Leather plays a significant part in our lives. From handbags and shoes, to automotive industry. Because of its durability, abundance, texture, and price, it is a dominant material.
However, it is not the most sustainable one…
Animal leather has a negative impact on people, animals, and the environment. From unethical practices of obtaining the animal skins, to the chemical-intensive tanning process, leather industry has a long way to go to be more eco-friendly.
That’s why, it has been a goal for many companies and research institutions to discover a leather alternative that would match leather’s properties to replace it.
Two entrepreneurs in Mexico believe that they have found a solution. It is called cactus leather.
What is cactus leather and how is it made?
Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez from Mexico are the inventors of the nopal vegan leather (as it is often called). After working with leather in the fashion and automotive industries and learning about the terrible impact of the material, they decided to do something about it.
After two years of research, they came up with the patented process of making the cactus leather.
It all begins at an organic cactus farm in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico, where Desserto - the company behind the material - grows opuntia cactus. To make the material, they harvest the mature leaves, keeping the core of the cactus intact. This allows the leaves to grow back in 6-8 months, to be reharvested again.
Then the leaves are mashed, sun-dried for 3 days, mixed with non-toxic chemicals, and shaped into the final product.
The duo debuted cactus leather at a famous leather fair Lineapelle in Milan in 2019, where it was received with a lot of enthusiasm. The material is durable, sustainable, and most important for the large brands, it looks exactly like leather.
It comes in a few thickness variations, depending on the intended use. For example, the thicker version is custom-made for footwear.
Since nopal leather is just at the beginning of the commercialisation process, up until recently it was available in 5 colours only - grey, white, red, green, and black. However, there are more options available now, which among others include various shades of navy blue.
How sustainable is nopal leather?
Cactus leather can be considered as a sustainable leather alternative because of a few reasons.
First of all, the opuntia cactus that is used to make the material is natural to the region where the organic farm is based. Not only does it not interfere with the local eco-system, but it also stimulates micro-flora and micro-fauna.
A very important part of growing any plant is irrigation. While some plants, like corn, require 1000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of product, opuntia cactus requires only 200 litres. This requirement is easily met by the rainwater, so no artificial irrigation system is required at the farm. According to Desserto, cactus leather has a potential to reduce water consumption by 20% while plastic waste is reduced by 32-42%, depending on the used version.
Talking about plastic, the material is PVC-free, which is sometimes present in faux leathers. Additionally, no toxic chemicals are used in the production process and all the left-over cacti are sold to be used in the food production.
Does it get better than this?
How to use cactus leather?
Cactus leather can be used in the same way animal leather is currently utilised. We should not be surprised to soon see people on the streets with nopal leather handbags, belts, shoes, jackets, and wallets. Desserto even designed a special version of cactus leather perfect for the automotive industry.