Research Outreach Blog
July 1, 2022

Cactus: The new leather?

It’s widely known that the production of animal leather is very harmful to the environment, but leather is a staple of many industries. As an answer to this problem a variety of more eco-friendly leather alternatives have recently been developed. One of these is an organic material called Desserto®, made of nopal (or prickly pear) cactus. This alternative has the look and feel of real leather, and is used for shoes, accessories, and even car interiors.

Production of animal (usually bovine) leather is environmentally harmful in many ways. Firstly, the management of livestock demands extensive resources. Cattle ranching requires huge areas of grazing land – clearing land for pasture is the largest cause of deforestation in the Amazon. One-third of all arable land is dedicated to producing cattle feed. And estimates suggest a rough cost of over 17,000 litres of fresh drinking water per kilogram of leather.

Secondly, the animal hide must undergo the tanning process to become leather. Tanning treats the hide with chemicals to slow its decomposition and make it tough and flexible. Chromium tanning is the most common method, but this produces wastewater with high concentrations of toxic chromium and sulphide, as well as the pesticides that are often used to protect the hide before tanning. It’s estimated 300kg of chemicals are used to treat each 900kg of leather.

Vegan leathers
In answer to these concerns (and concerns about animal cruelty) there’s been a boom in alternative materials, often called vegan leather. The most common faux leathers are made with polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride – plastics. These materials are manufactured from fossil fuels and do not biodegrade, and they usually have a short lifespan and need to be replaced regularly.

However, many more eco-friendly alternatives are available and gaining popularity. Plant-based vegan leathers have been developed from pineapple leaves, mushrooms (Phellinus ellipsoideus), bananas, grapes, and coffee, to name just a few. Other alternatives include cork, wood, and even stone. But perhaps the most promising so far is Desserto®, a vegan leather made from cactus.

Plant-based vegan leathers have been developed from pineapple leaves, mushrooms, bananas, grapes, and coffee, to name just a few.

Desserto®
Desserto® was developed by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, from Mexico, and was first commercially available in 2019. They were inspired to develop an alternative after working with leather for furniture, car interiors, and fashion. Desserto® can be produced in a range of colours and thicknesses, and is very similar to animal leather in its appearance and texture.

This leather alternative is made from the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. The leaves are harvested and then sun-dried until they have the perfect moisture level. A patented and organic process transforms the leaves into Desserto®.

Schwabenblitz/Shutterstock.com

Why choose cactus leather?
The nopal cactus is native to the Zacatecas region of Mexico, and can be grown on land not suitable for other types of agriculture. The crop doesn’t require irrigation, and no pesticides or herbicides are applied. The leaves are harvested every six to eight months for about eight years until replanting, and only three leaves are required to create a meter of Desserto®. Nopal cactus is also an excellent carbon sink; the 14 acres currently farmed for Desserto® absorb 8,100 tons of CO2 per year. Desserto® has a lifespan of around ten years, is described as partially biodegradable, and is sold at a similar price to animal leather.

Buying Desserto®
This year, shoes and accessories made with Desserto® have been featured in a collection by major clothing retailer H&M, and a Desserto® bag featured in a collaboration between fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and model and sustainability campaigner Amber Valletta. London-based sustainable fashion brand Luxtra has a range of totes and handbags made from Desserto® available on their website, and Sanabul – a martial arts and combat sports clothing and equipment brand – has created the first cactus-leather boxing gloves. Desserto® has also introduced a new product line – Deserttex® – specifically developed for car interiors.

You can find out more about Desserto® at desserto.com.mx

Josie Wyatt is a freelance writer based in Scotland.

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