Discovering the power of brands to influence sustainable choices

Posted 2021-07-29

Marina Tran-Vu found a calling in marketing while pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the UBC Sauder School of Business. Today, she’s leveraging her business acumen to build a sustainability venture in Vietnam, producing environmentally friendly food and beverage supplies.

Tran-Vu launched her company, EQUO International, to provide an alternative to plastic straws and eating utensils that add millions of kilograms of garbage to the environment every year. EQUO produces straws, knives, forks and spoons made from 100 percent natural materials; namely, rice, sugarcane, grass, coconut and coffee.

EQUO products are biodegradable and compostable, making them easy on the environment.

Since launching her venture less than two years ago, Tran-Vu is attracting international attention. She’s won several business awards and been feted by media as a talented entrepreneur and sustainability leader. She and her team were recently invited to participate in the ‘Ending Plastic Pollution Innovation Challenge,’ a competition spearheaded by the United Nations Development Programme that calls on innovators to share their ideas for tackling the world’s plastic pollution.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Tran-Vu from her office in Vietnam. “Just a few months ago, I knew little about the world of entrepreneurship, venture capitalists and investors or the unpredictable impact of the pandemic on our business. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but we’ve achieved a lot in such a short time.”


Strong role models

Marina Tran-Vu, pictured at a family birthday party, says the birth of her nephew made her want to contribute to building a cleaner, greener world for the next generations.

Tran-Vu’s perseverance and tenacity come naturally. Her parents were born in Vietnam but fled with their families during the Vietnam War and arrived in Canada as refugees. They worked hard to build a prosperous life in Vancouver. Her mother owns an accounting business and her older sister has a sharp eye for finance and securities investing.

When it came time for Marina to choose a career path, she decided to pursue a business education even though her interests lay less in numbers and more in creative pursuits.

"I wasn't cut out for finance the way my sister was, but I was confident of the range of courses offered at UBC Sauder. My program tapped into a diverse set of interests and I knew I would figure something out," says Tran-Vu.

That moment came when she took a course with Dr. Joey Hoegg, Associate Professor at the Marketing and Behavioral Science division.

"Professor Hoegg is really passionate about marketing and branding and she welcomes different ideas and approaches in the classroom. I thought to myself: this is so cool and interesting. Maybe this is where I belong.”


A business idea comes to life

After graduation, Tran-Vu embarked on a career working in brand management for consumer giants like Unilver, Bacardi and LG Electronics. In 2019, she moved to Vietnam and as she got to know the country and its people, she began thinking about creating her own business.

EQUO was launched the following year. The name communicates Tran-Vu’s vision of a world where eco-friendly consumer decisions are the status quo.

Media in Vietnam and internationally have portrayed Tran-Vu as a trailblazer, leading a venture with high social impact.

“The brand stands for the ideal of creating products with minimal impact to the environment,” says Tran-Vu. "Our initial success confirmed my hypothesis that people will deeply care about plastic-free straws and other products if, as a brand, we take the time to educate them and give them a reason to get excited about an awesome product."

Like all entrepreneurial journeys, Tran-Vu's has involved long days and myriad challenges. But despite the complexities of building a business in a foreign country, she’s confident that not only does she have a high-quality product, but she also has a compelling brand.

"Branding is about telling a story about the venture and yourself. Often, brands make their users the heroes of their narrative. And we want every individual who's taking a small step towards protecting the planet to feel good about themselves—to feel like they're a hero."


Supporting the local economy

As part of the company’s sustainability focus, Tran-Vu is committed to creating local jobs and steady incomes.

“Buying locally, along with the fact that each member of my team is Vietnamese, underscores the message that local communities are integral to achieving the goals of sustainability.”

Tran-Vu’s sustainable business model includes procuring raw materials from local farmers and providing local manufacturing jobs.


Finding markets and scaling up

Earlier this year, Tran-Vu competed on the reality TV show, Shark Tank Viet Nam, to attract investor interest.

The company counts amongst its partners retail outlets, pop-up shops, coffee chains, grocery stores and restaurants that are eager to reduce their carbon footprint and play a part in reducing plastic overload in the environment. The straws are also available for sale online through EQUO’s website.

"My aspiration is for the Tim Hortons, Starbucks and the McDonald's of the world to give up single-use plastics, and even paper, and replace them with sustainable alternatives and materials, like the ones we produce. These chains are leaders in the food and beverage industry and they can influence consumer behaviour at scale.  It just takes one, and we’re looking to see whose going to be the one to take the first leap with us."


Building a community of passionate eco-consumers


Through her social media channels, Tran-Vu shares her engaging brand story and urges consumers to make eco-friendly choices. “Every little action helps.”

While tackling the massive global challenge of removing single-use plastics from society, Tran-Vu is also championing Vietnam as a leader in business innovation. She credits her time at UBC Sauder for preparing her to ride the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

“I’m grateful that my atypical experience at UBC Sauder helped me to not only find my passion, but launched me into business world,” she says. “Having a strong education and the drive to continually explore and experience new things has been a guiding principle that I carry with me in my career and my journey to build a sustainable business that will change the world.”