Leather has been an important textile material to us for many generations. From clothing to furniture covers, decor items, bags, and many more, leather offers many benefits. Our pivot to ethical and sustainable fashion has made it necessary to look for other leather sources apart from animals. Cactus leather is the latest innovation that has got vegan leather advocates excited. This article explores the cactus leather trend and looks into its overall sustainability.
Cactus leather is a kind of leather made with Nopal cactus leaves. It is different from traditional leather and pleather (plastic leather) because it is made from plants. The innovative material is not the first plant-based leather to exist. Its predecessors include Phellinus ellipsoideus mushroom leather, cork leather, apple peel leather, pineapple leather, and waxed cotton.
Cactus leather looks and feels like traditional leather. Although invented only recently, we can already see various fashion items made using cactus leather. You could fill your wardrobe with cactus leather products, from a cropped jacket, chic footwear, handbags, and many other accessories. Even car seats and car interiors are available in cactus leather.
López Velarde and Marte Cázarez invented leather made from cactus. Their brand is called Desserto. Desserto's cactus leather is soft, and unlike most vegan leather alternatives, it is also breathable. It has a luxurious feel that makes it great for high-end leather goods.
They obtain cactus leather from the nopal cactus plant, also known as the prickly pear. The first step in production is harvesting mature cactus leaves or paddles. Harvesting occurs every 6 to 8 months.
Then they clean, cut, and mash the leaves. The mashed cactus leaves dry under sunlight for about three days. Following, they grind the dried cactus into powder, and the powder is mixed with a patented formula to produce a leather fabric.
The prickly pear cactus plant is native to the Western Hemisphere. Outside its native areas, the cacti can become invasive plants. The flowering plant bears reddish or yellow fruits that are edible. The paddles/leaves are also edible and are an important food for many people in tropical and subtropical countries.
In 2019, the nopal cactus made its debut from the food industry to the fashion industry, thanks to López Velarde and Marte Cázarez. The Mexican entrepreneurs had observed the shortcomings of animal and plastics leather and wanted to develop a better, more sustainable vegan leather. López Velarde and Marte Cázarez left their jobs to start their company, Adriano Di Marti. It took two years for them to arrive at a perfect solution; Desserto.
Desserto has received a lot of well-deserved praise for innovativeness and being environmentally friendly. We look at the strengths and possible areas of weakness under the headings below.
Related: For more cacti inspiration we’ve some of the best cactus quotes a click away related to strength in adversity, sustainability, and the odd metaphor for life.
Generally, vegan leathers are thinner than animal leather and don't last quite as long. The thinness makes cactus leather more vulnerable to punctures, cracks, and tears. However, using cactus leather products carefully can prolong its lifespan by about 10 years. Also, the production quality can determine how long it will last.
The durability of vegan leather goods has environmental implications because it dictates how fast end-of-life products end up in landfills. If the period of use is valued less than the environmental costs of production and disposal, then there is a problem because that would make it no different from fast fashion products.
The nopal cactus is the primary raw material for cactus leather. It is an easily renewable resource because of the harvest of mature leaves. So there's no need to cut down or uproot the plants and then replant new seeds. The young leaves are simply left to mature.
The nopal cactus is a perennial crop that lives for about 8 years. So they avoid the environmental cost of clearing land and using machines for frequent planting seasons, which further supports the cactus as an eco-friendly raw material.
The cactus is a resilient plant and doesn't require chemical fertilizers to enrich the yield. It doesn't need herbicides and pesticides either. The manufacturers of Desserto claim that the product contains zero polyvinyl chlorides (PVC), phthalates, or other toxic chemicals.
That means no toxic substances enter the soil or waterways in the entire process of manufacturing Desserto. It also means that after its useful period, the leather fabric won't release toxins into the environment as it degrades.
One of the most significant drawbacks of plant fabrics is their intense consumption of natural resources like water. The cactus plant only needs 200 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of dry material used for production. The rainfall it receives and the humidity in the environment are enough for the cactus to thrive.
There is no need for artificial irrigation; the plant captures all the water it needs by itself. So we can conclude that cactus leather doesn't pressure water resources.
