The disruptive co-operative: C'est qui le patron?!

  • Set up in 2019, the co-operative initially aimed to pay more to dairy farmers than big supermarkets and quickly became the forth-biggest milk brand in France.
  • The 7,500 member-owned company takes a customer-led approach, regularly surveying them to match products to their socially responsible values.
  • This collaborative venture reimagines the relationship between production and consumption, inviting consumers to be co-creators of products and supporters of a shared mission.
  • Having expanded into 30 other product lines, including steak and chocolate, the company has inspired and launched similar cooperatives in other countries around the world.
Cest qui le patron logo

When Nicolas Chabanne was approached by a group of distressed dairy farmers in 2016, he was already a well-known food waste campaigner in France trying to encourage more people to buy ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables.

It was at the peak of the EU’s milk crisis, when years of overproduction and swingeing supermarket price-cuts meant farmers were forced to sell at a loss. As a result, bankruptcy and suicide rates among French farmers were soaring.

Chabanne calculated that by asking consumers to pay just €4 more a year for their milk, it would secure hundreds of farmers’ futures – and he was convinced most people would be happy to pay more if they knew it would help.

And so C’est qui le patron?! (‘Who’s the boss?!’) was born, launching their distinctive blue cartons with ‘this milk pays a fair price to the producer’ emblazoned on the front in hundreds of French supermarkets. Within a few years, it had become the fourth biggest-selling milk brand in France.

Consumers ‘co-create’ products

Milk was just the start for the cooperative company, which has quickly expanded its range to more than 30 other foods, helping drive up the sustainability and responsible pricing of everything from steak to sardines.

With each product, CQLP sends out questionnaires to its 7,500 members as well as the public asking them about every aspect before launch: from how much they’d be prepared to pay and the quality of life they expect it to afford the farmers and producers, to what type of product they’d want and how the packaging and labelling should look.

It’s a truly collaborative venture that reimagines and redraws the dots between producers and consumers, effectively applying the principles of fair trade to the French domestic market and challenging the dominance of big retailers obsessed with profit maximisation.

A good-will army of consumers

Speaking to the Guardian in 2019 about CQLP, which he refers to as a ‘movement’, Chabanne said: “I do think we’re talking here about a fairly profound shift in consumer attitudes – a realisation, essentially, that the big supermarket chains had forgotten what really matters.

“A whole lot of consumers now want to behave more responsibly… [and] would prefer, if possible, to buy healthy, quality food, produced ethically, transparently and with respect for animal welfare and the environment by people who get a fair price for it.”

CQLP’s mission to match consumers’ values and preferences with sustainably made products is one that has found traction internationally. The company has gone on to inspire and launch similar cooperatives in the US (Eat’s my choice), Belgium (Wie is de baas?), Spain (¿Quien es el jefe?) and the UK (The Consumer Brand).

“Ultimately, this newfound desire of consumers to make sense of what they eat – literally, to help create it – has an unarguable logic,” says Chabanne. “It’s a logical next step, because what drives CQLP is this goodwill army of consumers, hundreds and thousands of active volunteer ambassadors, who share, inform, pass on, visit stores, talk to managers, hang out with producers – who, basically, have decided, together, that things have to change.”

Image credit: La Marque du Consommateur