How Vietnamese Universities can step up the game for Circular Entrepreneurship

The trends are evident.

Intertwined planetary challenges presented by the traditional, linear economic model of “take, make, waste” are now well known. Circularity, once a fringe concept, has been increasingly gaining momentum as a pragmatic solution to our most intractable sustainability issues. Implementing the circular economy is our best shot to move forward with resilience.

However, “without greater ambition and more radical change from business, the circular economy risked becoming another buzzword.” (John Sauven, Executive Director at Greenpeace UK) 

While the Vietnamese government is working on its end to lead the transformative changes that we need at the macro level, numerous bottom-up initiatives to promote circular entrepreneurship have been witnessed. The development and adoption of innovative, circular business models are key to realizing a circular transition.  Yet, our overall response to this remains slow.

The entrepreneurship ecosystem is developed by the interplay of actors, including universities, government, investors and entrepreneur support organizations (ESO). Among these, universities are considered a vital enabler for the required entrepreneurial environment. Vietnam’s universities are now at a critical juncture to be the key fosterer of a twofold transformation:  an entrepreneurial spark amid a circular revolution.

Circular Entrepreneurship in higher education

Circular entrepreneurship refers to new business models that are built upon the principles of a circular economy and are “regenerative by intention and design” (EMF). It aims to mimic nature’s metabolism systems to build financially viable businesses while also resulting in social and environmental benefits. 

“Initiating circular economy mentality and accommodating ecologically-oriented curricula and educational strategies could prove to be the driving force to making our economies less wasteful and more resourceful.” (Europa.eu)

The growing number of research confirms that higher education plays a crucial role in fostering entrepreneurship and new attitudes to it (Vaicekauskaite R. & Valackiene A., 2018), which is complementary to the mindset transformation that embraces circular thinking. For a sustainable future in vision, the circular economy should be on every entrepreneur's radar (Bridge for Billions). Universities’ responsibility has now become more apparent than ever as the role of entrepreneurship has grown beyond pure profit purposes and requires system-thinking to drive radical change for people and the Planet. 

(Image Source: Dom Fou on Unsplash)

“An early introduction and exposure to entrepreneurship and innovation is more likely to sow the seeds of entrepreneurial careers for students at a future juncture.” (Dr. Hima Bindu Kota)

Education is the ultimate tool for mindset transformation. At the university level, concepts of circularity and entrepreneurship should be incorporated into innovative curriculums, extracurricular activities, and student competitions. Through universal education to raise students’ awareness on circular entrepreneurship, universities can step up and act as (1) the breeding grounds for budding circular entrepreneurs,  (2) an incubation center for campus-based circular innovations, (3) a knowledge transferor and a bridge between academia and industry to funnel students into the world of entrepreneurship (Dr. Hima Bindu Kota)

The state of play in Vietnam’s universities

(Image Source: Ha Noi University of Science and Technology)

The importance of entrepreneurship education has gained much prominence in the country. 

In 2017, the Government launched the “Supporting students’ start-ups” programme, referred to as Programme 1665, aiming to instill the entrepreneurial spirit in every student, regardless of their majors, to make it a universal concept. Universities did not lag behind. They quickly established start-up centers while deploying various entrepreneurship challenges. Student-focused competitions to foster innovative thinking and solutions finding are gradually becoming a norm in higher education institutes (eg. Bach Khoa Innovation).

Yet, a fundamental shift in the education approach that could help us nurture future citizens with sustainability-focused business skills remains on paper. Rarely do we see student-led ideas materialize into viable business initiatives with measurable impacts. In fact, recent research has shown that the impacts of Vietnamese universities in the startup ecosystem remain insignificant.

While the focus on green entrepreneurship, or circular innovation in particular remains virtually lacking, “the root of the solution, an ultimate transformation of Vietnamese entrepreneurship via the education system, remains problematic” (Dương Văn Bá, Ministry of Education and Training). The struggle lies in Vietnam’s policy-implementation gap.

Up to this moment, circularity is still a novel concept to the general public and in higher education institutions in Vietnam.

The good news is, we have pioneers working to lead the sustainability force. Positive changes are taking place from the bottom up.

University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City (UEH) is one notable university among others trying to transform its education approach and operations to align with the Sustainable Development Goals. From implementing a Zero Waste Campus model to  building a Community of Sustainability Changemakers within the university, EUH has completely restructured its strategies toward sustainable actions with a “glocal”, student-centric approach . By employing ambitious goals, UEH aims to become a multidisciplinary and sustainable university by 2030.

