Cover photo: Olivia Dal Cin, yoga teacher, demonstrating Supta Padangusthasana B
Where do yoga mats come from?
The answer to this turns out to be more complicated than I’d expected. Initially, of course, you buy your yoga mat in the UK from your local yoga studio, department store, sports store, or perhaps an online company. However, it’s more likely than not that you’ve actually bought a yoga mat manufactured by an American company perhaps in America, or perhaps in China or Taiwan, using materials transported from one country to another. Does it matter? This is what I wanted to find out. I’m sharing my experiences in trying to choose the most eco-mat possible to replace my ancient and now rapidly disintegrating PVC mat.
Choosing a yoga mat
We all have slightly different reasons for doing yoga, and these will affect the type of mat we prefer. Perhaps it’s a purely physical exercise, a way of improving strength, stamina, balance and flexibility. Maybe the primary focus is on the inner self, learning to relax and switch off from external pressures. Or perhaps it’s about learning to be ‘present’ both to ourselves and to the world around us. Whatever our own individual motivation, we probably all take it pretty much for granted that our new yoga mat isn’t potentially damaging either to our personal health or the wider environment; and that someone somewhere has been paid a proper wage and worked in reasonable working conditions to manufacture it.
Yoga is big business
An aspect of yoga that may be less apparent is that it’s big business for companies. A 2016 study in the USA (commissioned by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance partnered with Ipsos Public Affairs) identified a total of 36.7 million American people practicing yoga (up from 20.4 million in 2012). These American yoga students spend $16 billion per year on classes, gear and equipment, up from $10 billion in 2012. That’s a lot of yoga mats! Plus the American mats imported to the UK . . .
A short history of the yoga mat
Given that a mat is the one item of yoga kit that’s regarded as essential in most classes, it came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that the modern ‘sticky’ yoga mat has only been used since the 1980s. The Bhagavad Gita, and other historical Indian documents, suggest that yoga was originally carried out on animal hides or blankets, or directly on the ground. Modern yoga mats came about due to a yoga teacher called Angela Farmer who used German carpet underlay to alleviate problems with gripping the floor caused by a medical condition. Her father spotted a commercial opportunity and liaised with the German carpet underlay manufacturer to create the modern yoga mat. There are now a large number of manufacturers and retailers offering a range of yoga mat options.
Is my yoga mat bad for the planet?
We tend to see yoga as part of a healthy lifestyle.
But there is a possibility some yoga mats may have the opposite effect. Many yoga mats are made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and there are some seemingly good reasons for this: PVC mats are cheap, long-lasting, easy to clean, and the material can be modified to obtain the ‘stickiness’ needed for modern yoga. But there are strongly opposing views on the safety of PVC. The PVC industry claims that PVC is safe and sustainable, and provides industry information to this effect on, for example, The European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers and The British Plastics Federation websites.
On the other hand, a number of environmental campaigners highlight ongoing potential health and environmental risks. According to the American environmental campaigner, Mike Schade, as reported in Yoga Journal March 2015 chemicals called phthalates used to make PVC mats flexible may be associated with reproductive problems; other potentially harmful chemicals including dioxins and mercury may be released into the environment during the manufacturing process; and, although there is no evidence specifically regarding yoga mats, research on other PVC products indicates a possibility of polluting chemicals being emitted into the atmosphere during use.
So, there’s a fair amount of technical information out there, but it can seem confusing and contradictory; making sense of it all is practically impossible if you don’t have a background in environmental science (and maybe even if you do!). Opposing views on the risks posed by PVC mean that you have to decide on the degree to which you place your trust in appropriate regulation of the plastics industry, and implementation in practice. For my part, recent environmental scandals such as the motor industry’s manipulation of emission tests mean that, sadly, I find it hard to place 100% trust in any manufacturers’ claims. If you want to err on the safe side, what are the alternatives to conventional PVC yoga mats?
Choosing an eco-yoga mat
There are a number of manufacturers vying for the ‘most eco’ accolade. How do you choose between them?
One consideration is what’s known as ‘lifecycle’. Lifecycle takes account of any adverse environmental impacts throughout the entire life of a yoga mat: manufacture, use and disposal. One of the key issues here is durability versus biodegradability. Would you prefer to buy a yoga mat whose manufacture and disposal requires more environmental compromises but which should last a lifetime? Or do you feel so strongly about longer-term consequences that you’d rather buy a yoga mat which will need replacing every couple of years, but which will biodegrade relatively safely? There’s no easy right or wrong here, and different choices will feel right to different people.
