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Biocoop, France: co-op control of the food chain by active consumers

One motivation for people engaged in community farm land trusts is to build democratic and ethical control of the food chain. Most citizens and many farmers and aspiring farmers are denied access to land ownership – which prevents participation at the root of the food system. CLTs are one response to that problem.

One motivation for people engaged in community farm land trusts is to build democratic and ethical control of the food chain. Most citizens and many farmers and aspiring farmers are denied access to land ownership – which prevents participation at the root of the food system. CLTs are one response to that problem.

Obstacles to participation of small, citizen led and ethical stakeholders continue along the food chain, most strikingly apparent in food retailing. Food retailing in the UK is powerfully dominated by multinationals and their influence extends to their suppliers, and their suppliers’ suppliers; mills, abattoirs, wholesale markets, dairies and so on.

In France, the term ‘consom-acteurs’ refers to active consumers. Consumers who are more than passive recipients of goods.  Consumacteurs have collaborated with ethical producers and small retailers on a massive scale to build ‘Biocoop’. Biocoop controls 15% of the organic market and runs 300 shops, with a turnover of over 450 million Euros. It is growing rapidly.

The 'Biocoop' network is not a chain or a franchise but a federation of over 300 independent consumer co-operatives and shops with shared ideals, objectives and structures.  They have discovered that the best way to get organic consumers a good deal and compete with supermarkets is to work together. By co-operating they are able to offer many of the advantages of centralised distribution while reducing its damaging side effects-o. Biocoop provides a vital market, particularly the small and medium sized farmers who have neither the capacity nor the will to work with supermarkets.

The federation was founded in 1987 by a pioneering group of co-operatives and is united by its common principals, the 'three conventions', to which all members have to adhere. The conventions govern relationships with consumers, staff, other 'Biocoops' and producers. The conventions emphasise the social and environmental objectives of the federation and the need to encourage consumers to take an active role and interest in the contents of their weekly shopping basket. Most shops are open to the general public, but in the consumer co-ops members have a discount and the right to be on the management committee and participate in regional or national bodies. Most importantly they can influence the way the shop is run and its future direction.

The original co-ops in the federation were founded around twenty years ago to support individual organic producers or to operate buying groups to jointly purchase local organic produce. They operated in a variety of locations from garages to barns, some opening small shops after establishing a strong local membership base. One of the co-ops saw the necessity for establishing a national organisation and visited all the founder members before they jointly established Biocoop France in 1987.

Groups of consumers or individuals can present a proposal to start a new 'Biocoop' to regional co-ordinators who will examine the financial, social and ethical aspects of the proposal. The process involves consultation with existing shops in the network and each new shop will undergo a trial period when its performance and adherence to the conventions will be tested. Consumers are therefore given the opportunity, wherever they are, to take an active role in gaining access to quality organic produce and influence the development of both their shop and the national network.

Each Biocoop has access to regional and national product lists which favour producers with specific social and environmental objectives, they are also free to source locally and have independent agreements with individual producers. The range of produce therefore varies between the shops, reflecting local, regional and seasonal variations and there is a deliberate emphasis on local, fresh and seasonal produce. All shops have to stock organic products where they exist and are only permitted to stock non-organic where there is no available line. There is also a large range of 'Fair Trade' produce in each shop e.g. tea, coffee, chocolate. Education of its members and consumers about what they are buying is an integral part of Biocoop's policy.

Each Biocoop shop has a clear local identity together with the recognisable characteristics of a national network, both of which are key factors in their appeal and success. Consumers are able to identify with an individual shop, have confidence in both the products and the manner in which they have been traded and can shop in a sister co-op whenever they visit another region. Most importantly it is encouraging people to become ‘consom-acteurs’ – active consumers, with a key role to play in the food chain.

Thanks to Clive Peckham for his research.

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