by Megan Doyle

In recent years, using vegan leather has become an easy box to tick for brands looking to incorporate eco-friendly materials into their offering. Desserto has joined the ranks of sustainable fabrics on the market, with a growing number of fashion companies experimenting with this cactus-based alternative to cow and fossil fuel-derived synthetic leathers.

Since launching Desserto in July 2019, the Mexican textile company Adriano Di Marti has partnered with the likes of H&M, watch brand Fossiladidas and Givenchy, as well as the automotive space, with BMW and Mercedes. Desserto’s star is rapidly rising, with the ambition to become the industry standard for vegan leather. But how exactly do you turn a cactus plant into leather, and is it actually more sustainable than other leathers on the market? Let’s find out.

Why the Market Is Ready for a Leather Alternative

The next-gen material market is booming and vegan leathers are leading the charge. Lyst’s 2021 Conscious Fashion Report noted a 178% increase in page views for vegan leather that year. Adriano Di Marti isn’t alone in responding to this growing consumer demand for leather alternatives — there are a host of innovative companies jostling for market share. According to the Material Innovation Initiative, 67 out of the 95 next-gen material companies that they track around the world are in the leather alternative space.

The real vs vegan leather debate has divided opinions over the years, but there are no real winners on either side. Cow leather enthusiasts usually argue that this “natural” material is biodegradable and more durable than synthetic leathers, which are almost all made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). But cow leather has opaque supply chains, animal welfare issues, high use of toxic chemicals in the tanning and finishing stages and cases of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. PVC and PU leathers (sometimes called faux leather, vegan leather, or pleather) come with their own set of issues — they’re both plastics that are usually derived from virgin fossil fuels. They shed microplastics, don’t biodegrade and tend to fall apart quickly.

Of course, not all cow and synthetic leathers are equal, some are made in more ethical and eco-friendly conditions than others, but generally speaking, the majority of the industry faces huge, systemic issues that are almost impossible to overcome on a wide scale. For example, animal welfare and fossil-fuel issues are essentially impossible to avoid in the production of cow and synthetic leathers. It’s no wonder the market for next-gen alternatives is innovating rapidly to find a sustainable alternative to these materials.

How Do You Make Cactus Leather?

The process begins in the state of Zacatecas, in Central Mexico, where the Adriano Di Marti team works with organic Nopal cactus (a.k.a prickly pear) farms to harvest cactus leaves every six to eight months. Nopal cactus is native to this region of Mexico, so it’s naturally ideal conditions to be grown without irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides. It takes three leaves to make one linear meter of cactus leather, and farmers only remove the mature leaves while saving the rest of the plant to grow. It’s perennial, meaning one plantation of Nopal can be continually harvested for around eight years.

After harvesting, the leaves are dried in the sun for three days. “It’s then brought to a laboratory where we extract the protein and separate the fibers from the plant,” explains Adrián López Velarde, co-founder of Adriano Di Marti. Protein is particularly abundant in Nopal cacti and this helps the finished product become more durable and UV resistant.

Once extracted, Adrián López told us the protein is mixed with the fibers and a non-toxic liquid polymer compound made from plant-based oils, but he would not share further information on the contents of this polymer. “I can’t tell you in detail because of the [Intellectual Property], but I can tell you that it’s not edible, it’s a byproduct of the food industry, and it’s renewable,” he says. “This oil is what replaces the fossil fuel oils that you’d usually find in a polymer.” Each order of Desserto is tailored to the desired texture, depending on whether it’s destined to become footwear, handbags and wallets, car interiors or furniture. While the compound of chemicals that produce the material is top secret, it uses existing machinery for coagulation, lamination and coating. “Which makes it scalable and immediately applicable in different countries,” says López Velarde.

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