A conversation with the passionately curious Dr. Gero Leson about his latest book, Honor Thy Label

by | Mar 12, 2021 | Culture, Environment, Lifestyle, Voices

Honor Thy Label Book

“All-One,” the credo of the famous soap company, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, not only describes the versatility of the classic liquid soap, but also the founding principles of the company that on this planet, we are all one.

This belief fuels Dr. Bronner’s initiatives for social justice, environmental stewardship, animal advocacy, philanthropy, community betterment, fair pay and fair trade, regenerative agriculture, international development and drug policy reform. It is “constructive capitalism.”

It is unfortunately the rare company that cares so deeply about its responsibility to the planet and the people on it and uses business to drive positive change, which is one reason why Dr. Gero Leson, the Vice President of Special Operations and Doctor of Environmental Science and Engineering, wrote Honor Thy Label.

In the book, he shares his experience of working with Dr. Bronner’s for the past 20 years. This book is for “anyone who’s got a genuine interest in how the world works,” he said. We learn about this unique company’s supply chain, their Serendiworld LLC, their philanthropic work, and the importance of certification and labels in our global economy. He demystifies the process of manufacturing soap and proves that if done in a mindful way, companies can create positive change in their communities and surrounding environment.

Dr. Bronner’s started out as a small soap company in the late 1940’s that quickly became a worldwide household name today. Many will recognize Dr. Bronner’s large bottles covered in brightly colored labels packed with the Moral ABC’s of the founder, Emanuel Bronner. From its inception Dr. Bronner’s used organic ingredients and now sources its raw materials from certified Fair Trade and Organic (FTO) producers.

Personally, I’ve been using Dr. Bronner’s products since I was a kid, so I was eager to read Honor Thy Label, and speak with Dr. Leson about it.

We signed onto Zoom on a sunny Thursday morning on February 25th. I am living in NYC and he is in Berkeley. Dr. Leson pointed out how wonderful Zoom is and that because of it they “managed to maintain contact with our teams on the ground, frequent contact with them” despite the travel restrictions due to the pandemic. Normally he would be traveling most of the year, visiting their projects and partners in Sri Lanka and Samoa for coconut oil, Ghana for palm oil, Palestine and Israel for olive oil, India for mint oil, Ecuador for palm kernel oil and Brazil for sugar. What a fun job! Yes, “I’m very lucky,” he said. “I would even do this for free. And I have no plans to retire.”

Dr. Gero Leson

Dr. Gero Leson (photo credit: Dr. Bronners)

Dr. Leson has had a unique and inspirational career path. “It was Albert Einstein who said, ‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’ And that is me,” Gero said. A physicist from Cologne, Germany, he moved to the states to work on his PhD in Environmental Science and Engineering at UCLA. He went on to become an environmental consultant which is how he met David Bronner in the late 1990’s and joined the company’s global operations team. Since 2005, he has been responsible for Dr. Bronner’s sourcing of major ingredients from certified fair trade and organic projects and supporting the regenerative agriculture movement worldwide.

I asked him what advice he would give students who are thinking about their own career paths. “Meaning and purpose is something people should think of when they look at their career. Passion helps, but it’s not the only ingredient.” Dr. Leson is an excellent example of someone who used their foundation in science and combined it with their passion for improving the planet. “Scientific thinking is super helpful in critically looking at your world. Passion is a great driver, but you need a foundation too,” he said. Did he ever imagine back in his university days that he would be working for a worldwide soap company? No, he did not.

And for any teachers of environmental science, business, or agriculture, I highly recommend including Honor Thy Label in their syllabus. It “reads like a decent novel,” he wrote to me when I first emailed him to setup an interview: rather than reading a dry description of what sourcing raw materials entails, Gero uses the narrative to take us “to a range of places where things happen” and “provide insight into fundamental things.”  He breaks down concepts and stereotypes – like the perception of palm oil for example – and preconceived notions about companies, in an easily understandable way. The book is “really factual while also being simplistic,” he said.

Palm fruit ready for cleaning in Ghana

Palm fruit ready for cleaning in Ghana (photo credit Dr. Bronners)

While I read this book as a great resource for students, teachers, and eco-conscious consumers like myself, it was mainly written as a handbook for budding entrepreneurs and companies striving to build an ethical supply chain. Honor Thy Label proves that if you want to succeed in business, and make a positive impact, you can do so. Afterall, “companies make our economy, so the way they behave has a huge impact,” he said. Dr. Bronner’s close engagement with their suppliers has enabled them to support small, disadvantaged farms which in turn helps their communities; provided Dr. Bronner’s with the best organic ingredients; and improved the soil fertility of the land. Even if your company cannot yet manufacture its own raw materials, you can learn more about your supply chain and find fair trade ones that are more socially and ecologically minded. Thus, the title of the book, “Honor Thy Label:” provide certifications that reveal the conditions involved in your manufacturing. For example, Dr. Bronner’s is a certified B CORPORATION, which means they maintain the highest standard of social and environmental performance and accountability and use profits to improve the lives of their employees, communities and environment.

“I used to think it was only governments and NGO’s that do the good things and companies do what’s needed. My biggest lesson from the work of Dr. Bronner’s is that is not the case: that it is actually the companies, if they put their mind to it, if they apply certain rules, they can have an impact in no time.”

This is reassuring to hear, because the climate crisis is dire, and we are so interconnected as a planet – for better or worse. We need to play the long game. We need to make changes in the way we consume, the way we produce and create markets, and even the way in which we interact with each other. Honor Thy Label even talks about how employees are treated and how important it is for the success of the company, that they treat each other with respect.

Not only is Dr. Bronner’s a wonderful company at which to work, it is a very successful company: Dr. Bronner’s generated over $190 million in revenue in 2020. Gero said, their success is due in large part because they care to give back, to use extra profits for activism. What a novel concept! In 2020 they donated 40% of profits to charitable and activist causes. Most recently, since soap and sanitizer sales were booming due to the pandemic, Dr. Bronner’s donated 4% of its total hand sanitizer production to nonprofits and efforts supporting high risk populations. It’s a no brainer: if you’re going to buy soap and hand sanitizer anyway, why not buy from a company that positively impacts the world? If all companies would give back as much as Dr. Bronner’s does, the world would indeed be a better place. Gero agreed with me.

But how do we get people to read the book who wouldn’t normally be interested? And like all things pertaining to sustainability – a word Gero hates to use – it really is the age-old question of ‘how we do we get people to care who don’t already care?’

Well one way, I think, is gifting the book to friends and family. Our world has so much ‘stuff’ so these days I’m inclined to give gifts that are useful and might inspire that person to make a positive change.

And even for those who don’t consider themselves ‘green,’ the hope is that reading this book “should make them think about stuff they take for granted,” he said. Have you ever asked yourself how soap works? Have you ever wondered where coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil come from? Do you care about your individual decisions benefitting the collective good?

All the answers are in Honor Thy Label. If you order the book directly from the site, you will also receive a free bottle of soap. And I guarantee that after reading the book, you will feel empowered the next time you wash your hands. You will understand the journey of how this unique soap was made, the people involved in the process, and the people and places positively impacted by the efforts of Dr. Gero Leson and everyone at Dr. Bronner’s; how they have truly, honored their label.

Hannah McGovern Gross

Hannah McGovern Gross

Hannah McGovern Gross, a native New Yorker, is an actor, singer and environmentalist. She founded the NYC chapter of Turning Green while at The Brearley School, won a grant while she was a student at Wellesley College to host a Project Green Dorm event there, and since then, has helped whenever she could, most recently with Project Green Challenge in 2020.