KOTO - An inspiring journey towards greater sustainability

KOTO (Know One, Teach One) is the first legal Social Enterprise in Vietnam, creating lifechanging opportunities for at-risk and disadvantaged youth through training, life-skills and career. More than just tackling youth unemployment, KOTO is striving to transform its business into a more sustainable, environmental-friendly one. I am so lucky to have Jimmy Pham, the amazing Founder of KOTO, for a short interview to know more about sustainability factors at KOTO!


Trâm Anh: How is sustainability integrated at KOTO? In the service, daily operation at Front of House (FOH) and in the kitchen? (For example, how are you saving energy? dealing with food waste? cutting down food wrap? etc.)


Jimmy Pham: We try to be as sustainable as possible by reducing food waste and we use a lot of food items that have minimal negative impact to the environment. As we’re a large venue that does external catering too, we monitor the function of our appliances which not only benefits the environment, it’s quite profitable for operations which is important as we recover due to the ramifications of COVID-19. I’ve been in the Food & Beverage industry for 22 years so I know how important it is to have high-quality solutions to ensure our food is kept at a safe temperature and that we’re able to limit waste. This is paramount not only for food safety but minimises the risk of throwing out waste so it’s a win-win. Our Head Chef, Phong Le, is very resourceful and we go to great lengths to make sure that we’re doing as much as we can to limit our impact on the environment and also save costs.

The one and only KOTO Eco Cup!

Trâm Anh: I am strongly impressed by the KOTO Eco Cup Programme, could you tell me more about it? When was it first launched? What is the success so far?


Jimmy Pham: We’ve actually had the KOTO Eco Cup for a few years! We brought it in for tourists who visited our old restaurant on Van Mieu as a way for them to indulge in Vietnamese-style coffee while on-the-go, get a keepsake from their visit to KOTO but not contribute to the monumental amount of waste that is created by disposable coffee cups! As we’ve just opened, we’ve only recently launched our deal of 195k for a KOTO Eco Cup. You’ll receive your first coffee for free and then it’s 20% off on all future orders. It’s a great way for people in the local Tay Ho area to ensure they keep using the cup. The alternative is the glass bottle that we see often around Tay Ho but we find that people just end up having a large amount of glass bottles in their kitchen which may still end up in landfill. The Eco Cup is easy to carry around and keeps your coffee warm.


Trâm Anh: As you provide hospitality training for many trainees over the years, is there a module on sustainability in the programme? Are your students aware of the importance of promoting sustainability at work? Will there be an update in the Standard of Procedure (SOP) for staff in the restaurant that involves more sustainable activities (for example, asking whether customers need a bag/straw, etc.)


Jimmy Pham: Our target intake is 16-22 years at KOTO and meaningful youth participation should be a priority for the future of Vietnam everywhere. Sustainable practices are built into our KOTO programme as our aim is to strengthen the capacity, knowledge and skills of our trainees in environmentally sustainable practices.


We’ve got our Green Project which is part of our two-year programme. Trainees do team projects which involve the 3Rs. Reduce, reuse and recycle! We find that our trainees don’t haphazardly waste food, water or electricity. They’ve lived lives that involve being quite conservative due to significant financial constraints.


Our trainees love to grow vegetables and plants, and many hail from mountainous or farming areas so that’s been a big part of our new training centre. However, over the years, I’ve found that the vast majority of our trainees are often quite sustainable anyway. They’ve not had the luxury of being able to just go out and buy a new pair of shoes; if they broke, they mended them. Electricity is a luxury some of them may not have had before KOTO, and would certainly have been very expensive, so they’re naturally conserving. They have an intrinsic sense of sustainability which has come from a necessity to do so. What we do now is connect that to the environment and the impact that businesses can make.


Cutting down on the use of plastic products is so important, and we communicate why we do this at KOTO Villa and our training centre. We directly take and communicate measures to limit our impact to the environment by not using one-use plastic, we only use cardboard delivery boxes and we don’t provide the standard plastic forks or napkins for delivery as of course, most people are dining at home! There’s more we plan to do in the future too.


Trâm Anh: What do you think are the most challenging obstacles for a business in the Hospitality industry like KOTO to overcome to achieve better results in sustainability?


Jimmy Pham: Well we’re all trying to survive this pandemic and environmental products do tend to cost more or mean that the price is passed onto the consumer. Deciding to go ‘green’ is a luxury that many cannot afford. It would be wrong to push those choices on people. It’s not always about awareness. From a business perspective, even a small increase has an impact right now on profits. An increase in prices could be the deciding factor in a beverage being too expensive for certain groups due to limited income. I understand both sides, truly. However, certain venues have a responsibility to make an effort and we do try as much as possible at KOTO Villa.


I believe that there’s an intrinsic willingness we all have to purchase products and services from companies that display care for social and environmental values. That’s essentially the model of KOTO. People want to work with us because of our values. They see an impact in their purchase. We try to partner with sustainable businesses too who have similar values. Strategic partnerships with environmentally friendly businesses is the way forward for Vietnam. When we do this, we also inform trainees with the reason why we’re working with a business. It’s often not just the product they’re selling but the ethos behind it. It’s a great way to engage our trainees to think critically


Communicating one message to 130 trainees enrolled in our programme, and ensuring they understand it all is never easy but we’re getting there! We have weekly meetings with updates and a briefing before every shift so we can ensure that everyone is aware of any new practices and updates at KOTO Villa.


Trâm Anh: For the final question, what are your goals regarding sustainability at KOTO in the coming year?


Jimmy Pham: Our goal, as usual, is to strive to be better! There’s always more we can be doing to play our role in helping the environment. We hope that some of the measures we implement will have an impact on our future alumni and that when they manage, own or even work at another business that may not be implementing these measures, they can do their part. We can all create a bit of impact.

It's a great honour for BYO Campaign to have KOTO as a supporting partner

Trâm Anh: Thank you for your great answers! Your inspirational business concepts and sustainability efforts are truly what Vietnam market needs. I wish you and KOTO all the bests and again, thank you for your great work to help disadvantaged youths in Vietnam!


We are proudly to announce that KOTO is one of our BYO Campaign’s partner, helping us to spread the positive movement of reducing single-use disposables. To support KOTO and their works, you can visit their beautiful KOTO Villa in Westlake, Hanoi, or make a donation and volunteer for other programmes here.


If you want to make a real impact on the sustainability scene in Vietnam, let's join our BYO programme or volunteer with us!

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