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Meet the man behind the French fair trade food revolution

The director of top food brand ‘C’est qui le patron?!’ talks to The Connexion’s Théophile Larcher about his mission for a fair food industry

Nicolas Chabanne director of C’est qui le patron?!

Nicolas Chabanne is the director of 'C’est qui le patron?!', a food label that allows consumers to help producers receive a fair price for their goods Pic: C’est qui le patron?!

Nicolas Chabanne is the director of C’est qui le patron?!, a food label that allows consumers to help producers find a fair price for their goods, and Les Gueules Cassées, a label founded in 2014 to sell fruit and vegetables that are perfectly edible but which fail to meet standard criteria. 

Born from a desire to remunerate milk producers fairly, C’est qui le patron?! is now one of the most popular and recognisable milk carton brands in supermarkets. 

Since its foundation, it has extended to other products, including organic milk, butter and eggs, potatoes, chocolate, baguettes and tinned sardines.

Read more: Fair trade organic butter brand is now top seller in France

There are currently 32 products offer by the brand. 

Mr Chabanne spoke to The Connexion about the French initiative that has expanded to other European countries and even across the Atlantic, and about the simplicity and common sense behind his ideas. 

“It has been six years since I created this project and it’s always a pleasure to talk about it. It is a collective force that can change a lot of things,” he said. 

He also told us about his new initiative that aims to address one of the problems associated with the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

What is it like to be the company director of France’s ‘most popular’ milk carton?

I do not know if ‘popular’ is the word best suited to the initiative, but I take it as the greatest of compliments, more so than the ‘most-sold milk carton in value’, which it was awarded by Nielsen, an American company that specialises in consumer measurement. 

Beyond the figures, the carton is a source of immense hope, particularly to milk producers. 

Nobody would have thought a fair milk carton would become the highest-selling product in the sector, ahead of all the big companies.  

I use ‘popular’ since the initiative has developed in other countries, including the UK. The idea has really taken off. 

I think the word expresses our story perfectly.

In 2016, we dreamt of selling five million cartons within the first year, and ended up selling 33 million! 

This has grown to 282 million milk cartons. No other young company in French history has moved that fast. 

The most incredible part is that we made it happen without any TV ad campaign or any salesperson. 

When it was founded in 2016, C’est qui le patron?! worked thanks to social media, word of mouth, and people’s good intentions, all of which the major retail stores relied on when agreeing to stock the products. This was promising.

You created C’est qui le Patron?! after the milk crisis in 2015, to rescue milk producers from bankruptcy by ensuring they received a fair revenue. Tell us how the project started.

It started with a conversation with the then-agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll during François Hollande’s term, when the Gueules Cassées initiative was being discussed at the United Nations after being featured in a New York Times article. 

Mr Le Foll asked whether I had thought of a similar solution for milk producers, in an effort to combat the rising suicide rates among farmers who felt squeezed out of the market by the unfair price negotiations driven by large retail stores. 

During the conversation, we found out that there were eight cents per litre missing in order to fill the gap between bankruptcy and profitability. 

Since French people drink on average 50 litres per person per year, it meant that consumers spending only four more euros per year would allow milk producers to live decently.

This is how, and very emotionally, this powerful collective force came into being. It shows that a different path is always possible.

Do you consider yourself part of a greater movement that wants to participate in citizens’ wellbeing?

We are definitely the expression of something. The generally apathetic attitude of previous years has now been replaced by a movement that wants action. 

People no longer express revolutionary ideas, but rather the desire to move on and act independently. 

There is no greater enemy of fatalism than action. 

Kindness unites a lot of people in my opinion. When you act together in this way, you can overcome great difficulties far more easily than you would imagine. It is common sense. 

I have never needed to bargain with large retail stores since they came to us first, having already understood what was at stake. 

Things have developed smoothly and easily. I would like to say it has been hard, but it is quite the opposite. 

When I try to express myself about how it all came together, it is…

Moving?

Yes. Moving. A little bit scary but marvellous. So far it’s been a fabulous adventure, and one which needs to remain simple and true to itself. 

You created your collectives in France. Did they come about because of your entrepreneurial spirit, or because French people have a different attitude to food and cultural heritage?

It is very hard to answer this question. For my part, I cannot do a day’s work that doesn’t focus on serving the community. 

Regarding French cultural heritage, the Gueules Cassées was a self-evident adventure. 

Products deemed unfit for purchase because they do not correspond to people’s expectations just need a facelift.  

Americans with whom I spoke following the New York Times article, who wanted to launch an American version of the Gueules Cassées concept had no emotional relationship toward the products, like we French do. 

I noticed this instinct was absent in the US, but it did not prevent them from building a million-dollar worth company. 

On the other hand, I wish the Gueules Cassées would have generated more similar companies in France, and more competition, as would have happened in the United States. 

How did you react to the 29-centime baguette from Leclerc? It’s what you have been fighting against with C’est qui le patron?!?

These are two separate worlds. But it is interesting that we can now talk about these price drops, because that has not always been the case. 

Read more: ‘Bakeries will die’: Anger in France at Leclerc’s 29-centime baguette

Large retail stores slashing prices was seen as the only guiding principle for consumers several years ago. 

Consumers have since united against this phenomenon that has seen value slashed as well. 

Of course, there are families that cannot spend four more euros on milk per year, and they must be helped, but there are plenty that can afford it.

The 29-cent baguette represents the confrontation between aggressive competition, caught in the race for lowest price, and a growing body of consumers that no longer wants to feel complicit in a system destroying value. 

The 29-cent baguette is the surviving expression of this system. 

However, it is important that such a system exists, and I mean it, since most families rely on low prices to feed themselves. 

But you cannot increase spending power by slashing value, everybody knows that. 

You participated in fundraising events for producers affected by the pandemic. What part is C’est qui le patron?! playing to help Ukrainian refugees?

I have planned to accelerate the extension of Les Gueules Cassées

We urgently need to reduce the ten million tons of unconsumed food in France, that’s the equivalent of filling the Stade de France with food. 

We started a partnership with Germany for UHT milk, and I suggested they should copy the café suspendu tradition in French cafés, where someone buys two coffees and leaves one on the counter for anybody. 

But now, I’m proposing you buy two cartons of milk – one for yourself and the second to be sent to Ukraine.

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