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A look at soap company Dr. Bronner's path to climate positivity

The company projects that it will become climate positive around 2025.

Crate of Dr. Bronner's peppermint liquid soap bottles

Combining efforts with its supply chain and emissions, the company projects that it will become climate positive around 2025. Photo by S and S Imaging on Shutterstock.

This is an excerpt from "Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner's Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain" by Gero Leson, to be published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright 2021 by Gero Leson. The above is an affiliate link and we may get a small commission if you purchase from the site.

Honor Thy Label book cover

We now all know that, for global climate’s sake, we better minimize our "personal carbon footprint" — the amount of greenhouse gases we emit to the heavens while we consume, work, drive around, or just sit at home. We can shrink our footprint by using more efficient appliances, building better insulated homes, adjusting the thermostat, driving fuel- efficient or electric cars, eating organic food and much less meat, recycling our waste, and flying less. Yet much of our footprint originates further upstream: in the production of petroleum; the production and use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer; the burning of tropical forests for cattle grazing and growing animal feed; and farming of the grain, beans, and veggies we eat directly or indirectly as feed for cows, pigs, and chickens.

Agriculture, forestry, and related land use changes, such as burning down forests, are known large contributors to GHG emissions. Yet these sectors could become net carbon sinks, or climate positive, if we allowed regenerative practices to filter back in.

Wouldn’t it be nice if providers of consumer goods and services operated in climate-positive fashion — with no release of net GHG emissions on their product? That’ll be tough for airlines to achieve within their supply chain. But how about, say, makers of natural food and personal care items that process plenty of agricultural raw materials?

There is a growing family of companies, both small and large, that recognize the power they may have to influence global climate through actions along their supply chain, agricultural or otherwise. An encouraging example is the U.S.-based Climate Collaborative, with now some 700 companies, both small and large, all committed to cutting GHG emissions, sequestering carbon, and reducing waste.

So what is Dr. Bronner’s doing to offset our own carbon footprint? How large is it anyway?

Our carbon footprint has a few distinct sources: the use of natural gas and local transportation at our Vista plant, the generation of electric power used in Vista, and from the production and processing of agricultural raw materials, chemicals, packaging, and their transport, staff travel, and outside services. Using models and emission factors, Dr. Bronner’s Operational Sustainability and Innovation (OSI) team and a few of our Special Ops team members have estimated Dr. Bronner’s total 2019 carbon footprint at about 60,000 MT of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq).

How do you offset it — bring it to zero or even below? Most companies or organizers of large public events simply purchase carbon credits: voluntary reductions in GHG emissions achieved elsewhere on the planet, usually certified by a third party, and then sold. This is perfectly fine for companies without opportunities to sequester carbon in their supply chains, such as the mentioned airlines.

Wouldn’t it be nice if providers of consumer goods and services operated in climate-positive fashion — with no release of net GHG emissions on their product?

Yet, as we became devotees of regenerative organic agriculture, Dr. Bronner’s saw a great opportunity to become climate positive through action in our own supply chain. Notably, it involved shifting from chemical fertilizers in India to practices that provide nutrients and build soil organic matter and sequester atmospheric carbon in soil — cover cropping, minimal tillage, adding compost, and mulching agricultural waste — and by replanting trees. The latter includes the more than 200,000 palms we’ve planted at Serendipol and Serendipalm since 2007 and the replanting of trees in our programs in Ghana and Samoa, with pruning programs that add biomass to the soil.

On the emissions side, the purchase of electricity from renewable sources, innovation in packaging, the installation of a solar thermal system in Vista to produce process heat, and use of more fuel-efficient transportation will shrink our footprint in the coming years, despite continued growth.

Combining both sides of the balance, we project that Dr. Bronner’s will become climate positive around 2025, give or take a few years. (Note that GHG emissions and sequestration figures are based on models. One cannot measure them at reasonable effort — they represent science-based estimates of SOM accumulation, supported by periodic soil testing to confirm the projected gradual SOM increase over time. GHG emissions and sequestration aren’t like money. Their metrics aren’t suited for scientific experiments. But they show you the way, if you’re willing to watch.)

The point we want to make is that by using more renewable energy and implementing regenerative agriculture practices in our supply chain, a medium-size manufacturing company using mostly agricultural raw materials can wipe out its entire carbon footprint through such "insets" — GHG reductions within our supply chain — as opposed to the mentioned "offsets" — reductions achieved elsewhere and purchased to compensate your carbon footprint. Afterward we may even sequester net carbon! If that doesn’t create a ray of hope, what does?

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