Manduka eKO Yoga Mat 5mm

overall rating:

1.25

planets

Maya Richardson
3/4/2022
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Manduka is a yoga and activewear company which describes its design approach as “rooted in principles of conservancy - creating responsibly sourced products while minimizing environmental waste”. As an enthusiastic consumer of Manduka products, I wish I could say they lived up to their promises completely. While the eKO yoga mat is consciously designed to be much less harmful to the environment than Manduka’s other mat lines, the company overstates its commitment to transparency and the impact of its current sustainability efforts.

 

Manduka states that it is dedicated to 100% transparency with regard to its sustainability choices and weaknesses. 100% transparency is a commendable goal, but the company is not there yet. I would encourage Manduka to follow through on this promise by illuminating the details behind how their rubber is harvested and the workers involved in their supply chain are treated, and taking a hard look at the footprint of their most popular products (as opposed to one niche “eKO” line). Furthermore, there appears to be wide scope for Manduka to reassess how they could invest company profits in expanding the impact and accessibility of their environmental initiatives. 

What it's made of:

1.5

The eKO yoga mat is primarily made of “all natural” tree rubber, which is derived from the sap of trees native to South American and Asian rainforests, then dried and processed into rubber sheets. Opting for tree rubber instead of synthetic, petroleum-based rubber (i.e. plastic) is a good first step in reducing the environmental harm of this yoga mat’s supply chain. However, the process by which latex sap is harvested is extremely consequential for the environment, as are the approaches taken to rubber tree planting and clearing, which will be discussed in the next section. In this regard, Manduka’s use of non-Amazon rubber that is “sustainably harvested” is important, but the extent of this environmental benefit is impossible to ascertain, as Manduka does not provide further details on the harvesting process. 

 

Manduka’s claim that natural tree rubber is biodegradable is technically true, as it comes from a plant source. However, natural rubber can take years to decompose and the decomposition process can be slowed or hindered depending on how that rubber was processed. As such, I would recommend that Manduka place more emphasis on improving the transparency and sustainability of its supply chain, including by providing further detail on how the rubber used in its mats is harvested, rather than using the claim of “biodegradability” to virtue signal to consumers that the eKO yoga mat is an entirely earth-friendly choice. 

 

While continuing to harvest rubber at high rates exacerbates deforestation, using natural rubber in this product is still a more sustainable design choice than using synthetic rubber or PVC, which is used in many of Manduka’s other yoga mats. On the plus side, the eKO mat also uses non-AZO dyes, which are carcinogenic and accumulate in the environment. 

 

Manduka’s primary plug for sustainability is that their mats are made to last, reducing the need for frequent purchases. The eKO mat is supposedly “the most durable natural rubber mat on the market”. Ironically, however, it is said to wear out more easily than synthetic mats, and thus does not have the same lifetime guarantee as the Manduka PRO mat. 

How it's made:

1.5

High demand for natural rubber leads to the clearing of forests to make way for new rubber trees. Deforestation related to rubber trees in East Asia has had and continues to have devastating consequences in terms of habitat loss, ecosystem disruption, and the loss of biodiversity in birds, bats, and invertebrates. Rubber trees are also often treated with pesticides and herbicides which are harmful to the environment. What is more, the area of land used for rubber plant cultivation doubled between 1983 and 2016, and demand is expected to continue growing. The vast majority of rubber cultivation in Southeast Asia is done by smallholders, though about 15% of rubber produced is provided by large corporations on industrial monoculture plantations. The growth of these large monoculture plantations and the labor-intensive nature of harvesting and processing of natural rubber have been known to elicit human rights abuses, poor labor conditions, and land grabs by large corporations. 

 

Manduka declares that its eKO mats are “sustainably made” in Taiwan and that their rubber is “sustainably harvested”. They avoid using toxic glues and foaming agents to soften the rubber and produce the mats. Ultimately, however, Manduka’s failure to fill out the meanings of “sustainably made” and “sustainably harvested” with concrete details about their labor standards and supply chain does not allow me to score the production process any higher than 1.5 planets. 

 

Looking at two of Manduka’s other sustainability initiatives in tandem makes apparent the tensions involved in the company’s approach to sustainability. Manduka emphasizes that product durability is beneficial to the environment because it entails less waste and fewer purchases. In line with this belief, Manduka proudly declares a “no free returns” policy, encouraging its customers to “place their orders consciously” to minimize waste and environmental impact. At the same time, Manduka offers a yoga mat recycling program in the United States. Customers willing to pay extra with the purchase of a Manduka mat can send their old mat (of any brand) back to Manduka, who will then repair the mat and donate it to, or downcycle it by grinding it into pieces to use in products such as carpet padding, animal shelter bedding, track surfaces, and soles of shoes. 

 

On the one hand, both the “no free returns” policy and the LiveON mat recycling program seem like great initiatives that contribute to reducing waste. On the other hand, refusing to offer free returns is also a cost-saving measure for Manduka and offering a yoga mat recycling program could be seen as providing customers a justification to purchase new yoga gear while maintaining the idea that they are minimizing waste and making otherwise sustainable purchasing decisions. What’s more, making customers pay extra to recycle their mat is another avenue for increasing Manduka’s profits. While I’m all for initiatives that promote less consumptive lifestyles and more thoughtful purchasing, I would be eager to see Manduka fortify its expressed commitment to sustainability by directing more of its funding to such initiatives. For example, if the “no free returns policy” is a legitimate effort to promote conscious consumption, Manduka could spend the money it would have directed towards returns on making their yoga mat recycling program more accessible by removing the extra fee. 

Who makes it:

0.5

As demonstrated, Manduka portrays itself as an extremely environmentally conscious company. This self-presentation is only minimally substantiated by their background. Founder Peter Sterios was trained as an architect, and his website claims that he specializes in “green yoga studios and retreat centers”. Manduka’s CEO is Paul Zaemgle and the company has been backed by Valor Equity Partners since 2015. Valor posits that it looks “beyond the best financial return,” but little concrete information is available on how they assess their priorities and the ways in which this new partnership has impacted Manduka. 

 

Manduka does not provide easily available data on their team or leadership, with no high level employees but Sterios listed on their website. As such, it is difficult to ascertain details about the working conditions and diversity of the team. However, a common theme from Glassdoor reviews by current and former Manduka employees was complaints about Manduka’s leadership, which was described as “vindictive” and not interested in fixing problems, but rather choosing to cover them up. 

 

More generally, Manduka seems occupied with keeping up appearances as a sustainable and ethical company. While some of this is merited, many of their products are not produced as sustainably as the eKO line. Moreover, what appears to be Manduka’s main philanthropic contribution, Roll it Forward, appears to be limited to the donation of yoga mats and equipment to select community programs in Europe and Africa. While this surely benefits individual programs, I would expect that a private company which generates $31.78 million in sales every year (according to Dun & Bradstreet) could do more to contribute to its community.