For years, finding a vegan alternative to animal leather was a topic of extensive research for many companies. One Mеxican startup turned the world upside down by inventing leather from a type of cactus called Nopal.
The vegan leather industry
The market size of the global vegan leather industry was estimated at USD 37.90 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach up to 89.6 billion by 2025. The industry is mainly driven by the desire to solve the alarming environmental issues we are facing today. In many ways, using animal leather has a huge negative impact on our planet.
First of all, killing animals to wear them… It has always been like wearing a trophy, showing that we are the strongest on Earth. Actually, we are not. Only cowards could hurt other living species the way humans do.
Currently, calf leather is among the most popular materials among luxury fashion brands since the skin of small calves usually has no bruises and wounds. During the years, many organizations for animal protection reported about the cruel conditions in which these animals are killed… sometimes skinning them even alive.
However, this horror doesn’t stop here…
Once an animal is killed, its skin goes through a number of processes to turn into a final leather product. One of them, tanning, is undoubtedly one of the most polluting industries globally.
Actually, if leather is left untanned, it would start to rot. Therefore, tannery effluents contain large amounts of pollutants like salt, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids, which are used to stabilize the protein and collagen fibers in-skins. These chemicals are so toxic that people who have daily contact with tanneries often die of cancer. For instance, arsenic, which is a common tannery ingredient, has long been associated with lung cancer.
On the other side, tanning requires huge amounts of water, which often ends up on farmlands and becomes the water millions of people and animals consume every day. A study shows that on average 300kg of chemicals are necessary per ton of hides in the tanning process.
Considering all of these, looking for vegan alternatives is a natural shift for the leather industry. At the same tome, high-end fashion brands are mainly driven by Millennials and Gen Z. Data shows that people aged 18 to 24 are nearly twice as likely to change their lifestyles towards more sustainability than those over 60, the baby boomer generation.
The market has finally started to answer the needs and wants of the young generations. Therefore, lots of alternatives to animal leather emerged in the past decade. These include cork leather, wood leather, leaf leather, mushroom leather and many others.
In this story, however, we would focus on one quite interesting type of natural leather – cactus leather.
What is cactus leather?
Cactus leather was invented in Mexico in 2019 by two entrepreneurs – Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez. They are also the founders of Desserto – the company behind this innovative product. Prior to launching their own enterprise, they worked with animal leather in different industries: automotive, furniture, and even fashion. Alarmed by the negative environmental and social impact of this type of material, they focused their efforts on inventing a more sustainable alternative. It took them about two years before they came up with a final version of their product, which we today know as cactus leather.
Cactus leather is made from Nopal and the whole production process is quite eco-friendly. First of all, it requires a minimum amount of water, about 200 litres to produce a kilogram of dry material, and usually rain water is enough. Desserto uses only organic cactus sourced from a farm in Zacatecas, Mexico. The interesting part is that only the mature leaves of the plants are harvested and it takes between 6 and 8 months for leaves to grow again.
When the leaves are cut, they are mashed and dried. It takes the mixture about 3 days to achieve the necessary moisture level and to be attached to a backing. The process involves only toxin-free substances.
Additionally, cactus is “a natural carbon sink” and Desserto claims that they manage to absorb 8,100 tons of CO2 per year from 14 acres of cactus crops, while they generate only 15.30 tons of CO2 annually.
Lots of advantages! Probably, the only disadvantage as compared to animal leather is that nopal leather, according to its investors, could keep its high quality for about ten years. Depending on the usage, this period may vary. Animal leather, on the other hand, could survive for decades. However, is it worth it?