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Cooperative, participative supermarkets

An example of inclusive fair trade?

Ever heard of cooperative or participative supermarket projects? These citizens’ initiatives break with the tradition of mass distribution and opt for local, organic and fair trade, quality products. At the same time, they aim to remain financially accessible and promote social integration. But do they work?

What is a cooperative, participative supermarket? ‘Cooperative’ means these initiatives take the form of co-ops. It is the members who jointly own the cooperative, and so they also control the venture, which is managed according to the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. Participative or collaborative means that each member of staff commits to working on a voluntary basis for a few hours per month to ensure the shop runs smoothly. It is therefore a supermarket that belongs to its customers, who also work in it voluntarily… It is an alternative trading system, which does of course need to remain economically viable. Although this might seem like a utopia at first, this atypical way of working has become a reality in various locations in Belgium.

A SUPER-market

In Charleroi in 2016, a small group of dedicated citizens came up with the idea of launching this kind of SUPER-market under the name Coopéco. “The aim is for citizens to regain ownership of their food, and for a family to be able to buy healthy, honest food, personal care and household products,” says Stephan Vincent. As one of the project leaders, he joined the venture shortly after its launch.
The de facto association soon became an official cooperative company with a social purpose. The cooperative now has more than 500 members.

But it took a while to get off the ground. It was only after two years of planning, ups and downs, and the necessary changes – the project started out with organic baskets collected in a garage – that the shop finally opened its doors in 2018. Coopéco then won the 5th edition of ‘Hainaut Horizons’, a prize awarded annually to an initiative for sustainable development in the province.

In December 2018, a similar supermarket was also opened in Verviers, Liège: Vervîcoop. “The original idea was to open a zero-waste shop,” says Anne Wilmot, joint initiator of the project. “And then we heard about initiatives like Bees coop in Brussels. We therefore decided to expand the project into a cooperative and participative supermarket.” In September 2017, a first information session was organised to gauge the interest of the residents of Verviers. “We had only expected around fifty people, but in the end 200 turned up.” That was the first success, after which everything took off. “A month later, we held a second session to organise working groups: nearly 100 people were willing to participate.” Today, Vervîcoop has about 450 members, more than 250 of which are ‘employee-customers’.

Bees coop, the big brother in Brussels

“Bees coop is the big brother of these kinds of initiatives in Belgium,” Stephan Vincent sums up. ‘Bees’ was the very first cooperative, participative supermarket in Brussels and one of the first projects of its kind in our country.

It all started in 2014 when a group of committed young Brussels residents decided to set up a project to bring the people of their district, Sint-Joost, closer together. A cooperative supermarket, or a community restaurant, or… several options were considered. It was only when they discovered the Park Slope Food Coop project, which started in New York in 1973 and now has about 16,000 members, that they decided to embrace the adventure and set up a cooperative, participative supermarket.

The project was initially a purchasing group, in order to get to know the distribution sector and to experiment with the collaboration aspect. After that, the BEES Labo Market was founded.

In 2016, the cooperative officially got off the ground and a first call for members was launched. At the end of 2017, after a test phase of several months, the supermarket opened its doors in its current building in Schaerbeek. Bees coop currently has more than 1,600 members.

A tricky challenge

It is the ambition of both Coopéco and Vervîcoop to offer a full range of seasonal, local, organic and fair trade products at a price that remains accessible to as many people as possible. “Why should these kinds of products be reserved for the upper class or for people with money?,” Stephan Vincent asks. However, to achieve this balancing act, both cooperatives often have to compromise.

“It is practically impossible to offer a product that is organic as well as local, and fair trade, etc. In short, a product that meets all our criteria and that is also cheap. Choices always have to be made. Unfortunately, you can’t please everyone,” explains Anne Wilmot. “To solve that problem, we can offer two options: our neighbour’s organic apples at a certain price, and the non-organic, cheaper apples,” Wilmot says. “But at the moment we are trying to maintain the quality of the products and highlight the fact that the prices are not excessive if you consider what the producers earn. Obviously, it’s easier to convince the more well-off people.”

“You have to remember that many people who come to Coopéco used to go to traditional supermarkets,” says Stephan Vincent. “Basic products are often twice as expensive. So it is not always easy to bring about change.”

