This is Anna and Sophie, co-founders of a really forward-thinking company called hejhej-mats. It’s a sustainability brand in Germany that makes “closed loop” yoga mats. Their goal is to reduce the amount of waste on the planet and promote more responsible consumption — sounds good to us. So we recently spent time with Sophie and Anna in Nuremberg where their mats are made and shipped, and here is some of that conversation.
Sophie: I spent a semester abroad in Spain while getting my Bachelor’s degree, and that’s where I met Anna.
Anna: Yep, we met near Madrid and got along really well. We thought that it would be cool to apply for master's degree programs together, and we were both accepted to Malmö University in Malmö, Sweden. We moved there together to study sustainability management, and that’s where we got the idea for hejhej-mats. It came to us totally spontaneously. We’re not necessarily your typical founders who really wanted to strike out on their own and start their own business, but one day we went to an art exhibition that dealt with the topic of sustainability. There was a piece of art there by an artist who poked fun at yogis, and how they always think they are so sustainable because they live more mindfully, ride their bikes to yoga class and carry glass bottles and all that...but they all have plastic yoga mats. Sophie and I felt sort of called out, and we wondered if there was a more sustainable option. So we started researching and we weren’t really satisfied with what we found.
That was almost 3 years ago. The university totally supported us, and we did our thesis projects on our sustainable yoga mats. We even had a coach at the university’s incubator help us out. After getting our master’s and moving to Germany, we decided that we wanted to continue working full time on our yoga mat concept. The crowdfunding campaign was launched in the fall of 2017, and that’s where things really got started.
Sophie: Lots of other (relatively) sustainable yoga mats are made of natural rubber, which is sourced mainly from Southeast Asia. We didn’t want to use that many natural resources or import material from Asia to make our mats, though. We were already familiar with the notion of a circular economy — meaning an economic system that’s aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of available resources — thanks to our studies, and we wanted to source everything locally in Germany, instead.
Anna: We had the idea of a "closed loop" yoga mat, but we were both unfamiliar with product development. We had to acquire all the knowledge ourselves and, above all, find a suitable material that would meet the demands of a yoga mat while still being sourced and produced in a "circular” manner. At some point we landed on the idea of foam, and we found out that the foam manufacturing process results in a ton of leftover foam that is usually never even used.
Sophie: Once we had the material, we found a company that helped us create prototypes and also worked a lot with yoga teachers who gave us feedback on the mats.
We try to make every decision and solve every problem as sustainably as possible, while thinking about how to get something positive out of the situation.
Anna: We actually packed the first load of mats ourselves in our garage and sent them out to customers, but we immediately realized that we couldn’t manage that ourselves. We had to outsource that part pretty quickly. We could have outsourced it to a mail-order company, but we wondered if there was a more socially or ecologically beneficial way to do it. After a little research, we came across this workshop for people with disabilities and we’re very satisfied — not just with the work (everything is done perfectly), but for other reasons too. We love going there, and we realize that giving people a task and work to do is a different, but important form of appreciation.
Sophie: We try to make every decision and solve every problem as sustainably as possible, while thinking about how to get something positive out of the situation. We officially launched this past December and have mostly been selling online, mainly in Germany and a few other European countries.
Anna: For us, sustainability is a really personal issue that coalesces with our work with hejhej-mats. We both don’t buy many new things, and we consume consciously.
Sophie: Of course, we don’t limit ourselves to doing that. Sometimes we’ll do something that is not very sustainable, but then we’ll reflect on it. It’s also very important to us to question consumer behavior. We're always asking ourselves if there’s really a need for a certain new product and if so, we always look for the most sustainable possible option. Anything else would be inconsistent with our values.
Anna: We sort of ended up in the start-up scene by accident and sometimes feel like we don’t really fit in, because we never planned things this way.
Sophie: Ever since we first had the idea for hejhej-mats, though, we haven’t lost sight of our goal. We didn’t even think about alternatives, we just did it. We just had to make these yoga mats. Success is defined and measured in different ways, and sometimes people ask us why we don’t manufacture in Asia, where it’s much cheaper to do so. That's when you realize that for many people, the idea of sustainability is still difficult to understand. For us, it's the number one point. We can honestly tell people “Don’t buy a yoga mat unless you really need it,” which kind of speaks against the economic foundation of your typical start-up. But we don’t want to sell a yoga mat to anyone who will buy one, just for the sake of selling yoga mats.
Anna: We also noticed—very much by accident—that when we came from Sweden to Germany, we were suddenly asked very different types of questions. Over there, there was never any question about two girls founding a start-up. We even got a scholarship at the University of Lund, and all the faculty members encouraged us to pursue crowdfunding. Here in Germany, suddenly people were asking things like, “You're two girls, how are you going to do that?”.
Sophie: The start-up events here are always almost only men, and we’re the “yoga girls.” So that's another topic we're trying to push—encouraging other girls and women to found start-ups. It's great to see that this topic is so well-received on social media, and we’re perceived as role models as a result. We weren't initially aware of that and didn't plan it at all. We sort of slipped into this role, but we think it's great to see how encouraged girls and women feel after our conversations.
Anna: The topics of education and equal opportunities are very important to us. With every mat sold, we support a project in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa. There is an organization there that teaches yoga to children in local schools. I was on-site there myself recently and helped out. It was really nice, because the kids are truly enthusiastic about the yoga classes and they get familiarized with the topic of plastic and its issues, and they even learn how food is produced. In our opinion, sustainability is very closely linked with education. If we could make any change, we would give equal access to education to every child and teen in the world.