Creating a leather alternative that could replace animal leather has been a goal for research labs and companies all across the world.
Over centuries, leather has become a crucial part of our society. Thanks to its abundance and properties, it is a perfect material to be used in various fields, from fashion to automotive industry.
Unfortunately, leather is as unsustainable as useful…
With the growing environmental crisis and the shift of the population towards more plant-based lifestyle, finding a sustainable replacement for animal leather is crucial.
Two Mexican entrepreneurs and innovators believe that they have the solution to this problem.
It is called cactus leather. 🌵
Table of Contents
Why Cactus Leather?
Vegan leather industry is predicted to rapidly grow and be worth $89.6 billion by 2025.
We think that there are two reasons behind this. The first one being the negative impact of animal leather.
As we explained in our article about vegan leather, leather has bad influence on the environment, animals, and people.
The negative impact of animal leather on the environment
Once the animal is killed, its skin undergoes many processes to become a final product – a usable piece of leather. One of them is tanning, which according to some is one of the most polluting industries in the world.
Leather is undergoing various processes during the tanning process.
Tanneries around the world use hazardous substances.
For example, Kanpur became in 2013 India’s leading exporter of leather goods. Now, on daily basis, tanneries release 50 million liters of highly toxic water. That’s the equivalent of 20 Olympic swimming pools! Only 20% of that water undergoes any treatment.
Tannery water in India pollutes local rivers and ecosystems.
The remaining water, carrying chromium, lead, and arsenic, ends up on local farmland and in Ganges – the main source of water for millions. The presence of chemicals hasn’t just resulted in the polluted environment and destroyed agriculture. It has also had a life-changing impact on the people working with leather and living next to the tanneries.
As Stella McCartney explained in an interview with Vogue:
“An animal decomposes when it’s natural, but after all the chemical treatments [applied] to a leather handbag, it isn’t going to decompose in your wardrobe. That product is staying alive because of the chemicals that have been put on it — because if you just had a dead animal in your closet, it would be a very different situation.”
The impact of leather on people (and you!)
A lot of research has found the connection between the metals found in the tannery wastewater and health problems.
For example, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in one residential area close to a tannery in Kentucky, there have been five times more accidents of leukaemia compared to the national average. Having said that, the worst cases of health problems take place in India, China, and Bangladesh, where a fierce competition, corruption, and the pressure to cut costs do not allow to respect any environmental and health regulations.
A shocking short documentary about the impact of leather on health
There have been countless examples of Indian children born next to the tanneries with mental illness, blindness, and undeveloped body parts. Kids and adults who have the river full of chemicals as their only source of water have been found suffering from cancers, asthma, tuberculosis, eyesight problems, and skin rashes. Talking about the latter, the factory workers who are most of the times not provided with gloves or protective clothes find themselves having their skin discoloured.
Scientists also found traces of the hazardous metals in some of the analysed gloves and clothes, putting the customers at risk.
The impact of leather industry on animals
Animal leather is considered to be a by-product of the meat industry. But it is actually the largest co-product.
Calf leather is very popular in the luxury fashion industry
Calf leather is the most popular material in high-end fashion. It’s thanks to the fact that small calves have a skin without bruises and wounds. However, the way people kill calves is often far from ideal. Same applies to ostriches, snakes, and crocodiles that are also often used in haute couture.
A few years ago PETA investigators exposed the cruel conditions of some of the alligator farms.
With some farms even skinning alligators alive.
Global vegan shift
The second reason why innovation in the vegan leather field is important is the global shift towards more plant-based lifestyle.
According to another research, that number can be expected to reach $89.6 billion
According to some estimates, the number of vegans in the UK in recent decade grew by 350%, while the same number in the US grew by 600% between 2014 and 2017.
One group that especially opts in for the plant-based diet are Millennials and Gen Z. Those are the groups that drive the growth of the luxury industry, and soon will be the majority of the customers.
While the food industry has adjusted for this change (for example, in the UK last year, almost 1 in every 4 products launched were vegan), fashion is just starting to make the adjustment.
However, considering the fashion’s legacy and dependence on leather, it is understandable.
Vegan leather alternatives
Blackwood products made from premium Portuguese cork leather
What is great about those leather alternatives are their natural origins.
Unfortunately, since the first vegan leathers were made from plastic, the term ‘vegan leather’ is generally considered to be harmful and unsustainable. That’s why, it is important to show the society that leather alternatives can be sustainable and natural.
Wood leather features a unique wooden pattern
While we love those materials, and how unique they are, they do not meet the requirements of everyone. Large brands seek to find a vegan leather that looks exactly like animal leather.
Could cactus leather be the answer they are looking for?
What Is Cactus Leather?
Cactus leather is a sustainable leather alternative made from Opuntia Cactus (also known as Nopal) that has been developed in Mexico.
Blackwood card holder made from cactus leather
Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez are the inventors of the material and the founders of the company behind it – Desserto.
Before that, the duo has worked with leather in the automotive, furniture, and fashion industries. Upon learning about its environmental impact, they decided to do something about it. Their goal was to invent a material that is sustainable, and has the properties of leather.
After 2 years of research and development, they came up with the patented process of cactus leather production.
How Is Cactus Leather Made?
The production process of cactus leather is very sustainable. It starts at a certified organic cactus farm in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. To make cactus leather, just the mature leaves are harvested, keeping the core of cacti intact. Thanks to this, in 6-8 months the leaves will grow back in order to be re-harvested again.
