The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion

The world's trusted guide to sustainable and ethical fashion


What Is Desserto Cactus Leather and Is It Sustainable?

Desserto cactus leather Mexican next-gen material

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 Fossil, adidas 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.  

The truth around what makes up some of Desserto’s ingredients appears to have been uncovered by a 2021 report by FILK Freiberg Institute, an independent research organization that tests materials. It found that Desserto was made from a “coated textile with a compact layer (PU) and partially foamed layer (PU) filled with heterogeneous particles of organic origin, textile carrier based on polyester material made by a reverse coating process”, suggesting that the majority of the material is in fact made from PU.

PU is commonly found in many different plant-based leather alternatives, added for its durability and flexibility. Desserto is marketed as up to 90% plant-based. When asked, Adrián López said only one of several versions of the material has a plant content of 90%.

The rest, including the one that was tested, are likely to be high in PU.

Is it More Sustainable than Other Leathers?

Water

According to a 2010 UNESCO Institute for Water Education report, the amount of water needed to raise cattle for leather is around 17,000 liters per kilogram of leather produced. On top of the deforestation and desertification that can happen when land is cleared for cattle farming, the drinking water, food and farmland used to rear cattle also require huge amounts of this finite resource. This is before any other water-intensive tanning and finishing processes occur in the supply chain. 

Desserto’s Nopal cacti, on the other hand, is basically made out of water so it grows in drought-prone deserts, doesn’t require irrigation, and actually acts as a water reserve as it grows. 

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) conducted with data platform Simreka, which followed industry standard guidelines, compared the total water use per square meter of fabric and found that compared to cow leather (which requires 32.95 cubic meters of water) and PU (which required 2.93m3), Desserto requires just 0.02m3. 

Lopez Velarde says that the LCA was conducted on the 30% plant-based formulation of Desserto, the company’s least-advanced version. It stands to reason that the version with more PU than biopolymer would have a similar water footprint to generic PU. 

Carbon

Results for the carbon footprint of cow leather vary, as some research considers the weight of material produced while others look at the surface area in meters squared (m2). From cattle farm to finished product, carbon estimates range from 73 to 110 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square meter. The vast majority of the emissions come from the farming of cattle — a 2017 report by the Leather Panel calculated that emissions after the slaughterhouse stage of the supply chain were just 17 kgCO2e/m2. 

That doesn’t exactly let fossil-fuel-based leathers off the hook. The Leather Panel report found that synthetic leather produces 15.8 kgCO2e/m2. Cow leather, however, is a co-product of the beef industry. As Rachel Noll argued in this EcoCult piece on vegan leather from 2021: “Since artificial leather [is] not a by-product of another industry, [its] carbon footprint can be viewed as more impactful than natural leather.”

Desserto’s Nopal cactus actually captures carbon and permanently stores it underground. The company says that its 14 acres of farmland in Zacatecas absorbs 8,100 tons of Co2 every year — a calculation based on data from the FOA which outlines the carbon dioxide absorption rate per square meter of Nopal cacti. However, this is just for the cactus portion of the material, and excludes the footprint of the PU and polyester.

Chemicals 

About 130 different chemicals are used to manufacture leather, such as chromium, formaldehyde, arsenic, resins, dyes, and many others. These facilities — when in countries with fewer regulations like Bangladesh — are often poorly ventilated, with inadequate protective equipment and ineffective waste management systems, meaning both people working in tanneries and living in the surrounding area have a high risk of health impacts from exposure to chemicals. It’s a similar situation for synthetic leathers. In fact, PVC was named “the most environmentally damaging material of all plastics” in the 2021 Changing Markets report Synthetics Anonymous.

As an organic feedstock, no toxic chemicals are used in the farming stages of Desserto’s Nopal cacti — the company has the USDA Organic certification to prove this at the farming level. In the production of Desserto leather, the company claims that it only uses non-toxic chemicals, the aforementioned plant-derived oils — “nothing that involves high-concern substances,” López Velarde says. 

However, tests conducted by the FILK Freiberg Institute found that Desserto actually contained five restricted substances: “butanone oxime, toluene, free isocyanate, folpet (an organic pesticide), and traces of the plasticizer Diisobutyl phthalate.” The report didn’t say how much of these substances were present in the material. 

López Velarde denies the intentional use of butanone oxime, free isocyanate and Diisobutyl phthalate. He says that it is possible that cross-contamination (due to industrial-scale manufacturing of the material) could be to blame for the presence of Toluene, a crude oil chemical compound found in many products from nail polish to glues. What we do know is that most of these chemicals (except for folpet) are ingredients in the production PU, and are restricted for a reason. Exposure to phthalates, for example, can lead to an increased risk of reproductive and developmental issues, diabetes, obesity and asthma. 

While Desserto has published early LCA’s on areas like carbon and water use, the company doesn’t share any further information on how chemical usage compares to cow or synthetic leather production. There is also no information available on effluent management or waste disposal, although López Velarde explains over email that the production facilities capture and recycle all waste, including emissions, but he didn’t provide any further detail on this.

With the secrecy around Desserto’s chosen polymers, it’s impossible to verify the company’s claims. 

Biodegradability 

A common misconception about leather is that natural equals biodegradable. While untreated leather is a natural animal product, the chemicals added in the tanning process stop it from biodegrading. These additives change the chemistry of the fibers to prevent bacteria from breaking down the enzymes. Without this, the pair of leather boots in your closet would simply rot. Most leathers are coated in polymers, which could be bio-based or synthetic. The more synthetic these polymers are, the longer it takes for leather to biodegrade — sometimes it takes hundreds of years. A study by the Italian Leather Research Institute found that after biodegrading in optimal conditions for two and a half months, chrome-tanned leather had only biodegraded 45%, while leather tanned with organic substances biodegraded by 84%.

Of course, PVC and PU are not biodegradable, and when they end up in landfill or pollute the natural environment, they release toxic chemicals and microplastics. 

Another common misconception is that bio-plastics are automatically biodegradable. Anaerobic biodegradation studies show Desserto to be partially biodegradable, however, López Velarde was not able to confirm exactly how much of the material biodegrades. 

Without proof to back up Desserto’s biodegradability claims, and considering the allegedly high proportion of PU in this material, it’s impossible to confirm how it stands up against bovine and other synthetic leathers. The higher the plant content, the better its chances of biodegrading. On the flip side, the more PU present, the less likely it is that this material will biodegrade. 

Our Verdict 

Undeniably, the farming of the Nopal cacti feedstock is the most eco-friendly part of this product, with a significant reduction in water, chemical and carbon use in this stage of the supply chain. However, once the dried cactus enters Adriano Di Marti factories, the truth about what chemicals are applied — intentionally or not — to turn it into a leather alternative is deliberately obfuscated so as to make it appear more sustainable than it is. The only thing that’s clear is that each version contains a variety of ingredients ranging from biopolymers (could be good) to restricted substances (are definitely bad). 

What is evident is that the presence of restricted chemicals, especially chemicals typically found in PU, indicates that just like many other synthetic leathers, certain versions of Desserto are mainly made from plastic with some cactus added in. 

While there are several different types of Desserto, all with differing degrees of cactus content, the environmental claims are only based on one version, meaning the LCA isn’t representative of the full product range. We need to see much more transparency over the use of chemicals which are a fundamental component for transforming humble cactus leaves into this leather alternative. It’s also unclear to us exactly what the biodegradability capacity of this material is, as tests are still being conducted. 

Without knowing more, we can’t endorse Desserto cactus leather.

August 16, 2022: This story was updated to include additional information on Desserto’s composition based on a lab test and López Velarde’s response.

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