UEH students in a training class on waste audit (Photo: UEH) 

Outstanding student entrepreneurship journeys from university-level competitions to incubation programs, such as the Edifilm are now gearing up to reap their first-comer benefits and launch new circular products into the market.

As part of our programming, the ICM Falk Foundation has engaged in a consortium of sustainability-minded professors and education-focused practitioners across Vietnam who are passionate about accelerating sustainable development. Through policy advocacy, research, and training programs, the consortium aims to promote the concept of sustainable development and social entrepreneurship from a university perspective. Further updates on this multi-stakeholder partnership will be posted on our social media platforms.

Globally, “universities are increasingly re-thinking their role in the twenty-first century and looking to be both more responsive to societal needs and to become agents of change towards solving global challenges.” (Thecircularcollective.com)

(Source: Minerva University)

By effectively instilling circular economy principles and essential entrepreneurial thinking into education, universities can foster sustainable “bottom-up” change through education. Circularity must be one of the key drivers for innovation.

Now is the time for Vietnamese universities to join the global movement and step up the game for domestic circular entrepreneurship. The ICM Falk Foundation is proud to be part of the synergy to drive the upstream, circular revolution via the education system.

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About the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.

Join us in our mission to support circular entrepreneurship and innovation for a sustainable future. Reach out to us at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org if you have a solution to tackle the waste problem in ASEAN!

Unlocking the potential of bioplastics food packaging in Vietnam with “Edifilm”

#CircularHero #MeetOurGrantee

Needless to say, we have a plastic waste problem. Yet, plastics are an indispensable part of economic growth and vital to a low-carbon and resilient future. For instance, plastics deliver many public health benefits, from securing clean drinking water and food supplies to facilitating medical devices, while helping people with disabilities live more independent lives. If we were to get rid of these materials, disruptive changes would take place.

While reducing and reusing are the key to a sustainable plastics future, “there is little debate about the need for more innovation for better alternatives. In 2019, bioplastics led the World Economic Forum’s ranking of top breakthrough technologies as “biodegradable plastics can ease these problems, contributing to the goal of a circular plastic economy in which plastics derive from and are converted back to biomass.”

Bioplastics offer us an alternative and an opportunity to rethink our relationship with plastic. And now is an opportune moment to act and do better.

As a philanthropic organization, the Ida C. Morris Falk Foundation is working through a cross-sectoral lens to fund, facilitate and foster circular thinking and upstream innovation in Vietnam and its region. This year, we are honored to collaborate with Bach Khoa Innovation to support innovative Vietnamese students in the development of local bioplastic initiatives.

In this blog post, we are interviewing Edifilm, one of our grantees from Bach Khoa Innovation as our “Circular Hero”. By showcasing both the upside potential and the challenges faced by our grantee, we hope that other like-minded partners would join us in assisting circular grassroots initiatives in their growth and development.

Let the journey begin...

“Why do we have to use so many plastic wraps for just one packet of pho?”

Triggered by the number of plastic wraps needed for instant food and how they are all thrown away in just a blink, a group of students decided to confront this situation by teaming up at Bach Khoa Innovation, a local innovation competition to ideate and develop a new plastic that is more sustainable and convenient for food-related applications. That is how the Edifilm journey started.

Edifilm is a group of five students from the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, namely Vi Mac, An Nguyen, Quynh Nguyen, Tuong Pham, and Tu Nguyen. With a background in Food Technology, these young innovators have found a way to reduce packaging waste in our daily use with “Edible Films” - the packaging that is edible, as the name itself says.

When an innovative idea is supported by collaborative efforts

At first, we did not expect to go any further than the second round. Now, we are one of the finalists.

Bach Khoa Innovation 2021 has been a fruitful learning journey for the Edifilm team where they received a lot of technical advice and training from professors and other experts to continuously test and improve the prototypes. For our part, ICM was lucky enough to get involved and help power this youth-led project. “With the funding provided by ICM, the team was able to buy more materials to upscale the number of prototypes needed for a market survey. Thanks to which, we discovered that our edible films can have so much more applications other than just wrapping for instant noodles!”.

