During last week's off-off-year elections, a handful of races resulted in new leadership at the state and local levels, and a number of significant ballot initiatives were up for public vote, including #522 in Washington state, which would have required labelling of GMO (genetically modified organisms) for food products in the state. While enjoying early popular support—some polls counted about 2/3 of the public as being in support of the labelling—it was ultimately defeated. Likely that was due to some serious spending by out-of-state interests to the tune of $22 million: Top contributors, according to USA Today, were the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience. Ads, mailers and other media were created and distributed with that money. 

Meanwhile, a total of less than $7 million was put together by groups advocating for the labelling. The biggest contributor? Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which joined the Center for Food Safety, a handful of natural foods companies and individual donors (who made up about 30% of the funding). Bronner's gave $1.8 million, but the big question is, why would a soap company contribute money to an initiative that regulates food? 

The answer lies in the company's history. Its founder, Emanuel Bronner, from a soap-making family, left Germany prior to the holocaust and founded the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps in 1948—the soaps wrappers now are almost exactly the same as the original ones designed by him, which include the "Moral A-B-C's" and include a call to Universal love and peace—most certainly a reaction to the violence he saw visited upon his family and other Jewish people during WW2. After building a successful following based on the purity and many uses for the soap, the was pretty much run into the ground by Emanuel's son, and things looked bleak for them in the early 90s. 

David Bronner, the grandson of the unconventional Emanuel, is the company's current CEO, and from the time he took the company over 15 years ago at just 25 years old, he has put the lofty idea of running the company "on activist terms" in front of profit, yet he's still making plenty of that. Capping executive pay at 5X what the lowest-paid employee makes, and spending very little on marketing (a few magazine ads and a consistent presence as Burning Man pretty much sums it up), Bronner has extra money left over to spend on improving products and for what he sees as politically important goals, including supporting hemp farming, fighting income inequality, and codifying fair trade and organic standards (the company was the first to get receive organic certification in 2003).

Interestingly, David Bronner doesn't fundamentally reject GMOs—having graduated from Harvard with a degree in biology, he gets how genetic engineering works. "I have no in-principle objection to genetic engineering or synthetic biology," he told Mother Jones, but he does see modifying foods as a slippery slope to further chemical (pesticide and herbicide) dependency, as resistant pests and weeds proliferate. "Far from freeing us from the chemical treadmill," Bronner says, "GMOs are doubling down on it." And it's not just money that David Bronner has invested in fighting GMOs and harmful agricultural practices: When the company wanted organic and fair trade palm, coconut and olive oils and wasn't happy with current suppliers, they created their own in Africa and Sri Lanka—which ended up being a profitable scheme.

It's the fundamental issues with GMOs that Bronner is fighting, and though this most recent battle was lost, a similar labelling initiative is sure to come up in another state soon (Connecticut and Maine have both passed laws supporting labelling, but they are won't go into effect until a neighboring state does the same); Oregon is expected to bring it to ballot again in 2014. It won't be any kind of surprise if Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps is a major supporter of the bill, and when GMO labelling happens, as it inevitably will, the company will move on to the next bit of important work it sets its mind to. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Dr. Bronner's soaps takes on GMOs—and loses, this time
Why is a soap company so heavily involved in a food labeling initiative? Knowing a bit about the activist history of the brand explains why.