Dr. Bronner’s has created or partnered with fair trade and organic projects all over the world: 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. An estimated 10,000 people around the world benefit directly from our fair trade projects, and we are supporting the development of domestic fair trade programs here in North America as well.
Serendipol – the world’s foremost source of fair trade organic coconut oil
Serendipol’s Organic and Fair Trade Coconut Oil Project was inspired by Dr. Bronner’s involvement in helping to rebuild cottage industries in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami of 2004. Serendipol started in 2007 with an overgrown, abandoned coconut mill, two shipping containers as office space and the determination of our Sri Lankan partners and a few experienced and highly motivated friends. In those early years, many—including would-be farmers and employees—considered the project to be somewhat of a “fly-by-night operation.”
Eleven years later, Serendipol works with more than 1,200 farmers farming 20,000 acres, employs 250 workers and professional staff and processes up to 30 million coconuts a year. Workers in Serendipol’s plant enjoy working conditions and compensation uncommon in the industry, with opportunities for personal and professional development, and a respectful, participatory management style that increasingly attracts professionals in accounting, engineering, agricultural services, and administration who want to contribute to responsible rural development in the Kuliyapitiya area.
Serendipol’s factory also showcases the potential of a great renewable resource, the coconut palm. All byproducts have value-added uses: the coconut husks are sold and then processed into fiber for rope, doormats, and erosion control; the shells are burned for energy in our boiler or sold to produce charcoal and activated carbon; the seed cake is sold for animal feed and food; some of the coconut water is sold to a local exporter; and the balance is treated biologically and used for irrigation in the company’s garden. Other than common packaging waste, the factory leaves no waste behind. From its inception, Serendipol represented the idea that organic agriculture is about more than just “not using agrochemicals”. Farmers were supported in improving soil fertility by applying compost, returning leaves and branches as mulch, intercropping with other tree species and incorporating dairy cows on their farms.
The fair trade premium paid by Dr. Bronner’s and other customers has funded now close to 1,000 fair trade projects small and large, selected by a fair trade committee including farmers, workers and management. Projects include the initial subsidy of compost production, supplying critical medical equipment for rural clinics, school renovation and vocational training for disadvantaged adolescents, grants to workers for improvements to their homes, restoration of water reservoirs overgrown by invasive plants (plant waste used in compost), and vital infrastructure like bridges, road and electricity to connect rural villages. Support to numerous local community groups is another focus of Serendipol’s fair trade work. To date, Serendipol has spent around 1.8 million dollars on fair trade projects. The company’s pragmatic, comprehensive and effective fair trade program is exemplary in demonstrating the potential of the fair trade premium—if managed with vision and care.
SerendiCoco Samoa – a joint venture to revive the Samoan coconut industry
By the 1990s the once thriving coconut industry in Western Samoa had lost its competitiveness. Today, much of the domestic coconut crop simply goes uncollected. Under the name of SerendiCoco Samoa we formed, in 2016, a joint venture with an experienced Samoan producer of conventional coconut copra oil (copra refers to coconuts that have been broken up and dried in the field, using traditional kilns). The joint venture supports farmers in their conversion to organic practices and the first 1,000 small farmers achieved organic status in 2017. Since SerendiCoco Samoa has raised the price paid for organic copra, interest among farmers and dryers of copra is high and copra supplies took off swiftly. Following installation of a small physical refinery, SerendiCoco Samoa now produces and ships fair trade and organic coconut copra oil. Considering Samoa’s small population of about 150,000 and its dependence on remittances from relatives living abroad, the project has the potential to shift much of the domestic coconut production to fair trade & organic principles—and to have a significant beneficial impact on the country’s economy.
A key challenge is the old age and decreasing productivity of Samoa’s coconut stock. Since 2016, SerendiCoco Samoa has been working with government agencies, international donors and agroforestry experts to design a replanting scheme based on the concept of “dynamic agroforestry”—mixed groves of coconuts, cocoa, fruit and timber trees. This increases productivity and biodiversity of the land, improves soil resilience to drought and erosion, improves food security and helps rebuild two former major export industries: coconut oil and cocoa. It also helps sequester atmospheric carbon and improve soil organic matter at high rates. This ambitious program may eventually cover and “regenerate” much of the country’s land suitable for coconut farming. Some of it will include pure coconut stands where cattle graze. Finally, projects funded through the fair trade premium will address educational and health care issues in the often remote villages, with a focus on youth employment.