How awesome is that?
What is worth mentioning is that the plant requires little water to grow. Rain water is enough, without any need for artificial irrigation. To produce 1 kg of the dry material, only 200 litres of water are used.
To put that into perspective, plants like corn require more than 1,000 litres to produce the same amount.
What a difference!
Once the leaves are cut, they are mashed and then sun-dried for 3 days. When the right level of moisture is achieved, the substance is mixed with non-toxic chemicals and attached to a backing.
Cactus Leather Properties
Nopal leather, as it is also called, is available in a few thickness options depending on whether it is to be used for accessories, shoes, or clothing. It also comes in a few colours.
Cactus leather is available in many colours (Source: Desserto)
The material was introduced just in 2019, so it is still in the early stages of commercialisation. That’s why, up until recently, there were only 5 colours available, including green, red, black, grey and white. Currently, more colours are available, including different shades of blue and green.
Desserto debuted the cactus leather at a well-known International Leather Fair Lineapelle in Milan in 2019. It was met with a lot of enthusiasm because of its sustainable credentials, leather-like texture, and properties.
Nopal vegan leather is cruelty-free, organic, partially biodegradable, and as soft as leather. It is free of phthalates, toxic chemicals and PVC.
It is considered to be a very durable material.
Blackwood Cactus Leather Card Holder
The only question that still needs to be answered is how long the material can last. According to Desserto, nopal vegan leather can survive 10 years, or even more depending on the intensity of usage. Naturally, it is less than animal leather that can survive for decades.
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How Sustainable Is Cactus Leather?
There are a few ways in which this vegan leather alternative is sustainable.
First of all, Opuntia cacti are natural to the region where Desserto are based. Thanks to this, the plantation is an integral part of the local ecosystem, without causing imbalance in the biodiversity of the region.
The farm is organic (no herbicides nor pesticides used) where the natural techniques stimulate the micro-flora and micro-fauna in the ground. Additionally, wild animals, such as hawks, make a regular visit to the plantation.
The plants survive for 8 years, with the leaves being harvested every 6-8 months. It is much more sustainable option than some of the crops, like corn, which have to be cultivated annually.
How awesome is that?
Desserto estimate that depending on the version of their material used, using cactus leather can reduce by 32-42 % plastic waste, and water consumption by 20%. As mentioned above, cactus leather does not require a lot of water. Nopal grows purely on rain water, so no artificial irrigation system is in use.
It is worth mentioning also that the 3-day-long drying process of the mashed cactus leaves is done using sun, without the need for extra energy,
On top of that, all the left-over cacti that are not used in the production process are sold to be used in the food industry.
Cactus Leather Use Cases
The founders envision that their leather alternative could be used in footwear, garment production, accessories, and even on the industrial scale, for example in the automotive sector. Here are some examples of brands and their products that have been made with the cactus leather:
Cactus Leather Card Holder
At Blackwood, we were one of the first British brands to use cactus leather. 🌵 We introduced it in our Richmond Edition Card Holder.
What do you think about it? 😊
Cactus Leather Jacket
Nopal leather has a great potential to be used for larger pieces of garment, such as jackets. As you can see below, Deadwood Studios did a great job at designing a cactus leather jacket.
Cactus Leather Handbags
One of the most exciting use cases for cactus leather are handbags. Essential for every woman, they are almost always made with leather. Cactus leather has a potential to change the status quo. Canna design some of the most beautiful cactus leather handbags.
View this post on Instagram
Cuando diseñamos a Carmela buscábamos que fuera tu compañera de noche. La que te llevas a tu bar favorito o a tu primera date en ese restaurant francés que tanto de gusta. Con una estructura diferente y compuesta de líneas geométricas, Carmela es tu crossbody de cabecera. . . . #outfit #veganleather #fashion #bag #accesories #ethicalfashionbrand #sustentable #moda #artesania #artisanal #mexicanbrand #modamexicana #diseñolocal #design #slowfashion #fashiongram #marcamexicana #modasustentable #diseñomexicano
Miomojo in Italy also make beautiful cactus leather handbags and clutches.
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Stylish, sustainable and cruelty free? YES, you can!!! The wait is over. So proud to unveil our new premium Made in Italy collections made from Apple Skin and cactus leather. Featured here, our upscale Gemma clutch bag made from cactus leather! #Miomojo #crueltyfree #cactus #cactusleather #madeinitaly #friendsnotbags #veganitalia #fashionrevolution #organic #bags #sustainablefashion
Cactus Leather Shoes
Desserto has a thicker version of the material available as well, which is meant to be used for footwear. Carmona Collection are the company that stands out as it comes to cactus leather footwear.
Cactus Leather Automotive Applications
Desserttex is the branch of Desserto custom-made for the automotive industry. It is interesting to see who will be the first carmaker to introduce the material in their vehicles.
Cactus leather designed for the automotive industry (Source: Desserto)
As it can be seen, cactus leather is a very interesting and intriguing material that is certainly going to change things around in the leather industry.
It will probably not replace singlehandedly leather altogether. However, it has the potential to accelerate the transition of the industry towards more sustainable future.
What do you think? Do you like the material? Would you use a product made from cactus leather instead of standard leather?
Also, remember to check out our cactus leather card holder!