“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.” – Lily Tomlin
Though Lisa Bronner nowadays makes regular appearances on panels and podcasts to discuss issues ranging from ingredient disclosure to deforestation, she didn’t start out being so outspoken. Her grandfather, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, is well-known for standing on his soapbox and telling anyone who would listen about his plan to “Unite Spaceship Earth!” Her oldest brother David has been a long-time activist too—on issues from criminal justice reform to animal advocacy. But Lisa had to find her own place in this family tradition. Her activism grew organically out of her abiding passion for the home, and for connecting directly with people.
Growing up, Lisa did not fully appreciate her grandfather’s “All-One” message, or the soap that accompanied it. “I didn’t understand my grandfather’s philosophy,” explains Lisa, “he seemed abrasive and dogmatic, unwilling to talk about anything else.” For Lisa, the Moral ABC and the soap were inextricable from her grandfather as a person—and by all accounts, he could be a very intense person.
But her admiration for what her grandfather had built started to grow once her older brothers took over the helm of the company in the late ‘90s, when they asked her to help with answering customer emails. “Having to answer all of those emails really forced me to learn a ton more about product usage, about chemistry, about ingredient sourcing,” says Lisa, “and sometimes about the label too.” Through this intensive deep dive into customer service, Lisa began to see what made her grandfather’s soap unique and valuable.
Becoming a Spokesperson
It would take a few more years for Lisa to connect with her activist side. As she describes in her new book Soap & Soul, it wasn’t until 2012 that she was able to overcome her fear and find her public voice. At the time, the company was embroiled in a fight to label genetically modified foods (GMOs). David Bronner understood that the main point of GMOs was for the Monsantos and Dow Chemicals of the world to sell more toxic herbicide, and that consumers deserved to know if the foods they were buying were part of this “chemical treadmill.” When David asked Lisa to speak out for GMO labeling on a local news program in San Diego she reluctantly agreed.
What helped her overcome her self-doubt about going on air was the realization that whoever might be arguing the other side had a shared humanity. “It was a big step forward for me personally to realize that if somebody disagrees with me, it’s OK,” says Lisa, adding: “It doesn’t mean they don’t like me or wish me ill—they just disagree with me.” This understanding helped take the sting out of the adversarial nature of policy debates, and Lisa’s career as an advocate for a range of issues was off and running.
Focusing on Home
Though the issues that Lisa works on may seem all over the map, they are all connected together by the idea of home. “I see my realm as being more in the home,” explains Lisa, “I work from my home and I feel very passionate about home as a concept, regardless of what home may look like for you individually.”
Lisa has written and spoken out about ingredient disclosure laws, consumer safety laws, and how to avoid greenwashing tactics—all issues that affect the home and have a personal dimension. “I think if we don’t take issues into the personal, then they’re too easy to turn off,” says Lisa. She continues, “if it’s not something that we take into our homes and our lives and our daily decisions, then it’s not going to have longevity.”
Another thread tying together the issues she works on is the idea of “living lightly.” Living lightly for Lisa means finding ways to reduce the negative impact that we have on the environment around us. This can mean making sure that we’re not using single-use items, and it means using fewer resources across the board, including less water, less packaging, less fuel and electricity. In short, it means finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint and our waste footprint, making sure that we are using the Earth’s finite resources mindfully.
“Living lightly is so relevant in so many realms,” explains Lisa, “it benefits our health, it benefits the environment—it’s probably good for our budget.”
Change Happens One Person at a Time
Lisa’s approach to making change is rooted in her time as a high school teacher, as well as her experience responding to customer emails and questions. Lisa taught for several years before joining the family enterprise, and her favorite part of teaching was engaging with students directly in the classroom, getting to know them as individuals. This carried over into her work as a blogger and consumer educator. “Even though I write articles that are read by many, I always see myself as talking to one person at a time,” explains Lisa, adding that her favorite thing is getting to know someone one-on-one and diving deep into a topic with them.
Lisa views everyone as a potential activist. “I think I’ve realized that we all have the ability wherever we are to use whatever resources we have to get behind causes that need our attention,” says Lisa. And the causes that most need our attention are the ones where people have been denied a voice or whose voice needs amplification. Lisa is that amplifier at times— using her social, blog, and public speaking platforms to shine a light on causes that are too often overlooked and dismissed.