The collaboration between Bach Khoa Innovation and ICM, as well as the collective support from Vietnamese consumers, have combined the forces that enable the Edifilm team to catch a glimpse of how their project might actually catalyze a difference. Yet, while the team is ready and eager to showcase their prototypes, the finale has unfortunately been put on hold for more than 3 months due to pandemic lockdowns. “We thought that our project would be suspended as well. But thanks to ICM’s connection and encouragement, we have taken part in the C-Plastic Incubation Program, where we are further exploring the market’s demand and unlocking the potentials of our edible bioplastic products to become a social start-up, the direction that we have never thought of.

Edible films: A bio-based and bio-degradable solution to conventional plastics packaging

“Edible film” is made from a starch-based plastic that is both bio-degradable and consumable as all of its ingredients are harmless to our health, as well as the environment. The initial application of this material is for the inner wrapping of instant noodles, allowing consumers to digest both the packaging and the content at once.

The team is currently carrying out further experiments on the product's durability and biodegradability throughout C-Plastics Incubation Program to develop science-based sustainable products.

Bridging the innovation gap for Vietnam to localize the global aspiration of a circular economy

In the world, this novel packaging technique has been well researched and applied in multiple fields. Yet, it remains a new concept in Vietnam to date. The opportunity to explore the environmental and economic potential of edible films and coating in Vietnam is enormous. By developing this starch-based edible film, five young innovators Vi, An, Quynh, Tuong and Tu have unleashed local-centric opportunities for a more circular Vietnam.

“We want to bring this product to every kitchen for everyday use.” The Edifilm team now shares confidently when speaking about the long-term vision for their products. With high hopes, ICM is excited to continuously support the team on their innovative journey towards sustainability and circularity.

Localizing a global aspiration should never be an individual effort. Indeed, it requires collaborative innovation and collective support. So, how can we all nurture the upstream innovation ecosystem in Vietnam for a circular transition?

Edifilm’s messages...

…. to stakeholders who want to support the circularity ecosystem in Vietnam

“The truth is, Vietnamese youth has recently become much more proactive when it comes to building green, community-based projects for sustainable development. We are actively taking part in creativity and innovation competitions on different scales, from mega-regional to international levels. However, a lot of the time, potential projects have to stop right after the ideating phase as students usually lack the technical and entrepreneurial skills as well as the required resources to develop further. We hope that funding and mentoring opportunities would be more available and focusing more on building appropriate programs, which will help create an enabling environment to channel potential ideas into real-world impacts for society and ecosystems.”

....to all the innovative youth who wants to take action for a sustainable future

“It requires small changes to make a big difference. Even though what we are doing right now might not amount to a big impact, it is gradually contributing to shaping the radical change that encompasses sustainability for our future. So act now, and do not let the “what-ifs” limit your impacts.”

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About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.

About the Edifilm team

Edifilm is a group of 5 innovative students from the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology. With a background in Food Technology, these young innovators have teamed up at Bach Khoa Innovation to ideate and develop "Edible Films", a bioplastic solution to our packaging waste problem.

Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

We need sustainable and effective waste management to protect our environment and in order to develop a working circular economy. In a circular economy, recycling can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable resources.

However, recycling is not always possible. Most materials that are recycled today are degraded and cause pollution in the recycling process and, for some materials, recycling is even more energy-intensive than new production. Instead, recycling must be regarded as one component of a circular economy, which has to be complemented by reduction and substitution. 

The limitations of recycling as a solution to our plastic overconsumption are particularly striking in Southeast Asia. The need to complement the recycling of plastics with upstream solutions that reduce its use is more essential now than ever. 

Tracing down the rabbit hole of plastic containers in Malaysia

Since curbside recycling programs were introduced in the 1980s, recycling has morphed into an industry worth billions of dollars. Indeed, recycling plastics is a costly operation (disposing of 1 ton of plastic bottles in China costs only US$200 compared to US$500 in Europe), which, in a globalized economy, means that many countries choose to outsource their plastic waste elsewhere. 

For decades, high-income countries such as France, USA and Japan sold much of their own plastic waste to China in order for it to be recycled there. But, in December 2017, China closed its borders to foreign plastic recycling. It is at this moment that we begin our story on plastic waste in Malaysia. 

Malaysia’s plastics recycling under global pressure 

Since China retreated from its role as the world’s recycling facility, countries turned elsewhere, more precisely, they turned to ASEAN. The amount of imported plastic waste doubled in Vietnam and increased by 1,000% in Thailand. Southeast Asia and the country of Malaysia in particular quickly became the epicenter for international plastics recycling. In 2018, Malaysia imported over 400 million pounds of plastic waste coming from the US alone.

