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The Environmental Issue With Rubber Yoga Mats

Environmental Issue With Natural Rubber

Rubber is the world’s most used material. 

Nowadays it is already part of our clothing, cleaning supplies, transportation plus a lot of other things. It is pretty much framed in our daily life.

Yoga mats are no exception. 

The majority of yoga mats sold these days unfortunately are made from a variety of pollutive materials because they are cheap and easily accessible. 

While rubber is a plant-based material, making it natural in principle, it is not sustainable in practice. 

In fact, rubber is not only harmful on an ecological level, but on a socioeconomic level as well. 

In this article, we hope to shed light on the lesser known issues of the rubber industry, and debunk the myth that natural rubber yoga mats are eco-friendly.

What is rubber?

Let’s start with the basics.

If this is the first time you are diving deep into the compounds of this material, we should start by saying that it comes in different types. 

Rubber is a solid material that can either come from natural or synthetic sources. Its different moldable characteristics, shapes, sizes and textures make this a highly versatile material. 

Although the majority of rubber products are made using synthetic rubber, natural rubber still has unique components such as: high tear and tensile strength, resilience, and resistance to abrasion, friction, extreme temperatures, and water swell. 

Natural vs Synthetic

Rubber Harvested from Trees

 

Here are the main differences between natural and synthetic rubber. 

Natural rubber: derived from the milky liquid, known as latex, present in the Hevea brasiliensis tree. The main reason these trees produce this liquid is because it helps them heal after being damaged. This inhibits the entrance of viruses and bacteria helping the tree heal. Check out this video to find out how rubber is harvested from the rubber trees.

Synthetic rubber: as the name suggests this type of rubber is filled with chemical molecules. This can either be produced entirely synthetically, or by adding  chemical compounds to natural rubber in order to modify the material's durability, pliability, and strength. 

These days there are many different types of synthetic rubbers with a wide range of textures, functions, and applications. Some of these are even fully recyclable and have a low environmental impact. But, in reality we have not yet found a way to mimic natural rubber properties to its full original characteristics. 

Natural ≠ Sustainable 

Sounds counterintuitive, right? If rubber comes from nature shouldn’t it be sustainable? 

It’s easy to conflate these two concepts, but unfortunately there’s much more to being sustainable than coming from a natural source.

In fact, there are many commonly consumed, “natural” resources that are actually very harmful to the environment if not sourced through certified organic and sustainable channels. Examples of these are cotton, soybeans, and even bananas

These crops, amongst many others, are cultivated in ways to maximize yield and uniformity. This leads to monocropping, deforestation, and the use of toxic chemicals that poison the soil and water streams. 

Why is natural rubber unsustainable?

Eco-Friendly Yoga Mats

Looking for certified sustainable products is not just important for the items we eat, but also for the things that we don’t consume directly, like rubber. That’s because these products don’t just affect us, but the macro ecosystems of our entire planet. 


Here are 5 reasons natural rubber is not eco-friendly:

  1. Rubber can only be sourced from specific environments, primarily in South East Asia, China, and South America. This means that it has to travel far to get to places like Europe, therefore it produces a lot of carbon emissions. 
  1. To meet the growing demand of the market, Rubber is often not harvested sustainably, relying on practices such as monocropping and heavy use of chemicals. This leads to soil depletion and deforestation, therefore threatening the biodiversity of some of the richest ecosystems in the world. 
  1. The Hevea brasiliensis tree is highly sensitive and frequently exposed to disease. In fact, this tree is native to the Amazon, but due to its exposure to South American Leaf Blight, Brazil is now responsible for less than 2% of the world’s rubber production. This puts the plantations, and therefore the surrounding economic communities, at very high risk. 
  1. Rubber is a highly water intensive crop, resulting in adverse effects on water supply.
  1. Even though it comes from a natural source, the majority of rubber is treated with additives, thus “canceling out” its positive natural properties, like biodegradability. Approximately 70% of all rubber used today is one from many synthetic rubber varieties.

That being said, there are some organizations committed to increasing the sustainability of rubber production. If you are going to purchase a natural rubber product, make sure it’s been certified.

The Socio-Economic Issues with Natural Rubber

Fighting for sustainability for planet earth also means fighting for justice for those who inhabit it. But often, we get so swept up in the environmental point of view that we forget to examine the social and economic issues involved.

Harvesting latex is highly labor intensive, and unfortunately, highly unregulated. Since its production is centralized in countries without strong labor laws, there are many reported instances of human rights violations in the rubber industry.

In fact, the World Rainforest Management, states that “The industrial production of natural rubber has always been synonymous with destruction and exploitation.”

Examples of this exploitation include:

  • Not paying a fair wage or having safe working conditions for rubber workers
  • An increase in sexual violence and abuse towards women in these communities
  • Destroying  entire communities by throwing families off their land and destroying their houses so they can make more rubber farms.
  • As of 2020, it is considered one of the worst forms of child and forced labor

And since many of the world’s rubber plantations are actually entirely owned by tire companies, this limits the autonomy and upward mobility of the workforce. 

Similar to coffee and cocoa, it’s important to make sure that natural rubber comes from Fair Trade certified sources. 


Why Natural Rubber Doesn’t Make for a Functional Yoga Mat

Rubber Yoga Mats

As you can see, natural rubber is not a sustainable material to use. But even if it was, it's not a very practical material for a yoga mat.


One of the key reasons is because of latex allergies. 

Latex allergies are incredibly common, and can actually be triggered by repeat exposure to the material. So, each time you step on the mat, you could be increasing your likelihood of developing a latex allergy with potentially severe consequences.

Furthermore, the properties of natural rubber simply do not make it functional for yoga mats. This is because it’s:

  • Heavy
  • Smelly
  • Cracks easily

That’s why most “natural rubber” yoga mats are actually treated with toxic additives.

Cork Yoga Mats: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Natural Rubber

If this feels like information overload, then we invite you to pause and take a breath. We’re not sharing this information to make you feel anything but empowered. 

Because when we know better, we can do better. 

After all, that’s exactly how we came up with the idea for our eco-friendly, cork yoga mats. 

Our yoga mats are sustainably made using 100% ethically and locally sourced materials. We call this our Conscious Supply Chain

And, unlike other cork yoga mats, we don’t use natural rubber as the base. Instead, we use a material called EPDM to add a layer of support and protection under the cork. This is a sustainable, synthetic rubber alternative that is made in Portugal. It’s non-toxic, recyclable, and latex-free. Plus, it’s highly flexible and lightweight, making it perfect for a yoga mat.  

Curious about how our cork yoga mats are made? Check out this detailed article explaining all the details about the production of our cork products!


Shop Gecko Cork Yoga Mats