From a passion for sustainability to a multinational business – the story of Equo began when a Canadian entrepreneur visited her parents’ hometown in Vietnam.
Born and raised in Canada, Marina Tran Vu, founder of Equo International, has spent one and a half years fulfilling an ambition to help get sustainable everyday products into every household. Equo is now known for its biodegradable straws made out of grass, rice, coconut, sugarcane and coffee that are 100-per-cent plastic-free, biodegradable, compostable and non-toxic.
Vu said the business idea was inspired by a desire to teach her nephew about the impact of climate change and pollution on the planet. However, the journey started when she first moved to her parents’ hometown in Vietnam two years ago.
“Vietnam is very famous for coffee shops as it has a huge coffee culture,” Vu told Viable.Earth.
“I saw the glass straw for the first time when I was in a cafe. That’s really what sparked the idea and the interest around why there were straws like this in Vietnam, but not available at the time in Canada or the US.”
The status quo and the future
Equo’s straws are currently manufactured in Vietnam and Taiwan. Like most businesses, Equo has endured considerable impact from the Covid-19 pandemic, especially when the business relies heavily on the hospitality and F&B industry, whose operations have been suspended in various markets for many months since early last year.
“I started this business right before the pandemic so no one could have predicted this,” said Vu. “But, I feel like this is something that is important in terms of what we’re doing, and has a lot of potential.
“It’s definitely impacted our business but it’s allowed us to learn and adapt very quickly.”
With a decade of experience in consumer packaged goods working for major FMCG companies including Unilever and Bacardi, Vu has successfully negotiated Equo products onto supermarket shelves, cafes, restaurants and bars across Canada, the US, Australia and Vietnam. The brand aims to expand its presence in more international markets in the near future.
“We are exploring some of the markets in Asia and in Europe as well but we also want to make sure that we’re focusing on the markets that we are currently in,” said Vu.
Alongside its eco-straws, the company has recently launched its utensil collections, including forks, knives and spoons, made out of natural materials such as sugarcane, wood and coffee. Equo is also adding sustainable gift packs and reusable bags to its lineup.
Equo has been recognised as one of the hottest new sustainable startups on the scene, being awarded the SME100 Fast Moving Companies award and with Tran-Vu named in Vegpreneur’s 25 Woman Founders of Vegan Companies You Need to Know, one of Flik’s 21 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2021 and a recent feature in Forbes. The brand was also the first Vietnam-based company admitted into Techstars.
The brand’s image and philosophy
Besides the quality, Equo also pays attention to the branding and package design to make it stand out from other sustainable brands.
“We’re not just trying to put it into a nice package but we’re trying to do something different.
“We focus on educating people, but in a way that is welcoming. We see a lot within the sustainability industry is that people are usually quite intimidating or sometimes very harsh if you don’t know sustainability perfectly.”
Through education, Equo aims to encourage people to help the environment by doing small things such as switching from plastic straws to compostable straws, even if only once or twice a week.
“Whatever you do is still better than not doing anything at all.”
According to Vu, people commonly misunderstand the reasons behind the high price in most sustainable products, which is normally due to the strict quality checks required in order to obtain certifications.
“We know things are expensive, especially when it comes to new sustainable materials, but that’s the same with anything that is new. We want people to give it a chance. It will allow us to be able to get that volume up to bring down the cost and make this affordable for everyone.”
Biodegradable straws are the future
Paper straws and metal straws are some of the common items used to replace the use of plastic straws. However, are they really the best solutions?
According to Vu, paper straws are often lined with plastic and the paper used often comes from a nonrenewable resource.
“A lot of people don’t know this but the production of paper actually produces more carbon dioxide than plastic does,” Vu commented. “Paper is often bleached with chemicals. While it might be biodegradable, it will still leak certain chemicals into the soil after it breaks down.”
Meanwhile, metal straws are less favourable as they can damage teeth and people may be reluctant to use them due to concerns over safety, especially after the pandemic.