On the surface level, a global economy for the recycling of plastics might seem like a good option. After all, if there could be an increase in the market for recycled plastics and if the recycling process is done properly, it could reduce high rates of plastic pollution while putting less pressure on virgin materials to produce brand new plastic products. Unfortunately, this is far away from today’s reality.

In Malaysia, recycling is lagging far behind other countries and the country does not have the facilities necessary to recycle much of its own plastics, even less so the plastics of others. As Malaysia’s Waste Management Association’s chairman Ho De Leong explained to the Star, “plastic can be highly contaminated with other undesirable waste, which local facilities are ill-equipped to handle. Of course, since recycling or proper disposal in landfills is expensive, importers of plastics for recycling often dump the waste illegally”.

Indeed, Investigations by Greenpeace Malaysia have revealed that shredded plastic disposed at several dumpsites in Malaysia contain a range of toxic pollutants, which have been contaminating the surrounding environments during their storage or recycling processes.

A clear need to go Upstream 

While the imported waste exacerbates the problem, Malaysia itself already produces more plastic waste than it can recycle.

Research shows that plastic waste generation in Malaysia has more than doubled in a span of fewer than 15 years due to a so-called “throwaway culture” that has evolved as the country’s income increases. For example, recent studies show that 11% of the 38,000 tonnes of waste generated in Malaysia daily comprises diapers alone. 

Given the enormous stream of plastic waste both from abroad and within the country itself, the need to re-think the use of plastics literally grows bigger day by day. Greenpeace Malaysia has called for a plastic pollution reduction plan to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic in phases within Malaysia itself, to set up clear reduction targets of single-use plastic in accordance with an action plan that focused on developing alternatives based on systems of refill and reuse, while simultaneously increasing the recycling rate. 

It is clear that a circular approach, based on a so-called “Upstream innovation” in which plastic waste is never produced, to begin with, is needed in Malaysia. As a middle-income country, Malaysia has to decrease overall plastic consumption and must simultaneously invest in sorting and recycling infrastructure.

Looking forward to circular solutions beyond recycling

Momentum is growing to combat this issue. Circular economy in Malaysia is still an unofficial long-term goal, with a lack of adequate legal framework. Malaysia has prepared circular economy roadmaps to prioritize plastics-related policies and investments in target sectors and locations. Leading global brands and retailers have made voluntary commitments to make their plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Early 2019, in an attempt at regulating the waste issue, Malaysia returned a total of 150 containers of plastic waste to countries around the world, such as the United Kingdom, France and Spain. This move is a great first step to put pressure on these high-income countries to take steps to rethink their plastic consumption and make systemic changes.

Yet, the potential for positive action against plastic waste remains untapped within Malaysia itself. For example, in Malaysia, a huge portion of plastic waste comes from the food and beverage industry. Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) make up about 42% of plastic waste in Malaysia. 

The World Bank Group studies show models such as reuse and refill are at a nascent stage and currently aren't scalable enough to match the magnitude of the growing plastic waste problem. Alternative materials based on renewables rather than fossil fuel-based feedstocks are still a niche market not yet supported by local standards or infrastructure. Many circular, upstream solutions already exist and are just waiting to be launched.

In order to understand Malaysia's Circular transition, ICM Falk will explore an upstream solution to CPG plastic containers in the second part of this series. To stay updated, follow us on Linkedin and Facebook.

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About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.

Greening the Covid-19 Recovery in Vietnam (Part I)

The world is experiencing accumulated repercussions at unprecedented levels of the three global catastrophes, namely the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and natural resources depletion.[...] The green recovery, green economy, and circular economy must be simultaneously pursued at the national, regional and global levels to address the situation.” This is what Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said in the keynote speech at the P4G Summit in late May 2021.

Together with governments around the world, Vietnam has played an active role in advocating for a more sustainable post-covid recovery plan. The call for integrated efforts in promoting a so-called “green recovery” has been well received and echoed all around the world. However, green recovery promises can only materialize if nations “walk the talk” and demonstrate tangible systemic-level results towards a green and circular economy transition.

What is a “green recovery” and how can it be achieved through a circular economy?

