Brands We Love vol. 2 — OG Corporate Hippies
Next time you need something to eat, wear or clean with, consider one of these three corporate hippies
Dr. Bronner’s comes first in our hearts because it is probably the most batshit brand success story in US history — a story that hasn’t been told enough. Let’s get into it. In 1936, family patriarch Emanuel Heilbronner escaped the burgeoning Nazi party and fled to the US. The entirety of his family perished in Holocaust death camps after their soap-making business was nationalized. He was put in a mental institution in Illinois as a young man for espousing “crazy” beliefs like proud Zionism, virulent anti-Nazism and a general concern for the wellbeing of the world. The Doctor later blamed shock treatments for declining eyesight and blindness. He escaped in 1945 and set his sights on soap, something his family had been making since 1858 in Laupheim, Germany. Oh, and by the way, he’s not a doctor. But with his German accent and air of authority, no one doubted him.
Bronner was beyond eccentric. His label hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. It is covered in personal creeds like his “Moral ABCs,” including statements like —
“12th: God bless the persecuted! They alone are his chosen people! Those that did not suffer from persecution remained short-sighted, small! Only those who united worked hard to survive ice-aged persecution evolved into Humane Beings, like Jesus — Mintz — Sills — Straus — Stasz-Zamenhof, brave, to help teach all, every slave, the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith, for we’re all-One or none! Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One! Exceptions? None!”
“14th: Let him who is without fault throw the first stone, for only God is always perfect! So, when our fellow man you measure, take him at his best, with that lever lift him higher, overlook the rest! For we’re All-One or none! Remember, more good is caused by evil than by good. So, do what’s right! Maximize the good, minimize the wrong! Then the Kingdom of God’s Law inspires — evolves — unites. All-One! All-One! All-One!”
For a period of time, Bronner ran the company as a tax-exempt religious organization but was found to be out of compliance and was levied with $1.3 million in back-taxes in 1985. When this occurred, Jim Bronner, Emanuel’s son, began to work for the company and recapitalized it as a for-profit company in 1988.
Celebrities including but not limited to Bobbi Brown, Oprah, Olivia Wilde, Natalie Portman, Kate Hudson, Lady Gaga and Meghan Markle all swear by Dr. Bronner’s. Drake even includes it in his rider (alongside Hennessy and rolling papers). The brand has paid exactly $0 for influencer marketing or endorsements.
Its CEO, David Bronner, a ponytailed vegan surfer who wears tie-dyed shirts and drives a rainbow-colored Mercedes-Benz, has planted hemp seeds on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s lawn and was once arrested for locking himself in a cage outside the White House.
His slightly more low-key brother, who also helps run the family business, still demonstrates a strong moral backbone has described social media as “essentially amoral.”
Since the 1950s, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps has championed a number of causes related to drug policy reform, animal rights, genetically modified organisms and fair trade practices. The company has self-imposed caps on executive pay, with executive salaries not to exceed 5 times the wage of its lowest paid workers.Roughly a third of the company’s profits are dedicated to charitable giving and activist causes annually. All of this has stood since long-before the corporate virtue signaling of the 2010s began.
Dr. Bronner and his family have heralded in a magically American success story — over $100 million in annual revenues for a company proudly declaring a belief in “Spaceship Earth.” When we talk about authenticity, this is it. Oh, and by the way, the soaps are incredible. In the cadence of your labels, we declare “Bravo, Bronner family!!!”
So, yeah. We know. You know. Everyone knows Patagonia is the best. But, it wasn’t until a millennial-led endorsement of the brand as sustainability hero occurred that it truly hit the mainstream as “cool.” Before then, it was simply a hippie-dippie outdoor brand, kind of like The North Face’s younger brother who doesn’t cut his hair and potentially lives in an Airstream.
Let’s dive into what makes it truly such a special brand and company.
