Head of Special Operations at Dr. Bronner’s, Gero Leson has been an integral part of the team, building fair trade and organic supply chains for the popular soap brand around the world. In his new book, Honor Thy Label, he shares in detail the journey of redesigning regenerative supply chains, the ups and downs of being pioneers, and the need to connect business with purpose. He gives readers a behind-the-scenes take on how they source coconut, palm, and olive oils from Sri Lanka, Ghana, and the West Bank respectively—supply chains that took years, if not decades to cultivate but are the backbone of the company’s soaps.
Esha Chhabra: Why did you write the book? To encourage others to follow on Dr. Bronner’s path?
Gero Leson: Since we started our work in 2005 I’ve found that many people in the Natural Products industry appreciated and admired what we do, once they visited projects, or saw videos. After some 12 years I thought: this story should be told not only to other brands but also to consumers—to offer a realistic and optimistic sense of what committed companies can achieve, and inspire both groups to use their job and businesses to pursue a vision. Naturally, I also wanted to tell a “light version” of my personal story – and the rather unique story of the Bronner family and brand. I knew people where curious “what’s the story behind the label?”
Chhabra: How feasible is it for other companies to build a similar supply chain?
Leson: It is rather challenging for medium size companies to build an Organic and Fair Trade agricultural supply chain if such sources do not already exist. That was the case for all our main ingredients in 2005. Times have changed and many ingredients are now available in Organic and Fair Trade quality and, increasingly, as Regenerative Organic Certified. Thus, companies today do not have to do all the heavy lifting we did. They can look for existing sources, engage, see whether this meets their needs. Larger companies have, because of their usually high volumes, very complex supply chains. Yet, they also have the resources to do something comparable to what Dr. Bronner’s did. They could thus focus on major ingredients, on particularly problematic ones such as palm oil, or cocoa, get their hands dirty and explore the obstacles and opportunities. The point is: start engaging, be realistic about your goals, stay with it in spite of the challenges and be honest about your achievements.
Chhabra: What was one challenge that you saw across all the regions you source from?
Leson: Smallholder farmers in the Global South have become our primary business partners. They do have the potential to feed much of the world, yet their yields are generally poor. Many also use agrochemicals in a way that is destructive to the soil and possibly the people around. Depending on the crop, the shift to a more resilient agro-ecological, or regenerative organic agriculture model requires financing as well as extensive training. Government extension services generally do not provide that. Thus, offering these services became one of our key challenges, but also a greatest source of enjoyment when things improved. Naturally, finding trustworthy and competent local partners was a challenge on all projects, but that is no different on any collaboration.
Chhabra: What excites the most now going forward?
Leson: At each of our own and partner projects we are now expanding the range of products to be grown, processed and sold at premium prices to brands and consumers in the Global North that want to know where their ingredients come from and how they affect “the neighborhood.” We are already far into this process, beyond the products Dr. Bronner’s requires. We produce peanuts, a range of coconut products, medicinal herbs, cocoa, and are expanding into cassava flour, turmeric, ginger and fruit purees because these crops fit into a more diverse regenerative mode of farming. This expansion not only makes the projects economically more sustainable; it further motivates the teams on the ground, allows them to develop team building skills, grow professionally and develop commercial relationships with committed brands in the North. There is no better way to create North-South links. Dr. Bronner’s is not the only brand supporting this development. We have allies in the US and the EU; the concept appeals widely and it is very exciting for our team to be an active and respected part of this movement.
Chhabra: Do you think that all businesses should have a purpose at heart, much like Dr. Bronner’s?
Leson: I think they should—beyond just making money. For most people, working with a purpose makes work more enjoyable and satisfying. I’m realistic, though. Many businesses will find it hard to have a purpose credible to their staff, but there is much room even for businesses not thought of as visionary. Be fair and supportive with your staff, be honest with your customers, support the community you work in. I suspect that if only 10% of all small to medium size businesses in the Global North were as conscious as Dr. Bronner’s in working with a purpose, a critical mass may form that offers more satisfying jobs, beneficial impacts on their supply chains, and motivate others.