Biocoop, a French retailer specialising in organic foods, has been all about activism since it was founded as a co-operative in 1986 by consumers eager to promote more environmentally friendly agriculture.
So it may not come as a surprise that it also has embraced a progressive agenda towards its roughly 8,000 employees — which has taken it to the top of the FT’s second annual Diversity Leaders ranking.
Each year the co-operative, which brings in about €1.5bn in annual sales, sets specifications for its 650 member stores in terms of how staff are paid and treated. These include paying salaries at least 10 per cent more than minimum wage, offering profit-sharing schemes, and setting schedules relatively far in advance to help staff manage work-life balance.
Biocoop chairman Pierrick De Ronne, who has led the co-operative since March and owns three member stores, says he wants to do more to promote diversity by adding more specific criteria on hiring, equal opportunities and mentoring to the co-operative’s ever-evolving charter.
“We must remain a pioneering company so as to tackle more complex issues, not just our original mission of promoting organic foods,” says Mr De Ronne. “Companies have a big responsibility and can drive change in society.”
Biocoop — which moves into the ranking’s top spot from sixth place last year — does not disclose data regarding the ethnic make-up of its workforce as the collection of such data is tightly proscribed in France. But its annual report provides glimpses of its work on diversity.
Biocoop has a mentoring programme, for instance, that prioritises the hiring of people from poor, urban neighbourhoods that are often home to generations of immigrants of Arab and African descent.
It also has a three-year plan, from late 2019, to ensure men and women are not only paid the same but are also offered the same opportunities to advance. The company says about two-fifths of the more than 1,000 staff at its central office are women.
Biocoop has also committed itself to hiring more people with disabilities and has set a goal of 6 per cent of the workforce by 2023, up from 3 per cent in 2019.
In the survey conducted by the FT and research partner Statista, the food retailer scored particularly well on gender issues, and within the retail sector it garnered the highest scores on almost all measures. Only the UK-based natural cosmetic maker Lush scored higher on policies to support LGBT+ workers.
Mr De Ronne says Biocoop has come a long way since it was founded in a “garage” by campaigners who wanted to encourage France’s farmers to adopt organic practices. “Back then, each square metre of a Biocoop store would help convert a hectare of farm land to organic production,” he says.
Today, Biocoop is the biggest specialist chain in France’s fast-growing organic food sector; in 2019, it held about a 13 per cent share of a €11.9bn market, according to trade group Agence Bio.
But it now faces intensifying competition from grocery giants like Carrefour and Casino, which have expanded aggressively in organic as they seek to cater to changing consumer tastes. The pandemic has turbocharged the sector’s growth as consumers seek out food seen as higher-quality and safer, according to analysts.
To keep up with the growth and fend off competition, Biocoop has opened about 60 new stores this year, and hopes to open 80 next year. It also recently tried to buy a smaller rival chain, Bio c’Bon, out of bankruptcy by seeking to convince the court that it would be a better owner than the other bidders because of how it would protect jobs and treat the employees. But it lost out to Carrefour on the sale.
The challenge for Biocoop will be to preserve its internal culture even as it grows. “That is the central question,” says Mr De Ronne. He thinks it will be able to do so by relying on what makes the group distinctive, namely the co-operative model. Biocoop is operated and guided by its members, which include store owners, roughly 3,200 participating farmers, and about 500 of its workers.
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“Having such diverse points of view in our group allows us to get past short-term thinking,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t look at the numbers or seek to profit, but our mission is also to further certain goals on the environment and society.”
Biocoop will sometimes “give up revenue to defend an ideal such as consuming less but better”, adds Mr De Ronne. The chain has committed to selling only in-season produce — no tomatoes in winter, for example — and banning produce flown in by aeroplane.
Such ideals are part of what makes people want to join the company. But sometimes employees can then be disappointed by the daily grind of working a cash register or restocking shelves.
“Their dreams clash with the at-times boring reality,” Mr De Ronne admits. “So it’s up to managers and co-op owners to find ways to make the daily work more meaningful.”
In any case, both as a brand wooing consumers and as an employer seeking to attract staff, Biocoop has clearly staked out its position. “We must remain radical. There will be no room in the future for lukewarm, dull companies.”
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