David Bronner could always tell you the origin of his family company's very well-known line of soaps: a factory in Vista, California. He could also say how Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps were produced, and under what conditions—by workers who earned no less than one-fifth his salary as CEO.
But the ingredients to make the soap—the palm oil, the coconut oil, the hemp oil, everything else in a typical bottle of the eccentrically labeled stuff found in the bathtubs of the eco-conscious? All that stuff came from a broker. As for where the broker got it, David Bronner couldn't tell you exactly, but he does know how brokers operate—pitting farmers against each other, promoting destructive farming and exploitation of labor. And so he was conscious that at least some of the origins of his end product couldn't be good.
For these reasons—and for a modicum of guarantee that a bottle of Dr. Bronner's didn't come packaged with environmental and human abuses—David Bronner became part owner of a coconut mill in Sri Lanka, the only way he could forge a direct relationship with his farmer-suppliers and thus guarantee that the soap'S ingredients were made with an ethos similar to the soaps themselves, all the way down the lengthy supply chain.
"There's 10 times the people and impact in our supply chains" than at the manufacturing and consumer segments, he explained to 7x7 in a recent telephone interview. "How those farmers are being treated, how the farming impacts the land matters way more than what we're doing at the head of the operation," he added. "So we knew we wanted to go direct."
Turns out the plight of a coconut or palm oil farmer in Sri Lanka isn't so different from a cannabis farmer in Mendocino County, California who's tilling the soil in the era of commercialized cannabis. Which means the cannabis marketplace is full of environmental and worker exploitation too—and thus there is space for a clear alternative for the conscious consumer.
Either directly or through the company, Bronner spent upwards of $5 million over the past two decades to end drug prohibition, making him kind of a big deal in that world. He's on the board of MAPS, which has been pushing to legalizing therapeutic psychedelics; and he was briefly jailed after a hemp-plant protest in front of the White House in 2012.
And so when California was rolling towards legalizing cannabis in 2016, he saw the big corporate pitch decks. Thus he knew that the cannabis industry—and cannabis farmers—were headed towards a California version of the coconut oil farmers' exploitation, and badly in need of a "consumer-facing standard" that meant good farming practices, well-compensated producers, and otherwise responsibly produced cannabis. A Dr. Bronner's of weed, if you will.
"We could see, 'Okay, now we're legalizing, we're going to have the same problems every industrial crop has,'" he said.
"Corporations are moving in, and they're not interested in partnering with the farmers," he added. "They're just working to produce medicine in as much volume with as much THC as possible."
"There is something really special going on up in the Emerald Triangle that's being lost," he said. "And it's a catastrophe."
"It's the same" as with the coconut oil broker-pirates, he concluded. "It's displacing the small farmer and ruining the ecosystem."
About the closest analog in cannabis to David Bronner's Sri Lankan coconut mill would be a sort of production and distribution hub in the Emerald Triangle. Such a thing exists in Redwood Valley, where Bay Area–based craft-cannabis brand and distributor Flow Kana has converted the former Fetzer family winery into a one-stop processing, manufacturing, and distribution center for small cannabis farmers. Dr. Bronner's coconut mill "pretty much does exactly what Flow Kana does with cannabis," Bronner said.
And so a conversation with Flow Kana led to a visit to the Emerald Cup, where Bronner met the principals and met some of the company's existing farmer-partners—and learned that, indeed, they all shared the same worldview and the same values.
Convinced he was working with "the real deal," that led to the launch this month of Brother David's, Bronner's nonprofit and ecologically responsible cannabis brand of sun-grown from around 14 partner farmers, many of those same small farmers he met through Flow kana—all Sun + Earth certified organic, responsible, and sustainably.
The goal here is to create market demand for the kind of cannabis that—some day—will carry a USDA-certified organic label and compete for shelf space with coffee beans, kale, and chocolate grown by co-ops stewarding the land and paid a fair wage.
"Point of sale is the most effective vehicle for communication," Bronner said. If a customer asks about responsible weed, the budtender can point to the Sun + Earth label and say that the cannabis is pesticide-free (California regulations allow some pesticides on commercial cannabis), and can say that the farmer is using responsible practices and is paid a guaranteed wage for the crop that won't go below an agreed-upon floor even during bust cycles when the market is flooded.
What a consumer will pay for this—and how much more they'll pay for Sun + Earth-certified cannabis from the Dr. Bronner's guy, when a big brand with funding from a tobacco giant has more shelf space and a slicker marketing pitch at half the price or less—is a question the marketplace has yet to answer, but judging on the success Bronner has had with woke soap, it is a bet he is willing to make.
"The organic movement and ethos, that's going to translate in a similar way to cannabis," Bronner predicted. "It's not going to be a majority of the market, but a significant minority that's growing."
There's been a steady trend towards "more consciousness and awareness with how what we purchase impacts the earth," he added. "There's been just an explosion of demand for product with a certified high bar for environmental and social standards."
Bronner says any profits from Brother David's will be reinvested into the Sun + Earth certification or towards future legalization efforts. Whomever is running against Donald Trump next year will share space on the ballot with a host of legalization initiatives across the country, he said.
"In 2020, we expect to win in deep-red states focused on libertarian arguments," he sad. After the victories "state by state, on a federal level, it'll end by 2021," he added. "That's when we end this nonsense once and for all. Knock on wood."