Through distribution of eco-friendly products and education, a couple hopes to make Vietnam a little less plastic

Last year, Lauren Singer became a viral sensation when she published a video on her YouTube channel Trash is for Tossers about how she was able to fit all of her non-recyclable plastic waste from the past four years into a single mason jar. For many people, this video highlighted the issues with plastic waste that seem trivial on a small scale but when used daily by the whole world, they become a huge problem.

Living a zero-waste lifestyle is undeniably difficult. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and there wouldn’t be companies selling eco- friendly products and encouraging people to become aware of the worldwide plastic pollution. Daisy Dao, the co- founder and product manager of Saigon- based company A Little Bit (ALB, www. alittlebitvn.com), saw Singer’s video last year. It resonated with Daisy, 21, so much that she decided she wanted to start making a change to the plastic consumption in her lifestyle. “After seeing that clip I realized all of my home tools come with plastic, from my toothpaste and toothbrush, to the comb that I use every single morning,” she says, also adding that Vietnamese families on average dispose of two kilograms of trash per day, much of which is plastic waste.

Daisy and her boyfriend, Ryan Pham, 26, the main investor and CEO of ALB, are both dressed in cotton clothing, sporting canvas bags and sipping their drinks through plant straws—an idealistic symbol of Vietnam’s future generation. The café Running Bean was chosen by Daisy for our interview because they use plant straws and offer a discount to customers who present their reusable straw when buying a drink. Before we start, Daisy hands over a bag of soap nuts—dried berry shells that grow in the Himalayas—that can be used to make your own washing up liquid and shampoo as demonstrated in one of the company’s latest Instagram videos.

A Little Bit began selling their products, including bamboo straws, hand-printed cotton storage pouches, reusable mesh grocery bags, canvas shopping bags and cotton cup holders, just three months ago at a flea market in District 2. The stall became the best- selling booth at the market, surpassing the couple’s expectations. They also received their first wholesale order the same day. Though, as we chat, it becomes clear that ALB is more than just a little stall selling eco-friendly products.

“[We] are still shocked by the current pace of development. We are now approaching the opportunity to export to the EU, perhaps [our] nearest goal is to standardize the production process and meet EU standards,” says Ryan, a serial entrepreneur who set up his own sneaker customization business a few years ago.

So, what makes ALB different from other companies selling similar products? “We are licensed for selling food and drink because the straws are made from plants and [we] check to make sure there are no harmful chemicals in the product—this is our advantage over other retailers, we take responsibility of what we sell,” explains Ryan. Also, every product is personally checked for quality before reaching the customers. This can mean they often sit with their team—consisting of Ryan’s mother, Ryan’s best friend Henry who is in charge of wholesale, and Daniela, who is in charge of e-commerce and social media—in their office in District 11 checking over 20,000 bamboo straws by hand. This level of commitment to delivering products that are faultless, except for their natural and harmless flaws such as dark spots in bamboo, are what have put this duo ahead of the game.

It’s clear that Daisy and Ryan carry a certain amount of guilt when asked about Vietnam’s current status as Asia’s third-largest contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean. “I think it’s because single-use plastic went deep into Vietnamese subconscious for many generations. A plastic bag is the cheapest thing when you go to the market, you don’t even need it but the cashier will still give it to you anyway,” says Daisy. Ryan adds that the aim of the company is to not only to distribute high-quality eco-friendly products but to educate those who want to switch to a more eco- friendly lifestyle but do not know how to.

“We have two types of customers: those that really care about how to improve the environment and those that just want to be trendy and feel good about themselves,” says Ryan. “These [latter] people come and go. I want to look after the people that really care

and show them other ways they can contribute and help the environment.” Their aim is to grow a community where people can purchase reusable alternatives but also educate themselves about how to reduce their plastic waste.

The pair voiced their frustrations at the abundant use of plastic in Saigon. “We take our own lunchboxes when we get street food for them to put it in but when we walk away, we see they still put little plastic bags of sauce and plastic utensils in the box! Why do they think we bought the box?!” Ryan exclaims. Despite this, the two are motivated to get their products in the hands of millions of people in Vietnam. “Every single day, food stores will dump over 1,000 foam boxes into the landfill and all of that will be broken down into small pieces so that many marine animals will misunderstand what it is and eat it,” says Daisy. “In the future, we will provide food packaging products made from Bagasse, the dry pulp left when sugar cane juice is extracted, which is biodegradable and safer for the user’s health. We hope that we can supply for many restaurants and food stores in Saigon,” Ryan adds.

The company sources all their materials locally and production is done in Vietnam. “We are Vietnamese and we want our products to be Vietnamese, to set a good example,” says Ryan. “Many bamboo products that are sold all over the world come from Vietnam’s bamboo trees in the north and we’re really happy that most of the older Vietnamese generation supported us from the early days. They said, ‘How wonderful it is that the bamboo straw is reusable and biodegradable as well as good for the environment and our health.’” The cotton used in their grocery bags, pouches, and cup holders is also sourced in Vietnam, which can be difficult because polyester is easier to find and cheaper.

Along with getting their products ready to export, the pair will target more businesses in Saigon. Ryan adds that large and high-end businesses are highly respected by locals and foreigners and he hopes that this will cause a ripple effect to show that everyone can do a little bit to help the environment.

Oi VietNam - A little bit - November 2018 - IMG_3148

Images by Vy Lam