Can the company that got hippies clean help clean up cannabis?
Dr. Bronner's magic soap is the lovable liquid with the loquacious label: "All-One! Unite all free!" The soap is biodegradable, organic, fair-trade — and for decades has kept clean the people at festival campsites, concerts and on lengthy tours.
Now, Dr. Bronner's is promoting marijuana that's as hippie fabulous as its soap.
It recently donated $125,000 to the new Cannabis Certification Council, which was created by merging two existing organizations called the Organic Cannabis Association and the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, nonprofits with roots in Denver and Portland that judge which weed can bear the label "Organically Grown and Fairly Produced."
To earn the organic label, pot must be grown according to strict environmental standards. It must be fairly produced, and its workers need livable wages, health insurance and not to live in squalor when they're out harvesting or trimming.
Producers that are certified will receive official seals for marketing purposes.
For most agricultural products, the government certifies them as organic. Not pot. "Because USDA Organic is a federally regulated program, cannabis cannot access the certification," says Ashley Preece, the new executive director of the organization. "Cannabis people can make claims about being organic but they can't use the word 'organic.' It is intensely frustrating for both producers and consumers. Producers who are going the extra mile have no way to communicate that to consumers."
Very occasionally state governments step forward to help. In Washington last month, the governor signed a bill allowing marijuana growers to get their products certified by the state as organic.
But, in the absence of state regulation, pot-lovers are deciding to step in and regulate themselves. Preece says the standards for "organically grown" cannabis will be more robust than the standard for USDA organic produce, which Preece criticized as watered down and political.
David Bronner is Dr. Bronner's CEO — which for him means, "Cosmic Engagement Officer" — and he's stoked about the company's new push. We talked to him on the phone while he was in a Whole Foods in Missouri, where he was buying vegan pasta for lunch. Bronner was in the process of driving his kid across the country to an organic farm in Vermont, where the kid has a summer gig. The family car is fuel-efficient. They could possibly label themselves "organically grown" and "ethical."
Dr. Bronner's has been promoting weed since before it was cool. His company broke ground in the late ‘90s by adding hemp to the soap. At the time, hemp (which doesn't get you high) was as illegal as marijuana (which does). As a protest, Bronner planted hemp seeds on the lawn of the DEA and got arrested. Later, his company sued the government for the right to use hemp in commercial products and won.
He's stoked on the company's newest "organic labeling" project. Forever a critic of the "unconscious, profit-driven energy" he sees in many fields, Bronner has been an advocate for clean marijuana since he lived in Amsterdam and thought about becoming a grower. The demand for it is clearly there.
Among the dispensaries in Oregon surveyed by researcher Elizabeth Bennett, a professor at Lewis and Clark college in Portland, 81 percent said that customers "frequently" or "occasionally" asked whether the weed was environmentally friendly, and 86 percent had eco-friendly weed on the shelf. However, the budtenders gave all kinds of reasons why their weed was eco-friendly, some of which was conflicting or half-baked, including because it was "grown locally" — when all weed sold in stores has to be grown locally by law.
Bennett has also done deep research on the labor practice of cannabis workers.
"Here in the United State agricultural workers are treated really poorly," Bennett says. And while cannabis workers aren't nearly so abused as agricultural workers, say, picking strawberries, "cannabis workers have been exploited and abused in a similar way." There's been wage theft, threats against whistleblowers, sleeping quarters with mold and mildew, trimmers who've been locked in a room without their cell phones where they're not allowed to come out until they're done trimming. …
"My wish and my hope is that people will start asking about labor and agricultural practices in the United States," Bennett says. "If people can be exploited in cannabis, it must be so much worse in other agricultural industries."
There are other labels that claim to certify cannabis as eco-friendly, but this council's label will be "the gold standard" for taking labor practices into account, says Bennett.
Consumers are looking for ethical, organic weed for some of the same reasons they choose organic, ethical food. One of the biggest concerns is pesticides. Pesticides on the leaves are combusted and inhaled; few people think that's a great idea. Even still, the state laws about pesticides are spotty.
Organic, ethical weed is likely to be more expensive than other weed, much like organic and ethical food are. But that might not be a business-killer. A report by EcoWatch drew a comparison between Shake Shack, the rapidly growing burger joint that takes an ethical approach to its meat, and McDonald's, which doesn't, and whose sales are declining. The difference in sales comes from millennials. This particular group will go out of their way to buy local pork or fair trade coffee (among other products). To note: the biggest group of organic buyers in America are 18- to 34-year-olds who are parents, found a survey by the Organic Trade Association.
The Cannabis Certification Council is hoping millennials will also turn to organic weed. It'll be promoted on websites and at symposiums.
The council's seal of approval could become a status symbol, the way a Whole Foods bag is in some corners of the country.