Dr. Bronner's

Reflections on Dr. Bronner’s 6 Cosmic Principles & How They Came About

Bronner family under a shady tree - creating company's guiding cosmic principles

When a company has been around for a while, especially a family business that’s passed through several generations, there builds up years of decision-making based on what seems best in the moment. They stem partly from intuition, common sense, good intentions, perseverance, and partly from all the trouble-shooting and maneuvering it takes to survive when small. But when organizations develop organically, things can lack cohesion and get gummed up when it comes to clarity and long-term planning.

So in 2015, when Dr. Bronner’s as a company had been around for 67 years, it was time to look back at the decades and ask, “What all are we doing here, how does it tie together, and where are we headed?”

The company’s history had been a little…odd. My grandfather Emanuel Bronner had begun it not primarily for the purpose of selling soap, but rather to spread a message on the label of peace, unity, personal responsibility, and caring for the world around us. The soap was merely the handy messenger. More of that story here. We still have this activist core, this great soap, this desire to do well in the world – how does it all connect? This was when a group drawn from every facet of the company got together to come up with a statement of purpose, articulating what we’re all about. The process took some time and a good bit of introspection, listening, wrestling, and refining. It involved a few meanderings through ideas that proved not quite right – such as 6 P’s which were satisfyingly alliterative but a mite vague – Production, People, Planet, Passion…

Articulating the Cosmic Principles in Word and Image

The final result was these six Cosmic Principles that articulate what Dr. Bronner’s has been, is, and intends to be. Not only did they develop a statement with words, but they also created a meaningful visual diagram of connectedness that demonstrates how a strong business center positively impacts the earth, how a customer next door impacts a farmer 7000 miles away, and how macro and micro activism also benefits the employees working right beside me. These principles serve as a guide in our decision-making and a grounding center in all our adventures.

We first published our Cosmic Principles in our debut corporate social responsibility (CSR) report, a magnificent annual statement of our activity that we fondly call the “All-One! Report.” While they are always inspiring, that first 2015 report absolutely blew me away, to see all that we were doing as a company compiled in one document, all the ways of doing business and interacting with the world in pursuit of excellence. If one small/medium soap company could impact and improve so many lives, what would happen if other companies did likewise? To this day it’s my favorite report, and always my go-to if I fall into doldrums in my work.

Diagram on blue background of Dr. Bronner's company's six cosmic principles.
Note the cosmic geometry in this diagram, stemming from the center and connecting each principle to the others. All depend upon and benefit the others.

I didn’t take part in this process, but I love what came out of it. As I read through these, I hear my grandfather’s language and appreciate how that was incorporated. But in how they’ve been actualized, I see my parents’ personal ways of living and am so glad those are evident to others. Since my dad did not grow up with his father (a long story, best found in the Appendix of my book), it wasn’t Emanuel who instilled these in him, but something my parents developed on their own. These are the principles under which I grew up and the ways my parents lived their lives personally and professionally.  The expectations and benefits I know at work differ little from those I lived with growing up. Truly a blessing.

A “Who’s Who” of Dr. Bronner’s Family Leadership

Before I dive into the Cosmic Principles, let me first introduce you to the family members at the helm of the company over the years.

Emanuel Bronner – My grandfather (1908-1997) who founded Dr. Bronner’s in 1948 for the reasons stated above. A person of immense passion and focus who let nothing deter him, from world wars to mental health institutions to run-ins with the IRS or his eventual blindness. He was who you read on the label. This was his mission, which he continued until brought down by Parkinsons Disease in the early ‘90s.

Jim Bronner – My dad (1938-1998) and Dr. Bronner’s youngest child. With barely a high school education, my dad navigated the world with nearly unerring instincts, profound common sense, a powerful work ethic, and immense compassion. A chemist and inventor by profession separate from the soap company, he came on board as President during his father’s decline. Though his tenure was brief due to his own battle with lung cancer, he was pivotal in guiding the business through the often company-sinking process of taking one person’s life work and translating that into a viable, scalable organization.