If you’d prefer the durable yoga mat option the Manduka Black Pro mat comes with a lifetime guarantee, and attracts a lot of positive reviews from users. According to Manduka, the “PRO series yoga mats are made in Germany and are designed to last a lifetime and curb the amount of PVC mats that enter landfills every year to reduce overall mat consumption. PRO series mats are manufactured through a process that ensures no toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere. PRO Series mats are certified safe for human contact by OEKO TEX, an environmental certification agency in Europe for the textile industry”. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the OEKO TEX standard doesn’t include assessment of ecological aspects of disposal. Even ‘safe’ PVC isn’t biodegradable so your mat might still be emitting toxic chemicals in landfill long after you’ve done your last downward dog.
The Manduka eKO mat, which is manufactured in Taiwan, is marketed as a more ‘eco-friendly’ option. The company claims “According to both customer feedback and published yoga mat reviews, the eKO mat is a high performance mat that is also good for the environment”. What struck me most about this statement was that Manduka refer to customer feedback and reviews to back up their environmental credentials, rather than to external accreditation.
So I contacted them explaining that, to make comparisons with other eco-mats, it would be helpful for me to understand how they ensured the social and environmental sustainability of their ‘non-Amazonian forested tree rubber’ supplies, and what actions they take to minimise their carbon footprint? As their reply simply duplicated the information available on their website and made no reference to my questions at all, I can’t comment on the eco-friendliness of the eKO mat. However, I found it puzzling, given their ethos of being “a company founded on the simple idea that a better yoga mat could make a world of difference”, that they’re not more transparent in responding to queries from potential customers.
Kharma Khare is another American company whose selling point is high-performance, durable yoga mats which are “good for the earth”. But instead of using PVC they make mats from Taiwanese car tyres, thus diverting those tyres from landfill or incineration (although, of course, only for the lifetime of the mat). The company state that their ecological footprint is further reduced by using environmentally-friendly products such as natural rubber latex sourced from sustainable plantation grown rubber trees.
I used the contact form on the Kharma Khare website to try and get more information about how they are “taking eco-friendly to a new level”. In particular, I asked about what happens to the carbon black and other pollutants removed from the tyres during the production process; whether Kharma Khare yoga mats described as converted into an inert material safe enough to eat (though clearly they don’t actually recommend that!) bio-degrade 100% safely once they’ve reached the end of their ‘reincarnated’ as a yoga mat life; and how the company minimizes its overall carbon footprint. Unfortunately I didn’t receive a response so it’s difficult to be certain about the exact levels to which they are taking eco-friendliness.
Yoloha, another American company, also recycle car tyres for the mat backing, but use cork for the top layer. According to Yoloha, 6.6 million acres of cork forest in the Mediterranean area extend across Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France supporting one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, second only to the Amazonian Rainforest. I liked the sound of this. The Rainforest Alliance emphasis the many benefits of properly managed cork forests and, if using cork products helps to ensure the preservation of cork forests, and cork forests help to support biodiversity, then that’s got to be good, right? Additionally, Yoloha use non-toxic Greenguard adhesives to join the cork to the mat backing; and 100% recycled packaging (often repurposed boxes). Though, as with Kharma Khare mats, I wondered what happened to pollutants removed from recycled tyres used in the mat backing?
I contacted them to obtain a little more reassurance on their claim that their yoga mats are “quite possibly the most eco-friendly yoga mats ever produced”. Although I received a friendly initial response from Yoloha, I heard nothing further when I requested further information on how they assess, monitor and minimise any potential adverse environmental impacts from the process of repurposing car tyres to make them safe for use in yoga mats; why they opted for a one-year guarantee on their mats (as opposed to, say, the lifetime guarantee offered by some other suppliers); whether there is any external accreditation of their environmental credentials which would give additional reassurance to customers; and in which country they manufacture their mats?
I understand that it’s complicated and expensive to assess impact, and time-consuming to have detailed conversation with customers. But I also think it’s important, when companies specifically claim to be (even if only ‘possibly’) the most eco-friendly option available, for potential customers to be able to easily obtain relevant information in order to compare products with other options so they can make an informed decision in line with their ethical values.
Liforme, a British company, manufacture high-performance yoga mats using natural rubber for the base layer, felt in the middle, and ‘eco-friendly polyurethane’ for the top layer. Their manufacturing process eliminates the need for toxic glues by using a heat bonding process to join the top and base layers, and guidelines to assist alignment are etched instead of being printed with potentially toxic inks. Consequently both the standard yoga mat and travel mat option are bio-degradable.
