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From cactus to…leather

Leather and fur have long stood for luxury in the fashion and accessories world and furniture. But recently, popular opinion has started to shift with growing awareness about the cruelty of mass livestock rearing and the number of resources consumed and carbon emitted in the process.

In response, major fashion houses (like Gucci, Prada, Coach, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Chanel and Stella McCartney) have decided to ditch fur.

The response to leather has been slower, even though it involves a slew of chemicals such as formaldehyde, cyanide and chromium in the process of tanning and dyeing, which can be hazardous to both people and the environment.

That’s why independent designers and material research startups are hoping to fast track the move away from animal leather by developing convincing alternatives that can be cruelty-free and a better option for the environment, too.

Materials like Pinatex (from pinapple), Vitigna (from grapes), Wood, Freska (from corn), Bioveg (from recycled water bottles) can be found in O2 Monde shoes. And now also cacti…That's right, the only plant you managed not to kill is more versatile than you think.

How is Cactus Leather made?Desserto video

Desserto's Cactus Leather, is a material made from the leaves of nopal cactus – a plant that grows abundantly in Mexico, without even needing any water (seems like a great option for those of us constantly killing our plants). In 2019, Mexican innovators Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez debuted the material at Milan's leather fair Lineapelle – after two years of research to elevate the quality of their cactus leather to rival traditional leather. 

The idea for harnessing the properties of the nopal cactus plant into a vegan leather came when the inventors observed the results of the plastic pollution crisis. The result is an organic and partially biodegradable material that is versatile enough to be used for fashion, furniture, and car interiors. "The positive impact on the environment that our cactus leather can have if incorporated into major production lines of different industries, may result in a 32 to 42 percent reduction in plastic waste, depending on the version of cactus leather that is incorporated, and about 20 percent savings in water consumption,” the founders have told FashionUnited.

Why is Cactus Leather sustainable?

Choosing planet-friendly cactus leather is a viable alternative to both animal-derived leather and traditional vegan leathers, which can be made either from highly toxic PVC or slightly less harmful but still problematic polyurethane. Despite the issues that both these materials present, they are still less harmful to the environment than animal leather, due not only to the toxic chemicals emitted by the leather trade every year, but also to the devastating effects of raise animals on a large scale for human consumption.

Recent innovations in the area of sustainably produced leather indicate that the market is moving further away from animal skins as well as plastic, and embracing plant-based solutions that originate in nature. Desserto® plans to continue teaming up with forward-thinking companies, big and small, that wish to use its cactus leather – rather than creating their own designs. “The fashion industry has inherent advantages such as creativity, its most iconic trait,” the founders said to FashionUnited. “With the support of technologies and innovations, fashion has the talent, the networks, the financing and all the resources needed for transformation. The time has come to start doing things in a different way.”

“I immediately fell in love with the quality of the material. It has a beautiful finish and I was impressed by its softness and the incredible likeness in the look and feel to traditional leather.” Says O2 Monde founder Mirco Scoccia. “From an environmental point of view, the cactus plantation is fully organic with no herbicides and pesticides used and no harm to biodiversity. They don't require water to grow and they're a natural carbon sink." 

So, as one of the most interesting innovations in the fashion world for a long time, cactus leather is here to stay.