Trudy Bronner – My mom (1943- ) married into this bunch and balanced my dad with her thorough attention to detail and mathematical expertise (both a Bachelors and nearly a Masters in math, plus years of teaching and personal investment management). To the Bronner “Ready-Fire-Aim” M.O., she brings a valuable “think first” mentality. She may look like she’s not responding to an idea, but that is only because she is weighing the pros and cons, processing the ramifications, envisioning the outcomes, seeing the bigger picture. You can glimpse the wheels turning in her eyes. She is still Chief Financial Officer.

Ralph Bronner – My uncle (1936-2015) and Dr. Bronner’s older son. Ralph held the heart and soul of the company both during his father’s life and for years after his passing. An English teacher by trade, he was the company’s sole sales force for decades, filling his minivan with soap during his school breaks and descending on a city to visit every mom-and-pop (as they all were) health store, telling stories about the soap with its unexpected label, and playing his folk guitar. He could connect with any individual of any temperament, age, or background, a trait captured so beautifully in the documentary Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, and was unflaggingly generous to all he met, slipping $20s and $50s into the hands of anyone he thought could use it. He was company Vice President from the early 90’s until his passing.  

David Bronner – My oldest brother (1973- ) is the company’s Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) to this day. David, who had been working as a social worker in Boston, came on board in 1997 at age 24, and had one year of working with my dad before he passed. I see in David our grandfather’s passion and tenacity which was pivotal in carrying the company through very rocky years of transition in the late 90’s and set the company on a trajectory of trailblazing activism, growth, and uncompromisingly sustainable and ethical business practices.

Mike Bronner – My brother only 18 months my senior (1975- ) is the company’s President with a particular heart for our international markets. Returning from years of teaching English in Japan, he joined the company fun in 2001 and is the force behind our presence in over 40 countries. He has an unflagging ability to establish connections with anyone, a skill he has used in particular to develop the relationships at the heart of our work with our partners around the world.

Michael Milam – My husband (1971- ) had little idea what the future held when he married into this family in 1998. Our life was in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was pursuing a career in real estate development, a plan which took a left-turn when David asked him in 2005 to come on board to smooth out and systematize operations. Business growth without strong systems in place gets messy and expensive. Michael’s work as Chief Operations Officer has allowed the company to keep pace with annual double-digit sales growth for nearly 20 years.

The Six Cosmic Principles

Cosmic Principle #1: Work hard! Grow!

This first principle addresses our core as a business. It must be strong for anything else to be possible. My grandfather did this through dogged determination and force of personality, which can carry an organization for a while, but not indefinitely. It’s incredible that he was able to grow the company as he did (to around $3M at his passing) despite the fact that the “natural industry” was completely nascent, that he had no sales or marketing beyond a part-time Ralph and his minivan, that he refused to sell the soap to anyone who wasn’t interested in the label, and he was blind for the last several decades of his life. But hard work and a knack for finding incredibly loyal and equally hard-working individuals to work beside him carried him through.

When he passed, he had made little provision for succession, which resulted in the company’s being levied with an estate tax at half its value. It took some serious attention to detail and willingness to economize to survive the transition. My parents started that process, and it was carried to fruition by my mom, brothers, husband, and the rest of our dynamic leadership team who did not flag from the task.

This was nothing new to me as my parents always lived the tenets: don’t be daunted, do your best, and don’t give up. In fact, I can recall many a down-and-out moment, be it an academic one or down 4-0 at half time of a soccer game, that my dad would whip out his Churchill: “Never, never, never give up!” Or perhaps Revolutionary Naval Captain John Paul Jones: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

To this day, the company continues to find ways to improve efficiency and business operations, which is why despite all the strides in sustainability and ethics, we are still profitable (breaking $200M in 2023). I enjoy pointing this out to naysayers who say that no business can be ethical and remain in business.  From ethical palm oil and chocolate to Regenerative Organic Certification®, sound business and hardworking innovation underlies it all.

