Everything about Nguyen Hoang Thao is low-key, down to earth and assiduously deliberate. Behind all of her actions lies a purpose – from the clothes she wears, all acquired from second hand stores, to her daily routines and purchases, nothing is impulsive. Her newly opened store, Go Eco Hanoi, is the first in the capital to exclusively sell products that have no harmful impact on the environment, a venture that could not have come at a moment sooner in Vietnam’s escalating waste crisis.
The country, alongside four other Asian nations, contributes to more than half of the world’s 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leaked into the oceans every year. Dependence on plastic products is intrinsic to almost every facet of Vietnamese daily life, and resources dedicated to appropriate waste management are few and far between. Despite a lack of proper regulations and policies in place to tackle the issues, Thao believes that the Vietnamese people deeply care about the environment, but recognises that not enough information is circulating to address the matter.
This concern prompted her to start a Facebook Page run entirely in Vietnamese, called “Nói Không Với Túi Nylon” (meaning say no to plastic) where its primary goal is to raise awareness amongst wasteful practices and provide resources to tackle it. With over 25,000 people following the page, Thao has created a community of like-minded people who share tips and advice in creating a more sustainable lifestyle. The motto of the movement is simple, “Change what you know and then change what you do”. Thao hopes that highlighting the importance of one’s everyday actions and changing the way we behave as consumers will spur on larger ripples of positive action as well as new and effective legislation.
After majoring in Japanese in Hanoi University and studying her master’s degree in Japan, Thao observed that small incentives in Japanese commerce such as points systems for reusing certain containers or paying a small price for bags were important factors in inspiring change amongst its people. This ethos has carried on both in her own life and eventually in her company.
Thao realised that convenience played a critical part in Vietnamese consumerist behaviours, and wanted to eliminate excuses and provide easy, accessible alternatives to toxic mainstream items. “It’s easy to say that there is no alternative. I want to provide that option for people that think it’s too difficult to make their own products or to make changes in their life in the way they consume.” Hence why Eco Go Hanoi was born – somewhere to purchase reusable, long-lasting and high quality products where customers are informed of the real impact of what they are purchasing.
There are a handful of non-negotiable characteristics that items have to possess in order for Go Eco Hanoi to stock them. The first is that the products have to be locally made in order to avoid the carbon emissions that entail exporting materials from overseas. Secondly, Thao takes into account what materials are in season and how easy they are to acquire during certain times of the year. Lastly, ensuring that merchandise is either biodegradable or recyclable in its entirety is paramount.
For now, most items available in the shop are homeware and personal care products, such as straws, toothpaste, dish sponges and even insoles. In a market that prioritises plastic over sustainability, Thao has had to be creative in her approach. Asides from the zero waste goods sold, the shop in itself is a hub that promotes sustainability in every nook and cranny. The walls are lovingly decorated with drawings from children whose schools Thao has visited to educate them about environmental issues. There is a single leaflet with informative text with advice on making products at home that employees encourage customers to take a picture of. Business cards are nowhere in sight and even the prices are hand-drawn on recycled pieces of paper.
Despite being a relatively small project, responses from customers have already been decidedly positive. Thao will continuously stock new items based on customer demand, making it in a sense a collaborative venture, supplying the public with what it needs the most. Although Thao is thrilled that the Zero Waste movement is gaining momentum she is weary of it being something fashionable that people could tire of easily. “I don’t want it to be a trend or for it to be superficial – it’s a lifestyle not a fad.”
In the future she hopes to branch out into the food industry, for there are also big strides to be made in this field. Despite the ubiquity of local markets, it’s difficult for the consumer to guarantee the quality of the products, especially with many of the pesticides and chemicals that permeate our ingredients. Hopefully the transparency in how Thao’s products came to be is a trend to follow amongst newly sprouting businesses in Vietnam too.
It is clear that Go Eco Hanoi is a company squarely rooted around values and Thao makes a point of stating that it has never been about making money. In fact, when a customer is at the till, she frequently poses a question that we should all be asking ourselves every time we make a purchase. “Do you really need this?”
You can find Go Eco Hanoi on Ngo 132, number 11, Kham Thien Street.