Come with me to California and find out what Dr. Bronner's really mean when they say, ‘All One!’ – Part 2

Themes: Beauty, non-toxic, skin care, organic soap, regenerative agriculture, fair trade, climate justice, disaster resilience

Following on from Part 1 of this blog (if you haven’t read it, check it out here), let’s talk about how Dr. Bronner's unique model means they are sticking with small scale farmers around the world. And in doing this, they embody what resilience needs to look like at this tipping point in humanity and planetary boundaries. 

Dr. Bronner’s enables these farmers, local enterprises, and their communities to transition towards more regenerative agricultural practices as well as social practices. This co-liberative work is “driven by responsible business” that uses a range of tools: through on-the-ground listening, community capacity building, education, social impact projects, distribution of quality tools, building of infrastructure and strategic business developing aka “team building”. Given diversity is key, the way the farming elements look is dependent on the primary and secondary crops, the bioregion, and the communities of each supply chain area. In Provence, France, where the lavender used in Dr. Bronner’s Lavender soap is grown, farmers use the innovative “Espieur” machine during harvesting. Designed to be friendly to bees (beeeees!), it moves slower than other methods – at only 3 km/h, compared to 5-7 km/h – and has a bee-repelling bar in front of the two flower pickers, to warn the bees of its arrival. This method has been known to impact at least 50% less bees than other methods. I had to mention the bee brushing (!!!), but I couldn’t detail all the processes engaged in each country where Dr. Bronner’s collaborates with growers. Instead, I’ll share one specific example that features my new friend, Sonali - Sonali Pandithasekara. She is a founder and Chief Financial Officer of Serendipol, Dr. Bronner’s Sri Lankan sister company. She works with Sri Lankan farmers, many of whom are middle class, to produce the world’s first organic and fair trade, and now ROC – (Regenerative Organic Certified) – coconut oil. Sonali understands liberation is in the ways we do, not just the outcomes of what we do. 20 years ago, together with her father Gordon and Head of Dr. Bronner’s Special Operations Dr. Gero Leson, Sonali asked questions. The emergent answers became the impetus for the abovementioned “unimaginable transformation” to Dr. Bronner’s supply chain that Gero and David and Mike Bronner championed. In practice and action, the resilience and regeneration in Sri Lanka’s Serendipol – since carried forth in the Dr. Bronner’s entire farming fabric – includes:

  • Community capacity building and community informed social impact projects.
  • Fair trade certification*
  • Converting coconut groves into mixed agroforestry
  • Intercropping and mixed grazing systems
  • Using coconut husks and fronds as mulch
  • Replacing aging trees with new seedlings
  • Regeneration of the soil sponge to improve the capacity of the soil to cycle / "sequester" carbon
  • Regeneration of the soil sponge also improves the hydrophile, i.e. the soil's capacity to hold water

These last two functions are incredibly important in a warming and drying climate. They sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide – the key contributor to global climate change – and they store water, reducing the impact of droughts and of downpours which erode less “spongy” soil. Thus, they also contribute to disaster resilience and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

*The fair trade term can seem super abstract. At Serendipol, it is rather hands-on – “Farmers are not only paid an organic premium for their coconuts, but an additional fair trade premium paid by Serendipol’s customers is deposited into a fair trade fund. A fair trade committee, made up of farmers, Serendipol workers and Serendipol officers, meets regularly to discuss how the funds will be used, identifying community needs and working to address them.” (Excerpt taken from Resilience and Regeneration in Sri Lanka’s Serendipol )

Dr. Bronner’s are obsessed with certification, the most stringent of certifications, and are certified out the wazoo!  While documentation and certification consume much time spend by the projects’ agricultural field officers, it is also critical in fighting “green and fair washing”, i.e. the practice by many companies of claiming social and ecological practices while avoiding third party verification and certification. In fact, Dr. Bronner’s are not just “into” certification, David (Bronner) is a member of the ROC (Regenerative Organic Certification) Board in the US and recently submitted a letter to the CDFA’s Regenerative Agriculture Work Group to assist the State Board of Food and Agriculture in defining “Regenerative Agriculture”.

Ok, for time’s sake I’m going to wrap up there on the farming front of Dr. Bronner’s, but you get it – soil health, check. Team and community development, check. Certification, check. What happens next? Well, utilising all these regeneratively grown raw materials produced by these special operations, the Dr. Bronner's team members in the US go on to create non-toxic skin care that delivers on a Soap and Soul mission. The joy continues, and now seems like a great time to head back to sunny California on that fall morning in March... 

On arrival to the Dr. Bronner’s headquarters in Vista, CA, we were met by a hyper-colour fire truck from which spilt forth a flash mob of Dr. Bronner’s 'Foamie Homies' – artists who craft culture-making moments at festivals and the like, sharing forth the Soul. While their impressive dance moves (and a cannon spraying planet friendly foam!) swept us up in the fun, when the music stopped, we got to talking. Under their open mindedness and rad dungarees, each of these intelligent humans revealed layer upon layer of value-led skills and experience... and we weren't even in the HQ front door yet. Moments later, I was standing with head Soap Composer of 20 years, Ismaél, on the factory floor in front of his latest bubbling barrel of Peppermint pure-castile soap. While my nose was led in one direction by the delicious scent, out of the corner of my eye I caught Ismaél in a fist bump with Sonali (my new friend you heard about earlier, who was also visiting California from Sri Lanka while we were there). Why? Because for almost twenty years Sonali, her father Gordon and their team have been leading the above-mentioned production of organic, regenerative and fair trade coconut oil. Two parallel threads of two decades work, happening across the world for one story, meeting in such a human moment! It was beautiful...

These are but a few of so many threads here. I could keep talking about their transparency and ethics, but I want to interrupt to talk about something else. Their complexity and intelligence as a business in the Anthropocene. And why we should care...