As regards packaging and transport, they selected their logistics company for their ethical credentials (the company which distributes their mats is based in the UK; it was the first carbon neutral courier company in this country; and donates 10% of profits to charities which protect the environment and endangered animals).
Liforme emphasise their commitment to being “eco-friendly and socially just”. The founder, James Armitage, tells me: “We’ve always taken care at every stage of development of the products we’ve made so far to use the most eco-friendly options wherever possible, and have incurred significant extra expense in so doing.” Liforme are currently undertaking an “ongoing and in-depth research programme” to further enhance their understanding of the situation as regards ethics of the materials used in yoga mats, and related manufacturing processes.
It’s a fact of business life that many companies face dilemmas in balancing accountability and transparency with competitive advantage in crowded marketplaces. However, James was confident that the results of their research programme would enable them to provide fuller responses to detailed queries from existing and potential customers like myself. I was impressed with his openness and willingness to engage with my questions, and look forward to hearing more once Liforme’s research is completed.
If environmentally-friendly disposal and transport miles are more important to you than a lifetime guarantee, you could also consider the ecoYoga mat.
“At the heart of ecoYoga rests the belief that yoga and ecology are inextricably linked: both holding the potential to deepen our awareness and sensitivity – yoga to the body and inner self and ecology to our natural environment”.
Made from natural rubber and jute, ecoYoga mats are fully biodegradable. Manufacturing is based in the UK, so buying an ecoYoga mat is a simple way to support a British company with Ethical Company Organisation accreditation. Although, of course, all yoga mats require long-distance transportation of materials with corresponding carbon emission implications.
I like the fact that ecoYoga aims for significant transparency, providing useful information on their website including pricing issues, overseas quality management standards, and challenges in achieving full sustainability. For example, they highlight the absence of Fair Trade standards in the jute and rubber industries and their desire to address this by highlighting consumer demand for such standards. (If you’ve seen the 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent you’ll have some inkling of the shameful impact of early colonialist rubber barons on indigenous Amazonian communities).
Choosing no yoga mat . . .
This is the more radical option and, obviously, it won’t be suitable for everyone. Maybe a hard surface simply isn’t comfortable for you, or the floor in your yoga studio isn’t as spotlessly clean as it might be. But, bearing in mind the relatively recent introduction of yoga mats, you might want to experiment with stepping off the mat even if only for a little while just to see what it feels like.
American yoga teacher, Colin Hall, makes some interesting comments on whether yoga mats are really necessary. He accepts that there are positive aspects to yoga mats, both practical and esoteric: “The yoga mat is a metaphor. It represents the space in which our minds might experience some relief from the stress-laden, chaotic, and unpredictable nature of daily life”. But he also points out inherent contradictions between a practice that promotes expanding the boundaries of physical awareness and the physical confines imposed by “our personalized, brightly colored, private rectangular yoga spaces”.
‘Green’ mats or ‘greenwash’?
I was genuinely surprised by the difficulty in obtaining meaningful responses from some companies, given the ambitious claims made for their eco-mats. Perhaps naively, I’d imagined they’d be keen to tell interested customers more about their socially and environmentally progressive policies. An apparent lack of transparency in some cases has left me unsure whether they simply don’t feel it’s worth the time and effort to respond to detailed enquiries from individual members of the public; or whether some companies simply can’t back up their eco marketing claims. On the other hand, ecoYoga and Liforme were reassuringly open in acknowledging the difficulties inherent in achieving sustainability, and keen to share their own approaches to this vital challenge.
- Don’t rush into buying the latest eco-yoga mat. Even if your current yoga mat isn’t eco-friendly in itself, the greenest option is to wait until it really needs replacing before replacing it.
- When you do buy a new mat, don’t buy a PVC mat. It’s cheaper, but may have a significant environmental cost in the long run. Of the companies I looked at Liforme and ecoYoga were the most transparent by far, and appear to offer the most ethical and sustainable options.
- EcoYoga offer factory seconds: this is a cheaper option and diverts less than perfect mats from landfill.
- Consider a pigment-free option, such as EcoYoga colour-free mats. Using no dye is inherently more environmentally-friendly.
- Opt out of ‘consumerism’ by practising directly on the floor. (I actually really enjoyed doing two classes without a mat, but I’m too sweaty to do without a mat on a permanent basis).
- If you give up yoga, don’t throw your mat away or hide it in the attic; give it to a friend. If you don’t know anyone who needs a yoga mat, advertise it on a sharing website such as Streetbank or Freecycle.