The pandemic has offered us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our status quo. Now more than ever, the world recognizes the need for resilience in the face of future problems. Thought-leaders, economists, and policymakers worldwide have agreed that a return to "business-as-usual" and environmentally damaging investment patterns would be reckless. Now is the time for us to do better. Yet, the question remains: How?

A green recovery is a widely accepted term to describe a package of policies and stimulus measures to recover prosperity with low-carbon development, resource efficiency, and social inclusion. As a first step, in recognizing natural capital as a key economic asset, the recovery path aims to create long-term benefits for both humans and the environment. Through environmentally sustainable spending and pricing mechanisms, governments will be able to unleash innovation and fundamentally restructure critical sectors.

Redesigning the economy will be fundamental to achieving such a recovery. Evidently, there is more than one approach to achieve a greener post-covid economy. However, the OECD has suggested some universal principles that should be at the core of all national recovery plans, including a transition toward a circular economy

By decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental impact, a circular transition represents a systemic shift that strives for resource efficiency and ecosystem restoration, generates business and economic opportunities whilst providing societal benefits. Integrating incentives that promote circularity into the recovery packages will offer opportunities to stimulate collaboration, foster innovation, and build economic resilience for a post-Covid-19 future.

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation believes that a green recovery, boosted by a circular transition will make change happen by design.

Vietnam’s policies that support a low-carbon and resilient recovery

Ensuring green and sustainable growth has long been a pillar of the Vietnamese policy framework. The introduction of green stimulus measures in Vietnam can date back to 1997 with Article 36, focusing on clean technology that generates less waste and requires less fuel and energy consumption. Thus, it is no surprise that in responding to the pandemic threats, the Vietnamese government has a strong ambition to ensure a green path for the recovery plan.

At the national level, many long-term strategies have been adopted to foster a green bounce-back and a sustainable future. Most recently, the Government has ratified the Socio-economic Development Plan for the period 2021-30 with a focus on efficient use of existing resources and innovative businesses. In late 2020, the Vietnamese government also assigned the Ministry of Trade and Industry to prepare a development plan for the circular economy, which is expected to be submitted by the end of 2021. For the immediate term, stimulus packages which amounted to US$12 billion were also launched in 2020 to support vulnerable households, businesses, and industries.

The spirit and determination of Vietnamese leaders extend to their engagement in many international platforms as well, including the P4G Summit and the Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate. On the regional front, the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework has also been established to pave the way for an environmentally sustainable recovery process for its country members.

Challenges to pave a green path forward

Despite being highly responsive to trends that shape the global economy, Vietnam has empirically struggled to translate public policy aspirations into concrete actions with tangible results. For this green recovery, more decisive reforms need to take place to make sure that the same pattern of policy-implementation gap does not repeat itself. A more resilient economy depends on a shift to sustainable practices, as the OECD has emphasized. 

Yet, Vietnam is also struggling to remedy the economic vulnerabilities posed by the pandemic at the moment, which hinders the proper implementation of green investments. Most of its expenditures are currently allocated to curbing the continuous spread of the deadly virus and managing the current health crisis. Despite the high-level commitment, measurable progress for a green recovery remains elusive.

Not only had the COVID-19 fiscal spending in Vietnam not included green measures, but many of the immediate socio-economic strategies have also inadvertently exacerbated the environmental damage. This approach may in the long term undermine national efforts to decarbonize. In most quarantine centers, Vietnam is still providing thousands of plastic-packaged meals, which adds up to the ever-increasing burden of plastic waste on the environment.

To build a foundation for long-term resilience, Vietnam needs to adopt a more sustainable approach to deal with the immediate crisis. Environmentally sane efforts through eco-design and innovative, circular solutions should be embedded into the current recovery strategies. Or else, another tidal wave of pollution is awaiting us at the other end of the pandemic.

Taking on the second bigger “how”

To make this ‘green recovery’ a reality, we need to step up and tackle a more difficult ‘how’. How can Vietnam green its way out of this crisis and for a more resilient, circular recovery?

While policymakers hold the key to realize the transformative changes we need at the macro level, the green recovery can begin with each of us. Private and non-governmental organizations must work together to move the needle towards systems-level change.

As a private family foundation, the Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is playing an active role to support Vietnam in its circular transition. In addition to our efforts in building post-Covid resilience using circularity in plastics through innovative, locally driven, and upstream solutions, ICM is also working hard to bring together relevant knowledge and intelligence to co-build the powerful force of changemakers in the country.

