Local Highlight: Just Soap

Sometimes something simple can make the largest impact. Just Soap strives to make a big difference through low impact practices, intentional efficiencies, and high quality products. Frederick Breeden started Just Soap as a simple craft project and it has since blossomed into a thriving household staple, both in the valley and far beyond.

In the mid 90’s, in his kitchen in Florence, Fred set out to make soap for friends and family. He’d already woven baskets for gifts, but wanted to fill them with handmade goodness. Unbeknownst to him, this would culminate into a life changing passion and the creation of his future business. After dipping his toes in, he dove head first into study and experimentation, for over a year he refined his process. Demand grew, and for a time he produced soap out of his converted garage. Now situated in Ashfield, in a shop built specifically for the cause, he produces over 50,000 bars annually.

These handcrafted aromatic soaps are sold at Co-ops, like the Old Creamery, across the valley. They are recognisable instantly, for both their simple beauty but also the lack of plastic packaging, often being sold with bars open to the air. Their natural scents are a part of their allure, and as time would show they proved irresistible across the country. Just Soap has spread nationally: up through Maine, out to Martha’s Vineyard, down to Maryland, past Wyoming, even as far afield as Alaska. All told he has his soap in a total of about 70-80 stores.

With a steady growth of around 5% each year, Fred has been able to keep the business running by himself. He’s the one in the shop 40 hours a week, and that’s kinda how he likes it. One of the joys he finds in the process is the variety of tasks in his work day. It’s a one man show from lifting, to biking, to cutting and shipping, and of course cleaning the shop up after. These are all places for his intentional efficiencies to shine, the greatest of these currently being the pedal powered soap mixer he had custom built.

By 1998, after honing in on the business, and after hours of hand mixing each batch it became clear that one of the things holding him back was how much energy went into producing every bar. A day of making soap would take over 12 hours, with the mixing getting progressively more difficult as the soap begins to thicken up. Realizing there could be a mechanical solution, he turned towards another lifelong passion of his: biking. At the time he was biking a good distance to work his day job, and had preferred that method of travel for years (in all seasons!). Fred knew the power in his legs far outweighed hand mixing, and so working with a custom bike engineer they devised a simple machine to turn biking into soap making, a union of Fred’s passions. That machine is still working perfectly today, a testimony to quality engineering.

Making soap is a transformative process: the saponification of natural oils, though the addition of lye and thorough mixing, changes the nature of the raw materials and turns them into something greater than the sum of its parts. Soap is the lathering and sudsy innovation which paved the way for modern medicine, through the use of chemical reactions humans have harnessed this tool for well over 4,000 years, but it wasn’t until the 1800’s that making lye (Sodium Hydroxide) was honed into a reliable process.

After mixing the soap, it is poured into wooden frame molds where the chemical process continues. The resulting 40 lb blocks of raw soap can easily produce heat over 120 degrees and need to be kept in special insulated housing to encourage their development. Once this process is complete, the soap needs to be cut. Another wooden frame allows easy slicing, and a special ventilated chamber allows the bars to release the rest of their moisture over a two month curing process. The whole shop is filled with delightful, albeit strong, scent of the processing soaps.

When it comes to ingredients and the impact his work has on our environment, Fred comes from a family tradition of valuing people and the planet. His father worked hard during the civil rights movement in Boston, and Fred would never have guessed he’d end up running a business instead of carrying that torch.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t inform his choices. He uses sustainable palm oils, his soap comes with little to no packaging and where it is necessary he uses recycled materials. Fred has gone as far as to rely on his own solar array, this helps defray the impact of the energy he needs to control the climate in the shop during humid summer months. The whole project is predicated on a concept of social justice, a business practice that fits in line with our Co-op’s values.

Recently Fred needed knee surgery, given his process this was no small speed bump. Luckily he was able to increase his production beforehand to have upwards of 20,000 bars on hand during his recovery. He’s no longer limping around the shop, and the healing has gone well. He’s looking forward to biking some of his favorite trails, such as Hawley State Forest.

If you’re looking to find Fred’s fantastic soaps the easiest way to get your hands on them is to look in local stores, such as the Old Creamery Co-op. He has a wonderful website with an online ordering system, for those who have no easier alternative, but Fred prefers folks find his products on shelves locally, when possible.

Just ask where to find the Just Soap display on our shelves, we will be happy to help you!