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INTERVIEW - Sophie, Comme Avant, France

It is not often that I have a crush not only for certain products, but also for the people and the stories behind these products.

Some weeks ago, pretty much when the lockdown started, I shared with you my tests of the Comme Avant cosmetics products. During 6 weeks these products became part of my daily routines, and I have to admit I have really enjoyed them. I even finally adopted the powdered toothpaste which at first left me skeptical.

Following Comme Avant on social media, I dropped their team a quick mail to invite them to answer some questions for OUTSIDE THE BOX. I was so thrilled to receive a response quickly, and heartful answers a few days later. Sophie, Co-founder of Comme Avant along her partner Nil, has shared personal insights about the Comme Avant journey, about her family and about life under virus confinement.

A big thank you to Sophie, Nil and Anna for this.

All pics from Sophie and Comme Avant website, used with permission.


Dear Sophie and Nil,

Welcome on OUTSIDE THE BOX and thank you for spending the time to answer some questions for us!

First of all, can you please introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Sophie, I live in Marseille with my partner Nil. We have two children; Nael who is three, and Joan who will soon be one, and a dog called Cute!

My world turned upside down after my first son was born, which is called matrescence. It made me change my lifestyle, my way of perceiving the future and made me rethink my priorities.

I also discovered the world of attachment parenting, which fascinates me, and I love to learn new things each day thanks to my children.

Before we start going into more details about your sustainability journey, the question that matters most: How are you and your family doing during these weird times?

We hope you are all fine and healthy and keep a positive mind.

Everyone is fine here, which is the most important! Just like everyone, we are adjusting to this new lifestyle, which comes with good aspects as well as more challenging ones I would say! We are both still working but from home, while taking care of our two children. This can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but it is great being with them around the clock.

Spending time with my kids during this lockdown has made me question a lot of things. I feel like I have spent these last few months fully focused on work, and not spending enough time with them. Once this situation is back to normal, we are going to find a new balance.

How do you define sustainability and how do you apply this on a daily basis at home and at work?

For me, sustainability represents a lifestyle in which we do all we can to avoid destroying or plundering natural resources and therefore not compromising future generations. Sustainable practices can be led in many aspects our lives. Whether it’s at work or at home, there is no such thing as small actions.

At home, we have decided to stop using single-use plastic, we eat locally and organic as much as we can, we have reduced our meat consumption, we make our own yoghurts, we recycle and compost our waste, we avoid travelling by plane whenever it’s possible, we try to buy ethical and sustainable clothing to avoid fast fashion… the list goes on.

At work, many actions have been put in place too. In our “Fabrique” we have replaced all single use hair caps by material ones, our coffee machine doesn’t use capsules but only beans now, we have installed a vermicompost and a recycling area for all our employees, we have switched to a green energy supplier. These are a few examples.

What are your motivations to lead a healthier, more sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle?

And how do you share and inspire others, for example your kids, to be part of it?

As explained before, everything started when I was pregnant with my first son Nael, so I would say my children are my prime motivation. Step by step we are changing our habits. We started in our bathroom by using only solid cosmetics for example and now we are tackling the kitchen, finding alternatives to kitchen roll, tin foils, etc. So, I would say room by room is our current strategy!

We share on Comme Avant’s social media many of the actions we take at home. This is a great way to reach out to as many people possible and to show them that it is possible to make simple changes in our lives.

With our children, we find it very important to have an educational approach.

It’s important for them to understand why we are going to buy our fruit & veg with this specific farmer, why we shouldn’t use plastic straws, or why the apple skin should be put in the compost bin rather than in the household bin. Taking actions is great, but it’s even better when children understand why they are doing it. They are also very involved. They come with us shopping, especially love making yoghurts, and we’ve just started a veggie patch on our balcony!

Tell us now a little more about Comme Avant!

What was the trigger to start this project? Had you ever thought of opening such a company before?

As mentioned above, Nael was the trigger. When I was pregnant with him, we spent a lot of time looking for ways of improving many aspects of our lives such as our diet or the products we used. We had to rethink anything that could disturb our own and future baby’s hormonal balance, wellbeing, and health.

When Nael was a baby, he had a very sensitive skin. He often had rashes and irritation on his hands, arms, and legs. Even though we were using the most natural products on the market, nothing seemed to sooth him… That’s when Nil decided to try out making our own soap. It was a way of being certain what ingredients were used. He found a simple formulating using only olive oil and it was just like magic! Within a few days all his rashes had disappeared.

