Soap & Glory

‘True soap’ pioneers Hanna and Johan Olzon Åkerström chat to Jane Anderson about their 10-year journey from kitchen table to flourishing sustainable business.

Right from the very beginning Soeder founders, Switzerland-based Swedish husband and wife team Hanna and Johan, had a goal to keep their business as transparent and sustainable as their beautifully clear liquid soap.

When looking to launch their own business 10 years ago, they wanted to create a product for everyday use. They analysed 240 items from furniture and t-shirts to lamps and shoes. Their main company goal was to keep the whole chain of production in their hands and produce something with a high sustainability factor.

We have a value sense which always comes before business.

Hanna & Johan

“We wanted a commodity for daily use and so we decided to create soap,” said Hanna. “There were a lot of people around us roasting coffee and baking bread,” added Johan. “What we were interested in creating was true soap – a more or less extinct product. It was a little bit like a bringing back a dinosaur.”

True soaps are made from natural plant oils like coconut, almond, rizunus and olives, which are combined with an alkaki (lye) and in Soeder’s case, glycerin, which increases the conditioning effect whilst retaining the antibacterial function of the soap itself. Hanna and Johan regard most modern soaps as detergents made from man-made derivatives, often produced with mineral oils and other fringe raw materials, causing more harm to the skin than good.

“We have a lot of customers who buy our soap because of the benefits to the skin,” explains Johan. “We are not a floor! We are not dishes! We have a very sensitive body. When we clean ourselves, it’s an opportunity to condition our skin with the right oils. We add products from nature such as honey which has been used for thousands of years on the skin. We also use wheat, which is very healing and a bit of sea salt along with almond oil which is very conditioning and hemp oil and jojoba oil which is also an amazing conditioner, and of course olive oil which has great viscosity.”

Hanna and Johan launched Soeder in 2013 creating their first liquid soap two years later from a few small tanks in an old garage in Zurich in the borough of Kreis 6. When demand increased over the next three years, they left the city centre and moved to the nearby town of Schwerzenbach creating a factory in a condemned building. They started on the ground floor and as businesses moved out, gradually took over five floors as the business grew. Another big move is now afoot as they head back to Zurich to one expansive space.

“Our new factory will be in a beautiful old yellow brick building called SBB Werkstadt, right by the train tracks in Zurich,” says Hanna. “It’s where the SBB Swiss Federal Railways used to take care of trains and storage. This area is historically protected and earmarked for mixed business use, but specifically for producers.”

Soeder will sit alongside a coffee roaster manufacturer (Zuriga), a coffee roaster (ViCafé), a beer brewery, a chocolate company and a bike courier. They will have an area that’s open for the public to see how true soap is produced as well as a store to make purchases.

“It’s going to be more like a visitor concept,” explains Johan, “where people can see the process. Where you can read ‘organic coconuts’ on the crate. Where you can see someone pouring it in the tank and you have the final confirmation that it’s happening for real. People will be able to see we’re not a company that just wants to put a nice label on a product and sell it.”

Growing the business

A priority for Johan and Hanna was to understand the process from start to finish so that they could fix anything themselves – even their machinery. “This was extremely painful in the early stages, but now we’re mastering it, and it’s a great benefit,” said Hanna. “We’re not dependent on other people’s knowledge and that makes us faster and more flexible.”

In their first year of producing soap, Swiss International Air Lines came to Hanna and Johan as the only small producer of natural soap they could find, and asked if they could reformulate onboard products to be natural. They were given just six months to go from producing 200 products a day to one million a year.

“Swiss International Air Lines wanted these little tubes with face cream in for onboard but we didn’t have a tube filling machine!” recalls Johan. “We had to find a machine second-hand as we couldn’t afford to buy a new one, and when we did find one, we discovered the computer in the machine was dead. The company almost went bankrupt. We as Swedes in Switzerland are very direct and open. This helped us deal with these big companies because in the end they are also people and we got enormously good feedback. We have a very strong relationship with the airline today. We didn’t look at them as this big god-like company. We were open with them about our challenges. And how we could fix them. And they put a lot of faith in us.”

Hanna adds, “To a certain extend our company has been based on naivety, but we are always driven by what’s the next logical and best step for us. Sometimes we discuss it with friends over dinner and say hey we know this bar and these cool people. Now it’s turning into a more professional way of working, more based on research, data and what our sales team find, but it’s still based on our values. And building our story.”

Creative collaborations and future goals

The Soeder team have collaborated with some big and small names including the mighty Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. “We worked very conceptually,” said Johan, “and lifted the flora of Central Park which has a crazy amount of plants growing there to create a scent– a romanticization of Central Park if you like.

“We also did a fun local collaboration with Club Zukunft here in Zurich, and created ‘The Soap of Good Music’. It was originally called Gin and smelled like gin and tonic. Our new cocktail soap is Negroni, based on the bittersweet aperitif. Packed with essential oils of wormwood, orange, bergamot and vetiver it smells fresh yet sensual and has now become a standard formula.”

Ever innovating, the couple are also looking at upcycling using side streams from the perfume and juicing industries. “The whole juicing industry is throwing away their side streams,” said Johan, "We would love to work directly with farmers using the waste from blueberry production for example–which has an active anti-aging quality (I don't like the term anti-aging). We are also working on fermenting orange peels before they go mouldy and testing whether we can use it.”

“Oils also have waste product. It’s important for us to play around with the process–both the scientific part and then the mechanical part. We set up a small research project, test it again and again, and see if it works before we scale it up. We’re always experimenting. We would also love to grow our own produce to put in our soaps. That would be really cool!”

Hanna and Johan are opening their own Soeder stores with refill stations at train stations–where customers are passing by. They also have a lot of retailers that offer products and refill services. “We don’t want it to be a hassle. And we have so many good concept stores in Switzerland that can sell our products, this makes more sense than opening new stores, and of course it’s so much better for the environment.”

“We’re going to be 10 years old this December, and we’re optimistic as we can see the difference in attitude in this time. In the first year we had to explain to all the customers why we were doing sustainable soap. Now people understand and are willing to spend a bit more money to be sustainable. It’s a good, clear step in the right direction.”

The history of soap

2800 BC Earliest known evidence of possible soap-making in Babylon

1500 BC Egyptians made soap-like material from oils and salts

600 Soap-making became an established craft

1100 Italy, Spain, and France became centres of soap-making

1900 German scientists invented non-soap products called detergents

1970 Introduction of liquid hand soaps and fabric softeners

2013 Soeder is founded

2015 First Soeder Liquid Soap

2023 Soeder move to Werkstadt Zurich, a new creative hub

Hanna & Johan’s top business tips

We started collecting people around us that we wanted to work with and we integrated them into the company. It’s not all based on money. We employ around 60 people now.

Johan

We have learned a lot about our customers. We take the time to discuss the product and what’s working or not working. We have control so we can change our product based on customer feedback. This has been a strong point for us.

Hanna

You can’t copy. You must innovate. If you make a great product and it’s different to what’s in the marketplace, you will sell one product and your customer will sell the next one for you.

Johan

Look out for Soeder products in all 25hours Hotel rooms. Most hotels will also sell products in the lobby with refill stations too.

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