As our journey towards resilience continues, ICM Falk will explore the path towards a green recovery in a follow-up blog. To stay updated, please follow us on Linkedin and Facebook.


About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment to the Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of waste production and pollution within Asia.

The Surprising Truth About Food Waste

This article is part of our “Circular Products and Services” content series in which we want to showcase the entrepreneurial and innovative potential of a circular economy transition.

The idea is to provide a realistic picture of both the upside potential and the challenges faced by these types of entrepreneurs. By showcasing, we hope that other, like-minded partners would join us in assisting circular entrepreneurs in their growth and development.

The Surprising Truth About Food Waste

"8 of the top 20 solutions to Climate Change relate to your food systems"

In 2018, a leading climate “solutionist” Chad Frischmann gave a Ted talk called 100 solutions to reverse global warming. This hypothetical scenario, known as "Project Drawdown," refers to the point in time when the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases begins to decline on a year-to-year basis. Interestingly, according to Frischmann’s research, 8 of the top 20 solutions to climate change are related to our food systems. And, the most significant among these 8 refers to the reduction of food waste

Each year, 1/3 of food produced in the world goes to waste, and it is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we were to redesign our food systems into a closed-loop, circular one, more than 70 gigatons of CO2 emissions would be removed or avoided from entering the atmosphere. 

Changing how we produce and consume food to reduce waste is vital in order to reach our global climate goals. The question is: How can we do it? 

Fighting food waste through an entrepreneurial mindset - Too Good To Go 

Alix Trébaol, Business Developer at Too Good To Go

To answer this question, we interviewed Alix Trébaol, business developer at Too Good To Go, a certified B social impact company on a mission to fight food waste worldwide by tapping into the innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities found in food waste itself.

Devised in Copenhagen in 2016, Too Good To Go is an app that offers users across Europe, the United States, and Canada access to unsold, safe-to-eat food from participating suppliers. The food is heavily discounted at a third of the regular price. Users can see which restaurants,  food markets, or cafés in their neighborhood have surplus food available that day, which they can then pick up right before closing time. 

The app seems like a simple idea, but it has had a tangible impact on the number of meals that food providers throw away. For instance, since it launched its app in the United States last September it has ​​saved 572,460 meals. Globally the app has helped save 85.2 million meals since its creation.

Alix notes that at its core, the Too Good To Go’s mindset is to find a balance between the company’s Environmental, Social and Economic priorities. “Of course, there is a huge untapped market value for what we call “surplus food” as around US$1.2 trillion worth of food gets thrown away, which is equivalent to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway’s GDP combined. But, we want to do more than just earn a profit”, Trébaol says. 

Too Good To Go wants to start a movement at home, at the workplace, and at the governmental level, so that food as a resource is used effectively and distributed equally. “Yes, we are for-profit, but primarily because it gives us the resources to make a difference. For example, the $31 million fundraised last November helped us grow our movement to North America, the region with the most food waste on Earth".  

Creating a sustainable business model that works and makes a difference

The key success of Too Good To Go’s business model is that it makes sense financially for both the consumers and the food providers, while at the same time leveraging the environmental benefit that comes with avoiding food waste. It is a win-win-win situation, as food providers can access a new customer base and customers can buy high-quality food for a lower price. Too Good To Go only charges a small fee for each meal they “save” in order to pay for their own operations.

Yet, in order to create a business model that is sustainable and scalable, Too Good To Go has had to spend a significant amount of resources to truly understand the market for each country in which they operate. “Too Good To Go quickly realized that even though food waste is a global problem, how and where the food is wasted really depends on the country”.

For instance, in most low-income countries food waste primarily occurs due to packaging and transportation deficiencies. In high-income countries, on the other hand, most food is wasted at the market and consumption level, meaning that it is often a customer’s choice. “It will be interesting to see how we can adapt our business model to achieve change globally in those countries where food waste isn't a customer's choice”, Trébaol notes.

Making the food system circular

How, then, does Too Good To Go combine their for-profit business with their social and environmental ambitions? And is it really a circular concept? 

One of the main reasons why I joined Too Good To Go is because the company recognizes that real change has to be systemic and has to occur at all stages of the supply chain”, Alix says. In addition to their app, the company works in several ways to “close the loop on food waste” together with their partners. 