Cosmic Principle #2: Do right by customers.

Customers come first. Not only did my grandfather formulate a superb soap for skin health, with no synthetic fragrance, preservative, dye, or foaming agent, but he put his phone number—his personal phone number—on the label so that there would be a direct link in case the customer had any questions, or better yet, wanted to talk about the label. He kept these phones at his elbow and readily answered each incoming call.

Uncle Ralph further fostered these connections with customers. With some frequency, I get emails from customers who are eager to share their “Uncle Ralph story” of a time they met him in a subway, at a restaurant, or on the street.

Under David’s leadership the company began to pursue certifications to assure customers, via independent audit and verification, that we are doing what we say we’re doing. The first was organic, and later fair trade and on to Regenerative Organic Certified. At last count, we had 17. Before I took over the customer service emails back in 2008, Mike answered each and every one. In reflecting on them, he once said to an interviewer, “We have a deep and open communication with our customers, and it is times like this when people decide to share their experiences and ‘magical’ encounters with us that we take a step back and realize how fortunate we all are to be a part of something so special.”

Relationships such as these are what it is all about. Honesty and forthright communication is paramount.

My day-to-day work falls mostly into this realm of doing right by customers. Through all my Going Green channels—the blog and website here, emails, newsletters, social channels—I get to connect with the customers so we all can be moving forward together.

Cosmic Principle #3: Treat employees like family.

My grandfather knew full and well there would be no soap with its special message if it wasn’t for the people who worked with him. Without the person mixing the soap or the person bottling the soap or the person packing the cases or the person shipping the orders, there would be no soap getting to customers.

One of our longest time employees, Salvador Hernandez (Sal, to us), who worked with my grandfather from age 18 to retirement at 65, recalled my grandfather’s words to him, “I’m blind and you’re pretty smart, and I want to help you, but you’ve got to help me.” It’s always been about partnership and interdependence. This is what my grandfather termed Constructive Capitalism.

As I grew up, everyone who came into my childhood home was welcomed and treated like family. We constantly had guests at the dinner table. They were fed, talked to, and given a bed for the night or a spot on the soccer team, whichever was more relevant. It is no different walking through the front doors at Dr. Bronner’s today. I may have only two brothers, but I have a truly massive family. This is further evidenced in the way we do holidays – which were very big in my house. My dad especially loved celebrations, and during his tenure, he would invite the entire staff (all 12 of them) up to the house and cook for them. When the team got too big for that, we’d rent out restaurants. He’d love how we still have big celebrations several times a year at HQ.

There’s more practical care for the staff as well. The five-to-one-executive salary cap and benefits package are all part of this, but the best testament is our low employee turnover rate. For the past five years (I didn’t calculate further because it was incredibly steady) it has been on average 4.7%, compared to a manufacturing industry average of 30%.

Cosmic Principle #4: Be fair to suppliers.

It is in our relationships with our raw material suppliers that I most see the interconnectedness of the world. If you look deep into a bottle of soap, you will see on the other side farmers caring for trees, harvesting coconut, olive, palm fruit, carting it to mills. Just as with our employees, there would be no soap without our suppliers. They are as essential as any of us to the process.

Over the past several decades, our ability to see to the other side of our supply chains has improved drastically. Through increased communication and even mobility we are able to see beyond the middlemen, the brokers who would gather materials and then sell them on. We can’t claim to be ignorant, nor would we want to. When this view became clearer, David and Mike, along with Uncle Ralph and my mom, realized that organic standards, which are primarily concerned with the environment, provided no protection for people.

