Sustainable Vietnamese startup ShoeX Coffee has created the AirX coffee mask, turning waste coffee grounds into a biodegradable face mask.
As the second-largest coffee producing country in the world, it is undeniable that Vietnam has one of the world’s best coffee cultures. But, what goes unspoken is the fact that global coffee production creates in excess of 23 million tons of waste, all of which gets dumped into landfills each year.
Looking to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem is Vietnamese sustainability entrepreneur Thanh Le. He first cut his teeth on creating footwear out of coffee grounds, founding sustainable enterprise ShoeX Coffee in 2017. Combining 4.0 technology and traditional shoe-making processes, he used three cups of coffee grounds and 12 plastic cups to craft a pair of shoes.
Three years on, and the young founder has pivoted his innovative brand, launching the AirX coffee face mask to tackle the growing issue of single-use face masks disposal. Like ShoeX, the AirX face mask is made from Vietnamese coffee beans and is reusable, biodegradable, 100% vegan, and antibacterial. Its aim, Thanh says, is to not only prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but also preserve the planet as well.
Here, we speak with Thanh himself to find out more about the advantages of using coffee grounds in sustainable products, the biggest challenges sustainable businesses face today, and how the Vietnamese sustainability scene falls short in tackling the ongoing environmental crisis.
What first got you interested in sustainability?
In 2012 – the last year of my MBA programme in Canada – I went to Brazil to work with some local businesses and the government there for a consulting project. During the trip, I realised that people in Brazil, especially the kids, were really good at learning about sustainability and recycling.
When I came back to Vietnam, I was surprised to find so much trash on the streets here. There were plastic bags and cups everywhere and people did not seem to be aware of the concept of sustainability. I quickly realised that we had to do something sooner, rather than later, if we are to protect the environment.
You started out your company by selling premium leather bespoke shoes. How did you end up with ShoeX Coffee and AirX Coffee?
I came back to Vietnam in 2015 and thought that we should make bespoke, dress shoes given that Vietnam is the second-largest shoe exporter in the world. However, after working in the shoe business for two or three years, I recognised that this was not the right decision. The market share for dress shoes was going down while that of sneakers was going up. As a business, we needed to follow this trend as well if we were to keep our business running. So, what we’re making now with ShoeX Coffee is a combination of dress shoes and sports shoes that can be worn both for business and casually.
Using coffee beans is quite unconventional – how did you come up with the idea of making sustainable products out of coffee beans?
We actually tried integrating several different materials into our products, including sugar cane, bamboo, and corn. But, I felt like in order to make our business more impactful and show what Vietnam is to the world, we needed to use an ingredient that represents Vietnam.
We chose coffee in the end because Vietnam is the second-largest coffee-exporting country in the world after Brazil, and people in Vietnam love drinking coffee. Vietnamese coffee is a signature of Vietnam – it’s part of our culture.
There are a lot of coffee brands in Vietnam, and all these brands create huge amounts of coffee ground waste which then produce a huge amount of methane which contributes to the greenhouse effect. Our company gives this waste a second life by reusing it to create another useful product for people to use.
Tell me about the AirX Coffee Mask. What are the advantages of creating masks out of coffee beans?
It has a lot of benefits: First of all, it’s washable, reusable, and biodegradable, which means it’s good for the environment. Secondly, coffee is naturally antibacterial which is great for masks. This also means it’s comfortable and good for sensitive skin. You won’t feel itchy when wearing them, and having a comfortable mask is important because people are now wearing masks every day like it’s part of their outfit. Coffee lovers will also be happy to know that by increasing the percentage of coffee beans added during the production, the mask will have a coffee aroma.
As for our business, the coffee grounds we use to make our products are essentially free. Coffee grounds are something that people usually throw away, which greatly reduces our cost for the sourcing of materials.
How have people reacted to your products? Are people open to using sustainable products in Vietnam?
I think people are curious about our products, which is why our revenue has been increasing sharply during the past few months. However, to be honest, most of the people buying our products are based in Europe and the US. We don’t actually sell that many in Vietnam, and I think that’s wrong because this product is made in Vietnam.
There needs to be more awareness about sustainable products in Vietnam – many people based in Vietnam told me they didn’t know about my product until they saw an article in other news media channels like Straits Times or Bangkok posts. We simply don’t see any articles talking about sustainability here.
What is the biggest challenge to creating a sustainable business?
Starting a sustainable business is very challenging because the revenue that sustainability businesses earn is quite small compared to other businesses like R&D.
I think the most important thing for sustainable businesses is knowing how to sell your products. If customers only buy from you once, that is going to be a problem. You want customers to buy repeatedly to keep your business growing.
To find a way into your customers’ hearts and make them keep buying, you need to create a product that’s not only sustainable but also stands out in the market. As a lifestyle product, you need it to have a good design, good quality, and an attractive price.
Can you paint us a picture of what the sustainability scene is like in Vietnam?
Since we started our company in Vietnam, there have been other sustainability companies on the rise, and people are starting to have some ideas about what sustainability is, which is a good sign. That’s largely because a lot of the younger generation has been educated overseas, and they are able to apply all that they’ve learned about sustainability to their own projects, startups, or companies that they work in when they come back to Vietnam.
In terms of the current sustainability scene in Vietnam, I would say progress in the field has been slow the past few months because of the pandemic. On the positive side, it has encouraged people to be more sustainable in some ways because they realise how many non-biodegradable medical masks are used every day. Some people have also taken this as an opportunity to start their own businesses and make biodegradable masks.
What are the future plans for your company?
We hope to build a whole range of lifestyle products out of coffee grounds from Vietnam. This could include biodegradable T-shirts, socks, bags, and cups. We ultimately want to create a DNA out of Vietnamese coffee and share this with the world.