For example, Too Good To Go works with local food banks and food providers in order to also donate surplus food at a local level in most of the countries where they operate. In countries like Germany and France, Too Good To Go works together with governments and policymakers to change regulations that currently cause food waste, such as changing expiration labels. The company also wants to create a general awareness about food waste and does so through an online knowledge hub as well as partnerships with schools

ICM is inspired by this success story and we believe, just as Too Good To Go has shown, that an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset can allow for sustainable change. However, Too Good To Go primarily works in a high-income country where food waste can be targeted through behavioral change. In a low-income country context, such as most of the ASEAN region, food waste is a technological problem. Farmers are often unable to insulate or refrigerate fresh produce after it is harvested – and on the journey between the farm and the consumer, the food is spoiled. 

The start-up potential for addressing this area of food waste is significant, as the existing start-ups worldwide are exclusively focused on a high-income context. We will dig deeper into food waste in low-income countries in an upcoming blog post.

How would you go about addressing food waste in your home, at work, or in your country? Do you have a circular idea about how to redesign our food systems that you would like to launch? ICM might be the one to fund, foster or facilitate your solution.

Follow us on LinkedIn for ongoing updates on our journey towards waste Innovation and Circularity, and to learn about inspiring local and global innovations. You can always reach us at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org or send us a message on LinkedIn.

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About Too Good To Go and Alix Trébaol

The purpose of Too Good To Go is to reduce food waste worldwide. It supports a free mobile application that connects restaurants and stores that have unsold, surplus food, with customers who can then buy whatever food the outlet considers surplus to requirements—without being able to choose—at a much lower price than normal. 

Alix Trébaol is in charge of Too Good To Go’s expansion in the American Northeast. Passionate about sustainability topics, she was part of the team launching the app in the US, while simultaneously finishing her studies at Columbia University in New York.

About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment for the New Plastics Economy and a Circular Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of plastics production, waste, and pollution within ASEAN.

Circular Economy: Global aspirations are only as good as local actions

At the global scale, the idea of shifting to a circular economy has emerged due to the urgent need to rethink our global economic model. According to the World Economic Forum, as the global population continues to grow, the world’s middle class is set to reach 5 billion by 2030, which is putting enormous stress on our environment and our resources. Our current linear economic model in which objects are briefly used and then discarded as waste, is incompatible with a sustainable future for 9 billion people in 2050. The concept of a circular economy has emerged as a theoretical alternative to our current system; an economic model in which products are designed and built so that they are part of a value network where reuse and refurbishment on a product, component and/or material level assures continuous (re)use of resources (World Economic Forum). The path to its adoption begins locally, at home...

Enter Mai Nguyen - A local practitioner’s evolving application of global circular economy concepts

Vietnam may appear to be a newcomer to the circular economy, but its circular journey actually began a long time ago. For instance, despite being a city girl, in my childhood, I often heard about the “vuon-ao-chuong” (VAC) permaculture model (literally translated as garden - pond - barn) mentioned on TV. Our forefathers may have aspired to close the loop, but sadly, Vietnam  seems to have forgotten its sustainable/circular roots in favour of rapid development. Ironically, it was by learning from the global circularity movement, that I was able to reconnect with Vietnam’s own landscape of circularity.   Having worked with the British Council and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and collaborated with various makers and designers in Europe and Southeast Asia in sustainable design and distributed production projects since 2018, I eventually became a circular designer. Inspired by examples of circularity in other countries, I started paying attention to local projects in Vietnam that align with the principles of circular economy. This interest further extended into developing new uses for abundant agri-wastes and bio-wastes in Vietnam. Slowly, I noticed that there were a growing number of circular economy practices that already existed within Vietnam, despite there being little to no knowledge of the concept of circularity among technical experts; much less amongst the general public.

Some examples from Vietnam

In 2017, my friend Tran Minh Tien from Long An had already made a name for himself by making green straws out of a type of native grass named cỏ bàng (Lepironia articulata) in his rural area. In early 2018, on a trip to his home in Duc Hue, Long An, I was walking with Tien around the grass fields, barefoot, where his local collaborators were harvesting the grass to make straws. Up until that point, I had never dared to set foot into such water-laden fields for fear of being bitten by snakes and leeches.

