Heidi Benham & Toby Marshman are the founders of Form, a fast-growing sustainable business specialised in carbon-negative, ultra-durable fitness products. By creating and championing products that have zero impact on the environment without sacrificing performance and design, the creators of the first round yoga mat in Europe are part of a rising number of forward-thinking designers and entrepreneurs that are making significant steps towards a more sustainable future. We caught-up with Heidi and Toby on a recent Saturday morning and went for a wander around the Black Mountains, chatting about the ethos behind their eco-friendly venture, their passion for the environment and their plans for the future.
Who are Heidi and Toby, the entrepreneurial duo behind Form? Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
We’ve known each other for over 10 years, and started Form a little over 2 years ago. Toby is a civil engineer by background and has worked as a management consultant for the past 5 years. Whilst working, Toby has set up numerous small businesses. Heidi is an experienced designer and founded her own design agency, Aitch, in 2016, where she also supports small business through her ethical and sustainable shop.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Toby: mine is probably birthday parties in my garden on sunny summer days. I think this sticks out because it’s such a colourful image with the bright green grass and red and yellow toys everywhere!
Heidi: My most vivid childhood memories are of making things and building dens, which I would then turn into banks/restaurants/cinemas/magic shows and sell tickets to my parents to attend!
How did you two meet?
We met aged 16 through mutual friends. We’ve been together for nearly 9 years and recently got engaged.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship. How do you influence each other and what are your strengths as a team of entrepreneurs?
We come from quite different backgrounds and have different skills which together covers most bases. Heidi is a graphic designer by training so manages all the creative side of the business, from the the brand and product design, to the website and customer experience. Toby is an engineer by education and has worked for a management consultant in the energy industry for years after graduation, meaning his strengths lie more in the analytical and business side of the company.
I think being together as well as a business partner has its advantages and disadvantages. We obviously know each other incredibly well and know what makes the other tick and know instinctively when the other is stressed or struggling with something. The downside is it can be hard to switch off from work sometimes which is something we’re forcing ourselves to do more of!
What subject appears most often in your conversations?
What’s next? We’re always looking ahead to what the next idea is that we’d like to bring to life. It’s incredibly important that everything we do fits with our sustainability ethos and fits with the brand. We have an exciting new brand in development so that’s filling a lot of our conversations at the moment. Although we try not to talk about work too much, when we are excited about a new idea we just can’t help it!
Tell us about the inception of Form. How did it all start and what inspired you to embark on this journey?
Having both worked in jobs focused on sustainability, along with our passion for health and fitness, we began to consider how people might improve their experience of the gym and studio whilst making it more sustainable. We looked around the gym one day and realised how unsustainable/unhealthy a lot of the kit we use is. People use single-use plastic bottles, use PVC mats which are toxic to humans and wear clothes which do not last long and cannot be recycled.
We decided to start with the yoga mat as we felt it could have the biggest impact on environmental and human health combined. Planned obsolescence is something which makes us pretty angry as it is so wasteful and unnecessary. Many mats on the market today fall apart within a year ‒ I’m sure you’ve used ones in studios or gym which leave bits on your hands as they disintegrate (this is especially a problem with PVC as you release the chemical as you rub, heat and sweat on the mat). So we designed a mat which would last years.
We also choose materials which have the smallest impact on the environment: our Pro and Travel mats have a recycled natural rubber base and a top made from recycled plastic bottles and are fully recyclable so no landfill. We recently launched the Onyx mat which has a different top material and is fully biodegradable, so you can just bury it at the end of its (long) life! We wanted to show that you can create products that have a small impact on the environment without sacrificing performance and design.
The final step we focused on was the packaging. Our mats now come in plastic-free packaging ‒ it’s all recyclable and biodegradable ‒ even the tape we use. It took some time to develop this packaging, but if we can do this as a small company, we don’t see why big companies are not doing the same. We also offset more than the carbon emitted during production and transportation so our mats are carbon negative!
What was your biggest challenge starting out?
Feeling like we have no idea what we’re doing 99% of the time. It’s a big fear that can paralyse you sometimes. At the start, when the business grew quite quickly, it was a shock to realise just how much we had to teach ourselves from web development to accounting and the legal side. It’s fantastic having done it because we’re now very well prepared for future projects.