By constantly trying different approaches, you find the right balance. With the participative aspect of the venture, both cooperative supermarkets seem to have found at least part of the answer to this tricky challenge.

No (or few) paid employees

On the one hand, both shops are run almost exclusively by their members, who work on a voluntary basis in different teams for three hours a month. Despite this alternative way of working, Coopéco and Vervîcoop still manage to open four days a week and offer a sufficiently wide range of produce (fruit, vegetables, and bulk, household and personal care products, etc.). They aim to become a one-stop shop, i.e. a shop where a family can find everything they need for their daily lives.

“We don’t have any employees,” says Stephan Vincent. “We add a 15% margin to all our products. This is only used to pay the rent, cover expenses and buy some basic equipment when required.” The same goes for Vervîcoop, which has however recently hired three part-time staff to carry out certain tasks.

“As a result, we are 10 to 15% cheaper for comparable products than traditional distribution and 25 to 30% cheaper than organic shops,” says the Coopéco member.

On the other hand, it is also the members who decide on the supermarket’s overall strategy. They determine the product range, the pricing policy and the choice of suppliers. This participative democracy takes place via various decision-making bodies: the general meetings, a board of directors, a steering committee and a whole series of working groups that the members can participate in.

Stephan Vincent summarises Coopéco’s ways of working as follows: “The cooperative is like a big ball that about 500 members are running around in. And so the ball moves in the direction that the majority of the people are heading in. All of this is done within the guidelines set out at the start of the project.”

“If you buy from your neighbour, then that’s de facto fair trade.”

The guidelines of the project are local consumption, waste reduction, as little packaging as possible, and above all fair trade for the producers. The latter is the driving force of the policy at Coopéco and Vervîcoop. In order for their efforts in this area to be recognised, both cooperatives have recently joined the Belgian Fair Trade Federation.

“Even though not all of our products have the fair trade label, we were included in the BFTF because our basic principle is that we don’t haggle about the prices the producers charge,” says Stephan Vincent. He also happens to know what he’s talking about, given that his day job is director of Ethiquable Belgium. “We want to treat the producers with respect. This is part of the same philosophy and values that fair trade promotes, a trade that raises human relations to at least the same level as the products, and not the other way around.”

“If you buy from your neighbour, then that’s de facto fair trade,” says Anne Wilmot. “This is part of the DNA of our project, which aims to be more than just a consumer cooperative, even though we are the majority. We also want to take producer input into account as much as possible so as not to drive down the prices. We can negotiate certain prices with the wholesalers, but we never do that with the small producers.”

“The more people consume these types of products and go to smaller shops, the better the producers will be paid,” says Vervîcoop’s joint initiator. “And by eliminating as many intermediaries as possible, we keep costs for consumers under control.”

An egalitarian and closed system

Price is an even more important issue for collaborative and participative supermarkets. After all, the egalitarian, solidarity and inclusive aspect, which forms the core of these citizens’ initiatives, is determined by the price. Projects like Coopéco and Vervîcoop are based on the principle of equality: each member works three hours a month and has one vote at the general meeting, regardless of the number of shares they own. That equality is guaranteed by the fact that the system works in a closed way, i.e. only the members have access to the shop.

To become a member of the cooperative, you have to subscribe to a share, which has a certain cost price. At Coopéco and Vervîcoop it is 25 euros. Vervîcoop asks those who can afford it to subscribe to four shares. So this means a starting price of 100 euros.

Coopéco is well aware that not everyone can afford to spend this much money before buying a single product, and have therefore set up a system of ‘suspended shares’. “To give everyone the chance to take part, certain cooperatives have collected an amount to make shares available to people who find paying 25 euros a barrier. All we ask is that they commit three hours of their time.”

This solution was also considered by Vervîcoop, but it was ultimately dropped. “We found it difficult to make a trade-off between those who can and those who can’t take advantage of this kind of system,” says Anne Wilmot, who assures us that the cooperative would never close the door to anyone who wants to participate. “Of course, we don’t want this initial funding to be an obstacle. If someone wants to become a member, but cannot invest 25 euros in shares, we will work something out. But let’s be honest: if you don’t have 25 euros, you’re probably not looking for the kind of products we offer.”