As mentioned, Western science says we are at a tipping point in planetary boundaries and in humanity. Changes observed in ecosystems worldwide and the lived experiences of communities who are most connected to caring for Country - First Nations Custodians and farmers – also corroborate this. As the realities of the Anthropocene reveal themselves in wilder, faster and more uncertain ways than predicted, we human animals – alongside all animals – face a present and a future of cascading challenges. Another word that we can use for this kind of challenge is ‘disaster’, and in the Disaster Risk Reduction industry, the word “cascading” is used to indicate that one disaster has started before the last disaster has finished. 

Meanwhile, peer reviewed science strongly suggests an infinite growth mindset and unmitigated exploitative economy is incompatible in actuality with this planet's finite resources; particularly as they dwindle under increasing threats and demands.

None of the above is news. What a present and future of cascading challenges actually looks like, is news - and constantly so.

It is becoming more of a priority for businesses to cultivate their own adaptability and resilience amidst such unrelenting, overlapping change in order to meet growth and profit goals. This seemingly 'internal' resilience may appear to sit in parallel with the private sector's responsibility to empower 'external' resilience in worker and consumer communities. Yet, the line is not so clear. In a climate in crisis, resilience actually forms a very unique and compelling fulcrum point whereby good business sense meets care for future generations. In fact, many of the characteristics that cultivate resilience within the supply chain, for human workers and ecology, also cultivate resilience "for the business". This means economic and ecological resilience requires us to move away from modes of depletion and domination – much like regenerative agriculture does. To cultivate resilience, we need to move beyond modes of depleting and dominating ecosystems and each other, and move towards co-liberation, vitality, mutuality, and reciprocity.

The more I have dug, the more I have found that Dr. Bronner's has these principles of co-liberation, mutuality, reciprocity, and vitality stitched into its most inner seams. In action, not just attitude. And it has applied these principles from its early years – notably to building a fair and inspiring workplace and treating its staff like family. That this creates resilience became very obvious during the COVID pandemic, where rapid changes in external conditions required commitment and creativity if the company was to continue operating. This includes allowance for emergent realities, flexible transportation and logistics, personal value based commitment to shared outcomes and meeting the existing and unfolding needs, wants and goals of local grower communities as well as employees all the way from factory floor to marketing. They are committed to curiosity and exploring the emergent needs and goals of all people and non-human relations within their supply chain, constantly keeping themselves adaptive in their cycle of change.

Having completed postgraduate study in disaster resilience, sustainability, and resilience in general, to me Dr. Bronner's do this. They exemplify how business can and should cultivate adaptation and regenerative practices for the future. They exemplify the ways in which what's good for All, is good for business.  

Never in history have we seen the humanitarian and ecological shortcomings of governments beg more for businesses to step forwards to their opportunity and responsibility as change makers for new paradigms of custodianship and care. In areas such as Palestine’s West Bank, ongoing conflict has destroyed part of their agricultural infrastructure, including sacred traditional century old olive groves, along with much of civil life and humanitarian hope itself. Yet again, Dr. Bronner’s is walking with communities here too, in practical and intersectional ways. How exactly? The primary supplier of regenerative certified olive oil used in Dr. Bronner’s soaps is Canaan Palestine and the relationship is real, layered and long lasting. Canaan was founded in 2004 by Nasser Abufarha, a Palestinian-American who saw the concept of fair trade as an opportunity for the impoverished farmers in the Northern West Bank to find access to high-end markets in Europe and the US. Dr. Bronner’s swiftly became Canaan’s largest buyer and has, since 2006, supported the project and its 1100+ farmers and 80+ staff in many ways.

While I spent time with Gero, he would sometimes step away to answer his phone – it was Nasser in Palestine. Nasser Abufarha, PhD., Director of Canaan Palestine, and they needed to talk… They talked about talk… about the significant impact of the war in Gaza and political intimidation on Canaan’s olive oil production and shipping and about potential solutions. While I would feel emotion at the thought of the connection, these two men were busy, engaged in action. Together, they persevered with calls restricted by unreliable telecommunications and political intimidation, to humbly and practically stay connected to what’s possible as the realities on the ground in Palestine and Israel keep shifting. In this situation, shared problem solving on how to keep Nasser and Canaan in operation is a direct action of empowerment and co-liberation by Nasser himself with support from Gero and Dr. Bronner’s.

Much like any fabric, the threads go on and on and on… and honestly, it’s hard to know where to stop when talking about Dr. Bronner’s, this intimate and global Soap and Soul family who have adopted me. So I'll wrap it up here.


A bit about Maree…

Maree was on TV around the world for a good while as dirtgirl - an eco warrior alter persona, and if you have kids, there’s a good chance you’ve “gotten grubby” with her and the mighty dirtgirlworld village. In "real life", she's fortunate to have spent over a decade walking with families, farmers and First Nations communities towards a better future for the planet. Sitting under her surfaces is an understanding that we humans belong, alongside all Kin, to this embodied network of life that we call ‘nature’. We are nature. “Individualism has unstitched the threads which hold us in a fabric with our relations, where care for you is care for me because we are All One”, says Maree, “So I'm deeply passionate about amplifying the wisdom of communities who understand that your liberation and fulfilment is inextricably tied up with mine”. She's qualified (if you’re into that kinda thing) with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Indigenous Studies, a graduate certificate in Disaster Risk Reduction through the UN, a permaculture design certificate, a yoga teacher qualification and a soil microbiology course. Her academic and real-life studies have given Maree insight into all layers of care, from ‘self’ to Community, Country and Climate. As a conduit for different communities' storytelling, many of whom are Othered and exploited by colonial and corporate structures, deep listening has become the most important thing she does.

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