Serendipalm – sustainable palm oil from smallholder farms in Ghana
Palm oil is a primary ingredient in Dr. Bronner’s bar soaps. It gives our bars their hardness, and balances the lathering power of coconut oil while keeping the soap from softening and dissolving too quickly. With rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia causing large-scale environmental degradation and social deprivation, it was imperative that we find a source for palm oil that did not cause new deforestation, endanger crucial habitats or impoverish communities.
We began our search for a sustainable and socially responsible source of palm oil in 2006. With support from the NGO Fearless Planet, we found partners in Ghana’s rural Eastern Region near Asuom. Serendipalm, our Ghanaian sister company, built a small-scale palm oil mill using traditional processes, but with better facilities and more efficient, safer equipment. We then began recruiting local smallholder farmers for conversion to organic practices.
Since the mill began production in 2008, Serendipalm has become the world’s most respected fair trade and organic palm oil project. It works exclusively with smallholder farmers and is the largest local employer in an area that has traditionally provided few reliable jobs. The 200+ workers in Serendipalm’s oil mill, primarily local unskilled women, enjoy working conditions and compensation unheard of in other small palm oil mills. Serendipalm also has attracted some 20 professional staff to Asuom—agricultural engineers, scientists, accounting and administration professionals who appreciate the company’s participatory style of management and its beneficial social impact. They have chosen to live in the countryside, where they can earn a living while making a difference—and many of them have put down roots in the area, starting families and raising children.
Serendipalm buys palm fruits from over 635 family farms with oil palm plots averaging seven acres in size. Farmers are paid fair prices plus an organic premium for their palm fruits, provided with biomass for mulching, training on organic agriculture to improve soil fertility and profitability, and offered interest-free loans for more productive oil palm seedlings. Many of Serendipalm’s oil palm growers also farm cocoa, and had a desire to move away from the extensive use of pesticides which is common in Ghanaian cocoa production—so we began converting them to organic practices and in 2018 will sell our first organic and fair trade cocoa.
In late 2016 we also began implementing dynamic agroforestry concepts, which consist of planned mixed stands of multi-strata tree plantings. Dynamic Agroforestry offers farmers a much higher yield and revenue per acre, higher biodiversity and thus lower pest pressure, as well as the potential for sequestering high amounts of atmospheric CO2. The concepts are being implemented initially on our own two small farming plots, and will be expanded to Serendipalm farmers and across Ghana in the coming years.
The fair trade premiums paid by Dr. Bronner’s and other customers have been used for a range of community development projects: water systems, public toilet facilities, a maternity ward and nurses’ quarters, a pedestrian bridge, lighting, school supplies, mosquito nets to protect against malaria, and “green islands”— the planting of trees in the villages that surround Serendipalm. Since our staff now have about 100 children and grandchildren, we are building a Montessori preschool which will be part of the campus of the “Regenerative Learning Center of Ghana,” an NGO founded by Serendipalm and Dr. Bronner’s and aimed at helping people, land and their communities redevelop.
Serendipalm now supplies fair trade and organic palm oil to Dr. Bronner’s, as well as several European fair trade companies, such as GEPA and Rapunzel. With growing demand for our palm oil, cocoa, and dynamic agroforestry practices we are expanding operations—to the benefit of farmers, workers, and the local community.
Olive Oil from the Holy Land
In honor of our Jewish ancestry and our commitment to promoting peaceful coexistence, our olive oil comes from the Holy Land, supplied by farmers in both Palestine and Israel. Organic olive oil is what provides the velvety smoothness in Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps.
In late 2006, we began sourcing 90% of our olive oil from Canaan, a company founded by Palestinians near the West Bank town of Jenin. Their objective was to improve the economic situation of olive farmers in the West Bank through fair trade with customers in the West, while promoting peaceful coexistence with Israel. Canaan works closely with the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA) and now purchases oil from 1,700 smallholder members. Dr. Bronner’s helped Canaan plan for and fund the project’s organic and fair trade certification to the Fair for Life Programme. This boosted the project’s visibility and provided access to high-end markets in Europe and the U.S.
In the past, the export of Palestine’s high-quality olive oil had been virtually impossible due to their landlocked situation and competition with subsidized and freely-traded oil from Mediterranean countries. But now, PFTA growers are guaranteed a minimum price to cover costs of production, and receive a combined organic and fair trade premium of 25%. Canaan donates additional funds for education, tree planting, and logistics projects.
Since 2009, the trading relationship with Dr. Bronner’s and other buyers has helped Canaan expand and become a symbol of hope for sustainable and fair economic development for olive farmers and their communities. The company also produces and exports other traditional Palestinian foods, such as couscous and dried tomatoes, all of which allow Palestinian growers to trade directly with expanding, high-value markets for organic and fair trade materials while redeveloping their traditional livelihoods.