How would you describe Form’s identity in relation to other fitness and lifestyle brands?
We’ve mentioned sustainability quite a bit already and this really is the central value of Form. When developing new products, that’s the first question we ask: ‘what impact does this have on the environment?’ Our vision is to inspire other companies to do the same, to start with that question first, before ‘how much money can we make?’.
We like to think that our visual identity is quite different too. Bored with the grey slabs that most mats are, we wanted to make mats that look very different which is why our mats are pretty colourful. This extends into our marketing too, we try to create interesting imagery and videos, we bought a drone last year, and our blog features articles which we hope our readers find interesting and help them improve their lives with!
What makes the Form mat a must have for fitness enthusiasts?
The Form mat is an essential item when working out, due to its positive impact on the environment and the statement it allows the user to make ‒ that they’re not prepared to accept kit which is bad for the environment. Also it’s designed to improve performance with its high-grip top and Form Grid to improve alignment.
You are creators of the first round yoga mat in Europe. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration and design philosophy behind it?
When we began to think about the mat, we started to think about the natural way in which people move, we’re not confined to one direction, we don’t move backwards and forwards like Super Mario, we move in every direction. That’s the problem with the standard yoga mat shape, you’re confined to moving just forwards and backwards, meaning you often end up stepping off the side of the mat.
The round mat answers these problems by creating a space much more suited to our natural movement which helps the user get into flow and not be as confined in their movements by the mat. They’re great for allowing you to create a workout space at home and round shapes are also proven to help the mental state, promoting a feeling of completeness, so the mats are great for meditation.
Your products are made with great care for nature and a with strong emphasis on sustainability. Do you think that our consumerist society will ever shift its focus from mass-produced and environmentally harmful products to ethically sourced and sustainable alternatives? What’s your take on this?
We believe that this has already started to happen, due to consumer demand, many companies feel the need to show some element of consideration for our environment. The main concern for us now is the amount of ‘green-washing’ that is happening across all industries, as businesses feel the pressure to appeal to a more sustainably conscious population, they make it seem like they are being sustainable, but in reality they are using it as a marketing tactic. It has become even more difficult for the consumer to tell the difference between the companies who are actually doing ‘good’ and the ones who just say they are.
We do think however that it’s possible for society to maintain its standard of life without damaging the environment. It is even possible to mass-produce products which are environmentally friendly. Companies just need to invest the time and money on proper design of their products; some changes are easy like dropping plastic or mixed-material from packaging while some are harder such are avoiding the use of certain materials in the products themselves or thinking about how and where products are made. The customer also has a role to play here, to vote with their money: don’t invest in companies or buy products which do not commit to making these changes. Companies will quickly follow suit if it impacts their bottom-line.
We aim to educate more people to enable them to make educated choices when shopping. We write a regular ‘Eco-Watch’ blog where we share stories of businesses who are making big, impressive steps towards a sustainable future.
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
We want to enable people to shop sustainably without compromising on the design and quality of the product. Knowing that we are doing something to help the future of the planet and receiving photos and messages from happy customers make it all worthwhile.
What stands out to you in terms of leading a balanced life?
For us, leading a balanced life is finding a way to weave together your passions in life and making that your ‘job’. That way we hope to never ‘work’ again. Our aim with our business is to nurture this ‘sweet spot’ that allows us to work on a project we love, that does good and allows us to travel.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
We like to escape and travel. Sometimes that means talking a walk through the countryside where we live, hiking in Wales or travelling around Asia for 3 months like we are doing this June.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Where will we be in 3 years time?
How can we inspire the most amount of people to care about the future of our environment?
Should you always take the biggest risk?
What ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
We are obsessing about our future vision for Form; as we will be moving abroad for a year from June, we are finding new ways to make our business as agile and as efficient as possible. We are excited to explore the world, on the hunt for new products and ways we can expand our business to incorporate our love for travel. Watch this space.
And finally, when you think about the future of Form, what are you most excited about and why?
We are immensely excited about the future of Form, we have learnt so much whilst building this brand and look forward to seeing where it takes us. We will be launching new products and expanding globally in order to reach a wider audience and enable more and more people around the world to shop sustainably.