Vegan alternatives to natural leather are becoming increasingly popular in the fashion industry. Unlike many other leather alternatives, cactus leather is breathable and durable, allowing it to be used for shoes, clothing and even furniture. In fact, many companies are experimenting with it because of its versatility. Mercedes-Benz used a variety of leather alternatives, including cactus, for the interior of a conceptual electric car earlier this year. But is cactus leather a sustainable alternative to leather in the long run?
Cactus leather production
While materials like pineapple, mycelium and cork are being trialed to produce vegan leather, currently, cactus leather is gaining popularity.
Cactus leather is made from the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica), also known as the nopal cactus or Indian fig opuntia. It is a rapidly-generating renewable resource and is harvested twice a year by cutting off the mature cactus pads (the “leaves”) so that the main plant remains undisturbed. This way, the plant can continue to grow without having to replant it.
Once the pads are harvested, they are cleaned, crushed and dried for three to five days. Once dry, a powdered protein is extracted and mixed with organic dyes and other ingredients to create a bio-resin. This resin is poured onto a sheet of material, such as recycled cotton or a polyester blend, to form the cactus leather.
Desserto’s cactus leather
Desserto is a company whose new cactus leather is one of the most recent innovations in plant-based leather. They are based in Mexico and have experimented with the readily available nopal cactus to create their own product that rivals traditional leather. The nopal cactus barely requires water to grow and no pesticides. Because of its abundance throughout Mexico, it is a well-known plant across the country and serves as a symbol for the nation.
After two years of extensive research and trials, the Desserto team showcased the material at the Lineapelle leather fair in Milan, Italy, in 2019. There it received positive reactions from industry experts. The material’s flexibility, soft texture and color make it an excellent alternative to the traditional, high-quality leather used by luxury brands.
According to Desserto, “Cactus is green, but so is the future!” Through their work, Desserto hopes to not only help alleviate environmental issues but also create jobs for socio-economic benefit.
The benefits of using cactus leather
The perfect plant
Prickly pear cactus is an incredibly versatile renewable resource to harness for cactus leather. Though endemic to the Americas, the plant can thrive in other parts of the world. The nopal cactus is drought tolerant and does not require pesticides to grow. Its limited need for water is especially important to note, as traditional leather production requires lots of water — both to rear cattle and manufacture products.
Nopal cacti are also natural carbon sinks. In general, cactus systems are excellent at sequestering carbon and ensuring the carbon remains in the soil. This leads to more fertile soil where cacti grow and less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since pruning mature leaves to produce cactus leather does not kill the cacti, the carbon sequestration process continues throughout each plant’s lifetime.
A cleaner industry
The production of cactus leather is significantly cleaner and safer for the environment and people. Vegan leathers eliminate the abuse and animal torture that is a prevalent part of the traditional leather industry. It is estimated that over 2.29 billion animals are harmed each year in the production of leather.
Cactus-based leathers also prevent harm to the environment and individuals as they do not use toxic chemical substances. The chemicals used to alter traditional leather are toxic to human health. If they’re not appropriately disposed of, they can contaminate local ecosystems and water bodies. This contamination can affect animals, plants and humans alike, as they all rely on these ecosystems for habitats, food and water. Meanwhile, bio-based leathers maximize the innate natural properties of the material for durability, yet remain biodegradable and non-toxic.
Unlike plastic-based faux leathers, cactus leather prevents plastic waste pollution and eliminates greenhouse gas emissions stemming from plastic production. In fact, if these vegan leathers are incorporated across different industries that typically use traditional leather, there can be up to a 42% reduction in plastic waste. This would also result in 20% less water used. Presently, the volume of water used by the fashion industry alone is 79 billion cubic meters. This can fill up 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools!
Cactus leather is highly durable and classy. Its natural properties allow it to resist water, abrasion, rubbing and tearing. Its gorgeous feel and range of colors make it very attractive as a textile, particularly for use in the fashion industry. As mentioned above, experts compare it to traditional leather used by luxury fashion houses. By shifting from the unsustainable practice of using traditional leather to these safer, vegan alternatives, there is no compromise on quality. In fact, there are more advantages than downsides to switching from animal-based leather to cactus leather.
There are two main cons of prickly pear cactus leather production. Firstly, though the nopal cactus can grow across the globe, it can become an invasive species. This disrupts local ecosystems and threatens local flora species. Hence, if it is cultivated outside of the Americas for culinary or textile purposes, it should be managed carefully in designated agricultural areas.
Secondly, using Desserto’s cactus leather production method requires polyurethane to prepare the bio-resin. Polyurethane fumes can cause health problems including irritation, headaches and respiratory problems. This is because they emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while uncured. While polyurethane is still safer than substances used in leather tanning, it still poses some risks to the health of living organisms.
Looking to the future
Because of cactus leather’s versatility and aesthetic appeal, it is gaining appreciation, particularly in the fashion industry. It has several social, economic and environmental benefits besides being a luxury-grade material. By adopting this vegan leather substitute, brands can develop sustainable products that consider the safety of animals and humans without sacrificing quality and aesthetics.
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