Source: Mai Nguyen

Tien, on the other hand, grew up seeing local craftswomen weave this type of grass into beautiful mats and carry bags, before he thought it could be used as straws. Here, through a simple, yet elegant solution, circularity is contextualized at the local level -  by paying attention to and repurposing a native low-value material,  an alternative to the single-use plastic straw was developed. Without Tien’s local knowledge, this grass would have likely never have been used in a circular business.

In 2018, an article about female entrepreneurs got my attention when it mentioned the case of Ms. Trinh Thi Hong, a woman from Da Nang who makes and sells eco-detergents and disinfectants, made\ not out of the finest and trendiest organic herbs and essential oils, but from fruit and vegetable waste found at local wet markets. Da Nang happens to be my hometown, and on the next trip to visit my grandma, I made sure I visited her factory on the outskirts of the city. I was able to speak to her son who was busy filling up a mountain of bottles with their famous dish-washing liquid. With his permission, I was able to check out the mysterious vats at the back of the workshop and had a sneak-peak into the fermentation process that results in natural disinfectant liquids. Minh Hong Biotech, her business, helps divert massive quantities of organic waste from landfills every month and provides essential jobs for local women, especially those facing financial hardship, throughout the country.  

Source: Ngày Mới Online
Source: Vietnam Net

Thinking about these initiatives, I had a realization about the intersection between circularity at the global, theoretical scale and its local application. Starting local and at a small scale, these entrepreneurs may not have even known what a circular economy model was when they started their businesses. Yet, they were still able to put in place remarkable examples of circularity. Some of these initiatives remain only possible only on a small scale, while others, like Minh Hong’s business, are ripe for  large scale adoption. As the concept of circular economy becomes mainstream, providing recognition to the efforts underway by local actors (albeit unbeknowingly), will be the cornerstone to connect the dots within the larger global ecosystem for a sustained and greater level of impact.

In 2019, the Government of Vietnam formally discussed the role of the circular economy in the country’s path to a sustainable future. While the government figures out how to put the circular economy to practice on a large scale, it is up to grassroots actors like Tien and Ms. Hong to connect this new global economic model to local contexts and communities. This is where ICM Falk Foundation comes in.

Enter the ICM Falk Foundation - An international partner for local grassroots efforts

During trying times such as the COVID pandemic, a local-centric approach is often even more relevant in addressing the common global problem. It is through this premise that the ICM Falk Foundation works to support solutions that have been created by and for local communities, through equitable partnerships, in order to ensure that circular solutions are adapted sustainably and remain in place long after our work is done.

Simultaneously, ICM Falk works with local experts, such as Mai, in order to enhance knowledge sharing and optimize the implementation of a circular model in Vietnam. Realizing the importance of education for the youth communities, ICM Falk supported Mai’s “Design for a Circular Economy” workshop at the Hoa Sen University event, Wassup Ocean in January 2021. During the workshop, Mai initiated a group of over 20 students to circular strategies and engaged them with rethinking how a leftover cardboard could become a circular product. Encouraging the next generation of changemakers to think differently of waste and consumption is an efficient way to act local with a global aspiration to reach full circularity.

All big ideas have to start small and together with international partners such as ICM Falk Foundation, we can make tangible progress when it comes to making a circular economy a reality. We need to collaborate and co-fund local entrepreneurs in order to ensure that we make use of the existing circular ecosystem in Vietnam. If you are a small foundation, a private sponsor or an innovator that is interested in advancing the circular model in tangible and cohesive ways, join us in our work with local leaders within circularity in Vietnam. 

Follow us on LinkedIn for ongoing updates on our journey towards waste Innovation and Circularity, and to learn about inspiring local and global innovations. You can always reach us at contact@icmfalkfoundation.org or send us a message on LinkedIn.


About Circular Design Vietnam

Since January 2019, Circular Design Vietnam aims to inspire Vietnamese designers and entrepreneurs to move towards a circular economy through design. We provide R&D, consulting and educational services in relation to circular materials, design methodologies and their applications to create products and services that respect nature and people. Circular Design Vietnam is an initiative by Meye Creative Co., Ltd. 

About the ICM Falk Foundation

The Ida C. & Morris Falk Foundation is a private, 501c3 family foundation that seeks to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership that drives positive, equitable, and sustained impact for the world’s communities and ecosystems. Building on the global commitment for the New Plastics Economy, the Foundation is now actively focused on innovative solutions that contribute to the reduction of plastics production, waste, and pollution within Asia.