For many entrepreneurs, the key driving force behind their businesses or projects is a craving to innovate or disrupt the status quo in some way. And while that’s not totally removed from her mission, Robyn Shapiro has a different guiding light when it comes to the ideation of new products: the environment. Shapiro has long believed that environmental consciousness and proactivity deserved a central role in just about any project she tackled – you may remember Shapiro as the mind behind Seek, a cricket-based snack company that was also built first and foremost on a foundation of sustainability – and now, with her latest endeavour, 42 Birds, the focus is no different. In creating this line of totally cork-based yoga products, Shapiro (along with her co-founder, Addie Conner) has turned her focus to reshaping the way we practice yoga by putting forth a host of sleek, better-looking yoga accessories that, at their heart, are meant to do good by the earth. Here, we chat with Shapiro about the launch of the new brand, the features of these yoga products, and, the biggest question on our minds: so, does this mean cork isn’t endangered? (Because we heard it was…)
Why did you decide to get involved in the yoga space?
We’re at a time when yoga has gone from being more of a niche thing to something mainstream. I think people around the world are really seeing the benefits. It’s really like killing two birds with one stone because it’s both exercise and mindfulness. It kind of propels me through my day and helps me get it all done.
Despite 42 Birds being a lot different from Seek (yoga and cricket snacks – not really the same thing), sustainability is a big common thread between them. Can you tell me a bit more about why this theme is always so central for you?
Definitely! Both myself and my cofounder Addie were big on practicing yoga on our own but also very deeply connected to sustainability. That was absolutely one of the biggest reasons that I did Seek, because sustainability is a cause that’s just so close to my heart. I’ve worked on other environmental projects, too, like the lowline, for example, where we were building an underground park. I think it’s so critical to think about environmental issues across a lot of different categories. 42 Birds is no different. We combine a lot of the same environmental considerations but bring them to yoga products, and we do that by using cork as our primary material.
Can you explain why cork makes for a more sustainable option here?
There are plenty of reasons why cork is great for sustainability purposes. It’s a zero-waste, renewable product; only the bark is used, and even when the cork is being cut into shapes or something, there’s a type of sawdust you get that can then be used to make a kind of recycled cork and it’s an easier material to cut into and work with. Cork is also one of the most unique materials when it comes to addressing environmental concerns because it’s a weird case where the more you use it, the more you’re conserving it, actually. Cork trees are super resilient, and have really adapted to harsh terrains in areas like Spain and Portugal where it’s harder to grow other things. But the issue is that the wine industry used to make up about 90 percent of cork usage, and as wine has moved to plastic, cork has suffered as a result because cork forests aren’t really being replanted. Cork farmers don’t have a market to sell their product anymore so they’re cutting down their cork trees and trying to replant others that aren’t native to the land but that they might be able to sell. So the less we use cork, the more we actually contribute to this decline in the cultivation of cork forests.
So, is it a myth then that cork is actually an endangered natural resource?
Yes, people don’t really realize that cork is the most sustainable type of forestry and there are so many different misconceptions. People think that it’s endangered because of everything happening with the wine industry. All of the sudden, we’re seeing screwtops instead of cork stoppers, so people have started to think it’s because of some shortage. So now we’re having to do the work to come back to it.
Sustainability aside, how does the use of cork impact the functionality of these yoga products?
Cork actually contributes to these products performing incredibly well. For anyone doing yoga, you know we want to have a strong grip. With cork, you get a grip unlike any other yoga mat that you see out there. You do need a little bit of moisture – you can actually spray it or just let your sweat do the trick – and that gives you a really tight, locked grip. Cork is also antimicrobial, so it naturally doesn’t hold bacteria or anything, which is really huge. In hot yoga, for example, you might sweat a lot but the mat will always be really quick to dry and it won’t smell after.
Design was also a pretty central consideration for you in creating these products. Can you speak to that a bit more?
Yoga hasn’t had much of an update from its origins despite growing interest, and one of my biggest gripes was the design of a lot of yoga products. Cork is this really beautiful design-oriented material. And there’s been some use for it before, like with cork blocks, but it never really extended beyond that. So by expanding the use of the material across yoga products, we were able to create something that looks really great. With my own mat, I just leave it out in my apartment and it either blends into the wall or whatever – it just kind of fits. It’s unique and a bit of a conversation starter.
What are the products that 42 Birds is currently offering?
Well we have the mat, and then we also have a cork block and a massage ball set, along with some other exciting products in the pipeline. The massage ball set is specifically made to massage your body and hit different trigger points to provide self myofascial release. You can roll them over your calves or your thighs or something and it will really help support your yoga practice and improve your flexibility and recovery after a workout. And with this set, you get two balls that are about the size of a lacrosse ball, which is pretty standard, but then you’ll also get a mini ball – it’s about the same diameter of a quarter, if not smaller – and that one is one of the newer innovations that we’re introducing. So it’s weighted and it’s really amazing to roll over the face.
What are some other ways, besides using cork and focusing on sustainable materials, that 42 Birds helps support environmentalism?
One percent of our profits are actually donated to organizations that support environmental efforts all over the world. We also have a recycling program set up where people can send in their cork products and they’ll get reused. Around 98 percent of the world’s plastic is actually never recycled, largely because it’s a tough material and not all of it is recyclable. Cork, on the other hand, is easy to work with.
How did you guys come up with the name for the company?
The cork forests, actually. There are 42 different types of birds that call cork forests their home and habitat, so that’s where that came from.
How do you hope that 42 Birds will help reshape how people practice yoga and how we think about environmental efforts moving forward?
A lot of people are aware that we’re facing a tough time of environmental issues, and people are looking to brands to help solve those issues to an extent, but I don’t think people are going to be on board with a brand just purely because they take a strong environmental stance or anything like that. So we knew that we needed superior products that could help improve people’s yoga practice so that we could first work to solve practical or functional issues but then do that in a way where we solve environmental issues, too. We hope the brand continues to delight people and help them out during yoga practice while also encouraging the use of conscientious materials that can just help us be more and more environmentally sustainable in the future.