-19?

DB: In a crisis, you can show people your care and concern, or you can have a lackadaisical approach that focuses on the product. Our culture of care is exemplified by how we worked within the company and with our local partners.

GL: We had to show that how we operate also makes us resilient. We wanted to show that even pandemics provide opportunities for creative ways of dealing with problems. You use your heart and your mind; your company becomes more resilient.

I have to tell the story of what happened in our Vista factory. They ramped up production to three shifts, whereas previously, we’d only had one. That put all kinds of strains on the company. I wanted to talk about that. In India, 4,000 farm workers and their families were in danger of not getting food because the social system there wasn’t so good. There wasn’t an opportunity to organize. It’s like what we did in Sri Lanka, we just arranged guerrilla style. You work with what you have. The Bronners kicked in $25,000 to buy rice, lentils, and oil, and you just ship it directly to the people affected. It worked out well.

We’ve diversified. In Ghana, we have a secondary soap line for the local market. It’s great. In India, we grew Tulsi, holy basil. It just flies off the market in the States, but we’re also giving it to the farmers. It’s expensive, but the health benefits are through the roof. We’re going to ship some to Ghana as well for preventative health. I love connecting different things with different cultures. I look at disasters as opportunities to link up projects.

Some folks might be surprised by the psychedelic angle that comes out in the book. How have psychedelics impacted the supply chain, this book, and your lives?

DB: Amsterdam was my first psychedelic experience. Was it yours, Gero?

GL: Well, we had some pretty powerful cannabis when I was only 14. The LSD came two years later in Cologne. But the cannabis was pretty psychedelic.

But I think back on the friends I started this journey with. I took LSD with my friend — the one who helped design the Sri Lanka plant — back in Holland when we were 16. This came up yesterday on my first ketamine treatment. We think taking LSD shaped our lives in a way I can’t verbalize. Without cannabis, I couldn’t be who I am, but LSD shaped me … I used to be more dogmatic — you can ask my wife: I used to be an asshole. LSD didn’t cure me of being an asshole, I can promise you that, but it did open me to the possibility of tackling my asshole nature. I saw the connection to treating trauma immediately. The most significant impact investment I’ve seen David make has to do with the legalization of psychedelics. My work is slower; it doesn’t scale so fast. But the need is based on the current approaches. I’ve had enough therapy to see how poorly the current model responds to people in need.

I just finished Carl Hart’s latest book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, in which he asks adults to step out of the closet and be honest about their drug use, in order to de-stigmatize it. It was great to read you write about smoking cannabis to help you study and understand complex concepts.

DB: What Carl’s doing for all drugs is saying that the harms from mass incarceration and stigmatization far outweigh any of the harms a responsible drug policy would present. It’s been a life process of integrating these substances into my life. First, it was hemp. Then cannabis, then psychedelic advocacy, and then my own use.

Hemp was at the nexus of sustainable, regenerative agriculture and all the things we’re doing in the supply chain and drug policy reform. Both of us were drawn to it on the drug policy reform, because it just exposes the absurdity of the drug war. I mean, making an agriculture crop a Schedule I drug? One of my jokes back in the day when reporters would ask, “Isn’t hemp just a stalking horse for Marijuana?” was, “No, get it right, this is about LSD.” That was the secret answer. Advocacy about psychedelics and drug-using in general, and increasing the amount of empathy and the connections linking nature, community, and the most authentic self — I feel like this is the most on-point connection with my granddad, the “All-One or All-None” concept. All of our advocacy and all of the supply chain’s work honors the label and my granddad’s vision.

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Ayize Jama-Everett is the author of the novels The Liminal PeopleThe Liminal War, and The Entropy of Bones, and of the graphic novel Box of Bones. Originally from New York, he now calls the Bay Area his home.

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Banner image: “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp PEPPERMINT PURE CASTILE SOAP” by fireballsedi is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.

 

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