Before the creation of Desserto, cacti were already growing in abundance in Mexico. So the Desserto cactus plantation doesn't threaten biodiversity because it is native to the area. Instead, the plantation stimulates native flora and fauna effortlessly. Even big birds like hawks find a comfortable home there.
Desserto manufacturers claim that there was no need to cut down trees to make space for the plantation. Perhaps due to the natural condition of the land. So cactus leather doesn't disrupt biodiversity in any way.
Cactus leather doesn't require any input from animals. So animal advocates can rest assured that no animal is killed or mistreated during its production.
In the fast fashion industry, waste is one of the biggest challenges. But Desserto is a low waste product. When manufacturers harvest more cacti than they need, they simply sell it as food.
Cactus leather cuts down on some heavy energy costs by using solarium rather than industrial dryers. The solarium or sunroom is a glass-enclosed space that allows sunlight to filter through it. That use of solar energy is clean and green and greatly reduces the carbon footprint associated with the product.
Cactus leather is only partially biodegradable because the manufacturers add some inorganic substances to arrive at the final product. They say the patented secret formula is PVC free, but we can not be sure it doesn't contain some other type of plastic.
So while it's excellent that Desserto will biodegrade to some extent because cactus is an organic material, the percentage that will not decompose could still present an environmental problem.
Cacti is a natural carbon sequester, and the techniques of sourcing cactus leather do not disrupt that function.
According to the manufacturers, their 14 hectares of cactus plantation absorb 8,100 tons of CO2 annually. They indicate that their cactus farm is carbon positive as the entire farming process generates only 15.30 tons of CO2 per year.
The leather industry is worth over 200 billion U.S. dollars, and ethical consumers have questioned the industry's production ethics. Originally, people only got leather from animal skins. They had to kill an animal and separate its skin from fleshy muscles and then treat the skin chemically to turn it into leather.
Animal rights activists have protested that killing thousands of animals regularly just to make shoes and purses is cruel. There is also the question of how farms that seem more concerned about profit than animal welfare raise animals. They raise some animals indoors without ever letting them see the sun. It's been said that sometimes, they beat animals in these so-called farms or pluck out their feathers while still breathing.
Many sustainability issues arise from animal leather, animal cruelty, pollution, and many more. Vegan leather came as an answer to those problems. These vegan leathers include leather made from plastic and plants.
They create plastic leather or pleather with PVC or polyurethane (PU). Plant leather includes Piñatex, Apple Skin, Orange Fibe, and MuSkin.
This new brand is just launching a truly wonderful handbag for women. Inspired by women in tech, the chic handbag can transform into five different forms. They made the WIT bag, as they call it, from Dersserto.
The CLAE brand has been making shoes since 2001. People know them for environmentally friendly and comfortable designs. They have a new line of cactus leather sneakers.
Clean cactus leather furniture and accessories with a damp cloth soaked with mild soap and water solution. Make sure to wipe the surface completely dry. To take care of wine or juice spills, use shampoo instead of mild soap and ensure to clean the spill as soon as possible. Avoid cleaning with bleach, acetone, oil, vinegar, waxes, or detergent cleaners.
Studies have revealed that pleathers contain toxic substances harmful to humans and wildlife. Both cactus and pleather are cruelty-free. But it would seem that plastic-based leather has a higher environmental cost.
Also, pleather is not biodegradable and will contribute to the plastic pollution crisis. Even if they made plastic vegan leather from plastic waste like recycled nylon, it still has costly impacts.
Big animals like cows which serve as the primary source of leather, consume a lot of water and release methane. They sometimes graze vegetative lands to the point of barrenness. They use chromium salts, tanning liquor, and other toxic chemicals to process leather. Those pollute our water and air.
Cacti, on the other hand, help with carbon sequestration and enrich the soil. It doesn't require tanning, so it avoids harmful tanning chemicals.
Cactus leather is animal friendly and highly sustainable. It is relatively new on the fashion scene and may not be as widespread as its competitors yet. But soon you should be able to find Desserto cactus leather handbags from your store.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.