In 2005, the leadership made the commitment to source all major materials from organic and fair trade operations. The problem with this commitment was that fair trade sources for these materials – coconut, palm, olive, mint oils – did not exist. This is when the company’s journey to establishing fair trade sister operations around the world began, beginning with Serendipol in Sri Lanka, and continuing with Serendipalm in Ghana, and Serendi-Coco in Samoa. We also helped partners building organic and fair trade project for olive and mint oil. Each of these operations had their own set of challenges and learnings, which are chronicled in the book, Honor Thy Label written by our VP of Special Operations Gero Leson.

Fair to suppliers means more than fair prices. It’s fair and forthright relationships, safe working conditions, equitable employment practices, and care for the surrounding communities. Again, this is an expansion of what I grew up with: Don’t take advantage of people, especially if you’re in a position of power. Don’t bully. Notice need and stand up for people whose voice is faint or nonexistent. Recognize that people are more than the immediate transaction. They have whole lives, families, communities. Be a source of strength and may their lives be better off for our presence in them.

Cosmic Principle #5: Treat the earth like home.

My grandfather championed concern for the environment long before it was mainstream. In the 1940s he flouted the trending fascination with synthetics and petrochemicals and firmly stuck with his plant-based ingredients knowing they were best in the long-run for people and planet.

This principle has been behind our progression towards bringing into our supply chain the principles of regenerative organic agriculture, which goes beyond the “do no harm” premise of organic to rebuilding and healing harm that has been done. Dynamic agroforestry (the strategic intercropping of productive plants to simulate nature’s diversity), as well as cover cropping, mulching, composting, and vermiculture all work to rebuild depleted soil and replace escaped carbon from the air back into the soil, a process called sequestration.

At company headquarters in Vista, California, solar panels shade the parking lot and provide much of the energy for production and offices. We’ve installed our own wastewater treatment. We stay cognizant of our trash production with our annual Dumpster Dive and implement strategies for reducing our landfill load. On the packaging front, we were the first personal care company to use 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic bottles nearly 20 years ago. In 2023, after a careful life-cycle analysis, we launched a paper refill carton for the Castile quarts and began piloting refill systems at retailers and schools.

In addition to my work falling into Cosmic Principal #2, I have a strong tie to this #5. For the most part, I speak with individuals making decisions in their individual lives and houses. It may seem like small beans, but each of us put together adds up to a great deal of impact. My own working definition of “green” comes straight from the first rule of being a guest: Leave the place better than you found it. That applies to our houses, our communities, the whole earth.

Often we use the prefix “eco” to talk about being environmentally mindful to the whole earth. Eco-conscious, eco-friendly, ecological. It’s interesting then that “eco” comes from the Greek word “oikos” which means house or dwelling place. So as we take care of our smaller oikos—our homes–we’re talking care of our larger oikos—our earth—and vice versa. It gives some perspective when wondering, what can I as just one person really do to benefit the world.

Cosmic Principle #6: Fund and fight for what’s right.

This might be the last principle in the list, but it was where my grandfather started, and still is at our core. My grandfather started with his mission to unite humanity on Spaceship Earth. He was tireless in this effort, speaking to audiences and individuals, writing letters, refining the label constantly to persuade and instruct people towards peace.

Under my parents’ stewardship, the company made a donation to the Boys & Girls Club of San Diego that became the James A. Bronner Family Branch in Valley Center, California – a safe place for children to be nurtured and thrive when they are not in school. They made this donation in 1998, when it could have been sold to pay off the tax burden brought by my grandfather’s passing. But they held their priorities.

These days, the causes we support are varied, wherever we feel our voice can help lift or heal or bring joy. From assistance for youth and the disadvantaged to advocacy for minimum wage reform to GMO labeling to ingredient transparency and drug policy reform. On average nearly 7% of revenue (which is roughly 30% of profits) have gone towards charitable causes each year.