What Vervîcoop has done to make the shop more accessible is to set up a system of ‘hanging baskets’. Through this system, members can make items available to other people. “To be honest, I have to say that this system is not very successful,” admits Anne Wilmot. “I think in the future we should move to a system where ‘richer’ people contribute more than the less well-off. We of course have to consider this carefully. And that of course means we have work to do.”

All in the same boat?

But as the online documentary ‘Tous à la même enseigne’ (everyone in the same boat)[1] showed, beyond the purely financial aspect, there are also a whole host of other obstacles that prevent these initiatives from reaching a wide audience, starting with the principle of equality. “Paradoxically, the principle of equality is at odds with the other values defended by the citizen cooperative (editor’s note: Bees coop), namely accessibility and inclusion,” note the authors of the documentary. “The equality advocated internally is confronted with and undermined by inequalities from the outside. The differences and inequalities in food are many (…): food culture, household budget, access to information, use of time, health condition, etc.; all those differences are determined economically, socially and culturally.”

Nevertheless, in order to remove these obstacles, solidarity supermarkets try to set up concrete actions to reach the widest possible audience, starting with the choice of their geographical location. Following the example of Bees coop, which opened up in Schaerbeek, at the edge of the poorest areas of Brussels, Coopéco chose the Zabattoirs site in Marchienne-au-Pont. “For example, there is the not-for-profit Avanti, which is involved in the social reintegration of ex-prisoners. We work with this non-profit organisation as part of their workshops on permaculture and carpentry,” explains Stephan Vincent. “There is also BABEL, an association that focuses on the integration of the local population through cultural activities. The social dimension is an integral part of the shop, which is a physical place where you can meet people you wouldn’t necessarily meet in any other environment.”

The same applies to Vervîcoop, which consciously opted for a location in the centre of Verviers. “We want to be accessible to the widest possible range of customers. We don’t want to be a project for ‘posh’ people in the more well-off parts of the region. A lot of people from the neighbourhood come to try out our shop. At the same time, we are well aware that we are now mainly attracting the more affluent customers…”

Supermarkets, but much, much more …

That is why Coopéco and Vervîcoop regularly go beyond the framework of the simple supermarket to strengthen ties with the residents of their neighbourhood. “Besides the shop, we regularly organise meet-ups with different associations in Verviers through workshops, especially in the culinary field, which have had limited success so far,” says Anne Wilmot.

“Coopéco is also a repair café that is accessible to everyone,” explains Stephan Vincent. “Every month, our skilled members offer their know-how to the people in the neighbourhood. In addition, we’ve also set up partnerships with Eden, the Cultural Centre of Charleroi, and the CAL, the Centre d’Action Laïque. We try to create a network of people and organisations who are on the same wavelength.”

Finally, Coopéco focuses on the jobs that have to be done in the shop itself. “By breaking down the tasks and making them as clear as possible, it makes it easier for people who are a bit insecure and don’t know how to make themselves useful, or who are confronted with a language barrier. Every success is the result of the mutual respect and acceptance that abounds within the cooperative. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done. But to be fair… we have also come a long way.”

It is a utopia to think that cooperative and participative supermarkets by themselves can eliminate all the ills of our society, making it egalitarian, fair, inclusive and environmentally friendly. But the initiators and staff of these citizens’ initiatives have never claimed to be able to achieve this. What is certain is that their committed and innovative approach is a step in the right direction!

[1] ‘Tous à la même enseigne?’ is an online documentary by Falcoop (acronym of ‘Favoriser l’accès à une alimentation durable et de qualité pour un public représentatif de la diversité urbaine par l’implantation locale d’un modèle innovant de supermarché coopératif’ – in English, ‘promotion of the access to sustainable and quality food for a public representative of urban diversity through the local implementation of an innovative cooperative supermarket model’). The project was carried out in collaboration with BEES coop and the Centre for Economic and Social Studies of the Environment (CEESE) of the Free University of Brussels.
Texte: Anthony Planus 
Photos: Coopéco – Vervicoop
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