Before this, we had never thought of starting a company like this one. Nil is a born entrepreneur, so he had tried different projects before this one, but we had never expected Comme Avant to be as successful as it is today.

You are both involved and working at Comme Avant: who is doing what, and who are the other people onboard?

Do you manage, as a family, to disconnect from work when the day is over?

I would say that Nil mainly manages all the different teams and is there to solve any problem that arises, and problems do occur! Before, he used to work in IT, so anything technical is his to deal with! I take care of the communication and marketing aspects. Our roles in the company aren’t fixed to these tasks, we also help out wherever is needed.

We are now nearly 50 people working at Comme Avant! There’s roughly 20 people working in the “Fabrique”: making the products, packing and shipping them. Then there’s a sales team working with organic shops all around France and internationally, there’re customer service agents and sales assistants for our shops in Marseille and Paris, human resources and a financial manager helping us structure our company as we’ve grown so fast, and last but not least the communication and marketing team working on all our products, social media, and press relations.

How do you pick your suppliers and engage the local community to be part of the Comme Avant story?

We choose our suppliers with upmost care. It’s important for us to sell quality products so this involves having quality raw materials. We choose suppliers which are the most transparent and the nearest, so either in France or neighbouring countries when possible.

What are your specialty products, and which one do you prefer personally? (I am a huge fan of the shampoo and hand cream).

We don’t have many products (currently 6) so I wouldn’t say we have a special product. Our lead product is our organic olive oil soap as it’s the first one we made and the one that started Comme Avant.

My favourite product is also our soap as it represents the beginning of our adventure and because it’s ideal for everyone, the whole family and all types of skin!

What have been the greatest challenges and achievements so far, and what would you advise to anyone wanting to start a business in the same field?

Each day comes with its challenges which is part of having your own company! I would say up until now our biggest challenge has been the current situation, dealing with the restrictions caused by COVID-19.

We have had to shut both our shops, in Marseille and in Paris (3 days after opening it!), and we have had to put 50% of our staff in partial unemployment. This isn’t something we were expecting (nobody was!) and we have had to make some tough decisions. However, our community has been so supportive and is helping us get through this, so a big shout out to them!

For anyone who wants to start a cosmetics business, you need to keep in mind that it’s a complex project which requires a lot of time and investment. You need to be well prepared and be aware of all the legislation imposed by the country you live in.

How is the business running at the moment with the restrictions due to the virus?

Tell us more for instance about your campaign to supply medical workers with hand creams, this is such a heartful gesture!

As I’ve just mentioned, part of our staff is partially unemployed meaning they are at home and can’t come to work because of all the measures put in place. We are therefore working in very small numbers!

As for the people present, we have set up extra security and hygiene rules. Each time someone walks in or out the workshop, they need to wash their hands with hand sanitizer, wear a mask and gloves. This was of course already the case for the teams handling the products, but this now applies to everyone.

For our clients, we have also set up two delivery methods and the client can choose which one is best for them: either the order is ‘urgent’ and we will ship as soon as possible, or the order ‘isn’t urgent’ then the order will be shipped once lockdown is over. This will enable reducing the number of shipments, relieving the French postal service network, and not increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

Beginning of April, after receiving a few messages from nurses, we decided to donate our cream bars to health care workers to give them a bit of support and to sooth their hands and face, which are irritated because of hand sanitizers and face masks. After posting this on social media, in less than two days we had received over 1 000 requests for 11 500 creams!

We decided to donate 2 000 and to launch a crowdfunding to help us cover all the requests. A 5€ donation helps us cover the costs of producing and sending 1 cream. We still have around 2 000 creams to send and some requests are on a waiting list. We are currently receiving thank you messages and photos from nurses, doctors, hospitals and homes all over France!

What could you advise people who know you / who visit your online shop, to start a more responsible lifestyle?

Just do it! The first step is the hardest. But if you’re visiting our online shop, this means you are questioning your current lifestyle, which is already a huge step. We know and fully understand that changing habits isn’t easy to do. But don’t forget, each step at a time. The aim isn’t to be perfect. Everyone has a different pace but each action counts.

What can you answer those who say that sustainable personal care products are too expensive or too exclusive?

You must keep in mind that we have done our best to offer products which are fairly priced. Organic raw ingredients are often more expensive than conventional farming. Everything is also handmade in our workshop in Marseille, which explains a higher production cost. You must also keep in mind that our products are very economical and have a long lifespan.

Anything else you’d want to share?

Thank you for this interview and for allowing me to share my thoughts with you!

Take care :)


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