Environment

Reshaping Eco-friendly Shopping

Entrepreneur Vantha Vichiekha is trying to reshape consumer behavior in Cambodia through her two busineses that introduce innovative ways to avoid plastic-free products
Dai Khmer is a social business that produces natural, local handmade cosmetic products. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Dai Khmer is a social business that produces natural, local handmade cosmetic products. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Entrepreneur Vantha Vichiekha has successfully managed to launch two eco-friendly focused businesses that are helping to save the planet and empower Cambodian women – all by the age of 29.

Vichiehka currently owns two businesses. Dai Khmer is a social business that produces natural, local handmade cosmetic products. While Refill Store PP by Dai Khmer is a plastic-free packaging store based in Phnom Penh that offers non-packaged personal-care items, such as shampoo, body wash and hand soap; household products, such as laundry detergent; and beverage grains, such as coffee and teas that are all refillable.

Refill stores are a new concept in Cambodia and focus on cutting down on plastic waste that comes from buying goods with packaging. They aim to encourage consumers to practice eco-friendly buying behaviors by bringing their own containers to the store to be filled, rather than buying pre-packaged products. The cost of goods are calculated by weighing them.

The cost of goods are calculated by weighing them. Kiripost/Siv Channa
The cost of goods are calculated by weighing them. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Vichiehka said, “We established this store by selling only the refillable products, or customers can bring their own packaging to package by themselves. Moreover, they also can find our Khmer local products that do not use plastics and are designing in creative ways on their own.”

“The special features of our store are, first, we help to empower Cambodian women. Second, we don’t create plastic waste and third, our store is more like a community,” she added.

Vichiehka recalls the inspiration for the refill concept when she came across it for the first time watching a video online. It featured a refill store in Canada and impressed her by reusing plastic containers or packaging. She believes the refill idea plays a key first step in solving environmental issues surrounding plastic waste in purchasing and selling cycles in Cambodia.

Invigorated, in August 2018, she opened a small refill store in Siem Reap province. Unfortunately, during the pandemic when tourists were banned from entering the country, her store was unable to survive due to high rent and few customers.

“Our shop has been renamed twice, we had one shop in 2018 in Siem Reap with the name ‘Dai Khmer Refill and Eco Store’ and at that time we sold only Dia Khmer cosmetic products and cleaning products like soap and laundry detergent on a small scale,” she recalls.

After opening for a while, she set about finding a new business model that is sustainable during times without tourists. Realizing there are not many refill stores in Cambodia, she was curious how much plastic waste could be saved if replaced with refilling product habits in Cambodia.

Dai Khmer is a social business that produces natural, local handmade cosmetic products. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Dai Khmer is a social business that produces natural, local handmade cosmetic products. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“I began to think, if I can create one store in Phnom Penh city as a refill store, how much plastic waste will be cut down from it?”

Kicking-off with a small-scale refill store, in 2019 she relocated from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh city, with just a few products. Since then, she has upsized her operations and now stocks more than 20 local sustainable brands. She also employs more Cambodian women business from provinces, such as Kampong Thom, to produce laundry detergent and sell handmade products in the city.

Vichiehka also prides herself on supplying cosmetic products that have plastic-free packaging and is passionate about spreading her eco-friendly shopping style with other brands, so they follow suit.

“Dai Khmer is a business where we make our own [natural] packages without using plastics, and we always find more ways to encourage more Cambodians to utilize zero plastic waste packaged products much more than before,” she says, adding plastic free packaging for her own brand is not enough. Her goal is to see other brands do the same to create a better environment.

After establishing the refill store, she researched for more local brands that shared her goal of sustainable shopping to come together under the same roof.

She adds, “Then the idea of establishing one shop happened and I started to explore more local Khmer goods, so we can motivate them to create their own [natural] packages. Therefore, we can inspire them to sell their product in plastic-free ways and more Khmer local products can be here in the same shop.”

How to buy products in a refill store in Phnom Penh

Consumers who want to buy products in the store should bring their own packages or containers and refill whatever products they want to purchase in their own bottles with the quantity they want to use.

First, weigh the package or container on electronic scales, then fill it with goods that you want to use. Next, weigh the package or container that was refilled again and deduct the weight of the container after filling. This enables consumers to know how many grams or liters of goods they have filled into their containers. Payment is based on the quantity of goods filled only. Adopting this cycle of shopping, reduces plastic bag and bottle consumption.

However, despite the concept having benefits for the environment, Vichiehka says Cambodian citizens are not ready for this eco-friendly shopping method yet.

“So far, I see mostly foreigners come to buy and package themselves. There are such a tiny number of Cambodians for refillable products. We are trying to find ways to encourage Cambodians to use refillable products,” she notes.

“We are trying to do more research in order to set a new marketing strategy that makes them stop buying products that already have plastic packaging, which causes a lot of rubbish on our planet,” she says, urging for more local support in buying plastic-free products.

She said most Cambodian customers prefer to buy teas using a refill method in the store, adding it will take time for people to shift their shopping habits.

“Changing always has difficulties, but if we don’t make a change [in buying] we will face issues in the future. For example, if we use more plastics every day for a longer term. As a result, we are the ones dealing with consequences like climate change that will affect many generations ahead,” she says as her last key message to make people reflect on their shopping behavior.