Founder Yvon Chouinard was an adamant rock-climber throughout the 1960s and 1970s. On a trip to Scotland in 1970, he bought and re-sold some rugged rugby shirts, realizing the need for good-looking but durable outdoor apparel and gear. Three years later, Patagonia was born. From the beginning, Chouinard held a commitment to understanding the impact of his brand on the environment. In 1986, Chouinard committed the company to “tithing” for environmental activism, committing one percent of sales or ten percent of profits, whichever is the greater. The commitment included paying employees working on local environmental projects so they could commit to these efforts full-time. In the 1990s, an environmental audit of Patagonia revealed that corporate cotton, although it was a natural material, had a heavy environmental footprint, making Patagonia the first to call attention to this. In 1996, Chouinard committed the company to using all organic cotton. In 2002, Yvon Chouinard founded 1% for the Planet and Patagonia became the first business to commit 1% of annual sales to the environment.
Culturally, Patagonia has a few iconic pieces. The sherpa fleece, now made from recycled plastic, is the most famous. The “baggies” shorts are another one — famously utilitarian and ideal for swimming, running or lounging around. But overall, the brand today is measured not by its look and feel (which famously has been co-opted by investment bankers, who were then issued a very on-brand ultimatum from Patagonia: be a mission-driven company that prioritizes the planet, or no more co-branded merch) but rather by its philosophies.
And it’s working. Patagonia’s stock has doubled in the last 5 years. They’ve also launched Patagonia Provisions, a sub-brand geared towards “rethinking the food chain” and Tin Fund Ventures, a VC firm investing in “the next generation of responsible businesses.”
Let’s get this out of the way first — Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever, which could be considered an evil corporate entity. The company has a long history of greenwashing while allowing environmental and social abuse, especially in “third world” workplaces. They’re also a tremendous participant in virtue signaling which always makes me nervous — show, don’t tell, right?
From Forbes’ “Unilever And The Failure Of Corporate Social Responsibility”:
In 2016, Unilever settled with almost 600 workers in India over mercury exposure from a now closed thermometer plant following a 2006 lawsuit over exposure to the toxic element. The issue reached global attention from an Indian rapper’s song “Kodaikanal Won’t” that modified Nicki Minaj tune “Amaconda,” with lyrics addressing the mercury contamination problem.
A 2011 Irish Times story exposed sexual harassment claims from African workers that said they had to bribe supervisors to stop them from unwanted advances.
[Former CEO] Polman’s efforts to address the sexual harassment claims were not universally accepted by NGOs. A 2014 report by the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations “claimed the existing system of checks and balances has failed to stop abuses of workers on Unilever’s Kenyan estate, including sexual harassment and poor housing conditions.”
So, yeah, not great. But there’s something to be said for Unilever’s deft handling of Ben & Jerry’s. The brand continues to apparently do whatever it wants, including releasing flavors like Empower-Mint in support of Black Lives Matter back in 2017.
Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were childhood friends from Merrick, New York. Greenfield couldn’t get into med school and Cohen dropped out of college. So, like any unemployed young people, in 1977, Cohen and Greenfield completed a correspondence course on ice cream making from Pennsylvania State University’s creamery. Cohen has severe anosmia, a lack of a sense of smell or taste, and so relied on “mouth feel” and texture to provide variety in his diet. This led to the company’s trademark chunks being mixed in with their ice cream. On May 5, 1978, they started an ice cream parlor in an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont with $12,000. In 1979, they marked their anniversary by holding the first “free cone day”, now an annual event at every Ben & Jerry’s store.
Ben & Jerry’s never outgrew its hippie ethos, even after being acquired by Unilever in 2000. The brand’s three core missions are economic (profit), sustainability and product — with an equal emphasis on all three. For over 40 years, the brand has fought for racial justice, voting rights and democracy, non-GMO labeling and fair trade processes.
So, next time you need household essentials like soap and ice cream (yes, ice cream is an essential) or anything from fair-trade coffee to an iconic fleece vest, consider one of these three corporate hippies.