Networks for distributing

Networks for distributing processed food – Biocoop

In France, the principles of co-operation and ethical trade have extended from the land, right along the supply chain to emcompass farmers, customers, shop keepers, wholesalers and distributers. Biocoop is a federation of 300 independant shops, with 3000 employees and 300,000 consumers. The turnover is 450 million Euros and they control 13% of the French organic market, bound by a strong ethical charter. The message for us is that collaboration can work. Joy Carey and Clive Peckham have been writing about Bio coop for the Soil Association, here is their summary of Bio coop.

Biocoop, France 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.

Biocoop provides a vital market, particularly the small and medium sized farmers who have neither the capacity nor the will to work with supermarkets. Biocoop has approximately 15% of the organic market share in France. 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.

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