My parents taught us that you did what you could where you were with what you had. You noticed need and helped if you had the means to. Mike tells a story of driving with my dad through the Mojave Desert one hot summer’s day. After spending an hour helping one stranded motorist, my dad pulled over again to help a second one. Mike groaned and suggested that this motorist could be someone else’s good deed for the day. My dad said, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t stop to help.”


Even while there is so much of my grandfather in the language of these principles, the experience of working for the company strongly recalls my childhood home and my parents’ principles for living. I see it in these guiding tenets and in more tangible tributes, from the practical to the fun.

All in all, it is summed up in this statement which is on every bottle we sell: “In all we do, let us be fair, generous, and loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re All-One or None! All-One!”

I am glad to be able to share my personal reflections with you here. I hope seeing the swirl and overlap between my family and this company through the generations helps to expand an understanding of what is possible both in families and in business.

Further reading:

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Alissa says:

Lisa, this is such an interesting explanation of how to become a values driven company. Thank you for telling these stories – the world would be such a better place if more companies modeled themselves after Dr. Bronner’s.

Anonymous says:

Stop using plastic. It is extremely hypocritical. It is unnecessary and your organisation has the means to stop. As well, stop claiming to be fair trade and organic if you are not 100% so. Again, your organisation has the means. It is extremely hypocritical to be highlighting these principles when you do not stick to them and choose whatever it is, greed, lack of research/incompetency, vanity or whatever else to come to the conclusion that what you are doing is in alignment with the above, thus deceiving supporters of your brand about the mission you are marketing.

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi there – Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I would like to hear more details about where specifically you see hypocrisy so that I can give those areas consideration. I think you will find these two articles from the All-One blog particularly helpful in understanding our company’s journey away from single-use plastic and towards a circular system that does not produce waste:
How we’re addressing our plastic use at
Plastic Packaging in Body & Home Care Products Must Be Reduced. But Is It Possible? at
Two great strides we have made recently is the release of our paperboard Castile Refill carton last year, and our set up of refill stations in stores.

Regarding our fair trade and organic claims, in order to offer customers more than merely our word, which I agree is suspect when claimed about ourselves, we have received certification from independent third-party organizations who audit our practices. We are certified fair trade by the extremely rigorous Fair For Life standard, and our B-Corp audit of our social and environmental practices, accountability, and transparency resulted in our receiving the highest score ever given to a company: 206.7. (80 is the minimum score needed to achieve B-Corp certification.) Regarding organic claims, most of our products are fully certified organic (the certification requires 95-100% organic content), and our castile soaps, which are over 90% organic, carry the “Made with Organic Oils” statement. This is because a necessary component of the soapmaking is using the alkaline mineral sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, and minerals cannot be considered organic. You can read more about these outside audits and certifications of our operations on the Dr. Bronner’s website at

I am happy to address other instances where you see we may not be living up to our claims.

Pamela Willett says:

Dear Lisa,
I have enjoyed reading your article! Thank you for sharing and illustrating your family’s extraordinary story, its values and determination to build an honorable company whom Dr Bronner would be so very proud of today.
I have had the blessing of working with your Grandfather and Gladys at their home in the early 70’s. I came to know them both as the good, inclusive people they were.
Now, to witness your family’s commitment to your Grandfather’s vision through the years is so heartwarming. I truly know how happy he would be!

Lisa Bronner says:

Hi Pamela- How lovely to hear from you! I’m so glad you had a chance to get to know them both. I appreciate your kind words very much.

Paul says:

Enjoyed reading and assimilating your well written
article on the six ‘Cosmic’ Principles of Dr. Bronner’s.
Your Family and employees are to be applauded for their efforts, dedication and steadfastness in developing and achieving a great model of a corporate community.
Also, great products !
Kudos !

Lisa Bronner says:

Thank you, Paul! I’m glad this resonated with you and truly appreciate your kind words!

About Lisa Bronner

My grandfather was Dr. Bronner, my family makes soap, and I share ways to use it plus tips on greener living.

Learn about my book, Soap & Soul!

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