Since 2014, Canaan has significantly expanded the range of organic and regenerative practices used by its farmers. It cooperates with the Canaan Center for Research and Extension (CORE) in the development of non-toxic pest control techniques for almonds, the intercropping of olive trees with bushes, trees and legume field crops. It also supports those traditional farmers whose practices in intercropping and cover cropping are naturally regenerative, and who serve as model farmers. The model farmer program includes practices of conservation tillage and the integration of sheep and goats into the field. Also, through CORE, Canaan is studying the local ecosystem and farmer practices, to learn how they allow olive trees that are over 2,000 years old to continue being productive.
The balance of our olive oil (10%) comes from Israel. Sindyanna, a fair trade business run by Jewish and Arab women in Israel, supports Arab-Israeli farmers and workers. In light of the vision of peace that the olive branch symbolizes, we are also sourcing olive oil from the Jewish-Israeli Strauss family farm in Israel, a pioneer in organic olive oil production.
Watch “Organic and Fair Trade Olive Oil from the Holy Land” video.
Pavitramenthe: putting regenerative farming into practice
Mint oils are our most used essential oils—their cooling properties are what make our peppermint soaps and All-One Toothpastes so refreshing, and they give our peppermint soap its famous tingle!
Dr. Bronner’s uses a blend of oils from two mint species, peppermint (mentha piperita) and corn mint (mentha arvensis). Since 2004, both species were grown for us at smallholder projects in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, some 250 miles east of Delhi. The original project was operated by our partner company Earthoil in the UK, followed in 2013 by our sister company Serendimenthe. When we became aware of financial irregularities in 2015, however, we decided to close the company and to offer four of our staff—gifted, motivated and reliable agricultural engineers—an opportunity to build their own company.
The project now involves over 1,200 smallholder farmers who have been converting their farms to organic practices and certification. Their small fields, typically less than 2 acres, are farmed in rotation, using 2 or 3 different crops every year. Through decades of intensive cultivation, including use of chemical fertilizers and frequent plowing, the silty/loamy soil has been depleted and contains little organic matter (humus). In order to help farmers rebuild their soils and make the latter more productive and resilient, Dr. Bronner’s initiated a comprehensive “soil regeneration” project in 2017. With financial support from the German aid agency GIZ, we purchased a compost turner that will eventually produce some 10,000 metric tons of compost from a range of agricultural waste products. Compost will be sold to farmers at a subsidy, supported by the sale of carbon credits. Farmers will also be supported through training, hardware and seed supplies, with the shift to conservation tillage, and the planting of cover crops and nitrogen fixing leguminous rotations crops, such as beans and lentils, for sale in the EU. A large-scale planting program for fruit trees, shade trees and other beneficial trees, such as neem, a source of natural pesticide, is also underway.
Since its formation in 2015, the project has also made great strides in community development. In addition to agricultural projects, such as vermicompost pits, Pavitramenthe has facilitated and funded medical camps, the construction of home toilets and the distribution of water coolers for drinking water. These projects were paid for by the fair trade premium received from Dr. Bronner’s, the project’s primary buyer of organic mint oil. Another project targets development of skills and income opportunities for women. Many women in Bareilly and its surrounding communities make sarees for the domestic and international marketplace. The project has been working with women artisans to improve their working conditions through better tools and lighting. This kind of skills development, along with an extensive capacity-building program for farmers to teach regenerative organic techniques, is a key element in the overall regenerative program funded by GIZ.
Natural Habitats: sustainable palm kernel oil from Ecuador
We use organic palm kernel oil in our liquid and organic pump soaps to produce a rich and copious lather. Palm kernel oil is pressed from the seed of the palm fruit, and like palm oil, is too often grown without care for the land or respect for local communities. That’s why we’ve partnered with Natural Habitats to obtain fair trade and organic palm kernel oil from Ecuador, where family farmers grow oil palms sustainably, and receive a fair price for their palm fruits. Natural Habitats is committed to environmental practices that sustain the land and its people, and to a participative production model that ensures economic and social benefits for farmers and workers.
Native Green Cane: A regenerative way to grow sugar cane!
Organic fair trade sugar gives our organic pump soaps a rich caramel color and sweet scent, and keeps skin nourished, hydrated, and smooth. We source our sugar from the Native Green Cane Project in Brazil, one of the largest sustainable agricultural projects in the world.
In adherence with strict organic standards, the sugar cane fields are green cut and are not burned or treated with herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Native provides safe work conditions and healthcare assistance to its employees, while paying growers a fair price for their crops.