Plant instead of animal skin: Why more and more designers are turning to cactus leather

Cactus leather is taking the forefront of sustainable leather alternatives. Everything you need to know about the trend material - from its origins to current challenges

Desserto cactus leather
Source & Copyright by Desserto

Author: House of Eden

Leather is one of the hottest materials this year, especially in the fashion industry. Leather skirts, leather pants or leather coats will be particularly popular in 2024. And not without reason: the high-quality material is durable, robust and can be used with almost any clothing. However, the price for this raw product is a high level of animal suffering, exploitation and high CO2 emissions. The processing of animal leather alone requires up to 500 liters of water and a lot of chemicals per square meter. In order to do justice to the leather trend, the first companies are already starting up vegetable leather. A classic: cactus leather. But is this alternative really a more environmentally friendly solution?

The most important facts at a glance:

  • Leather garments are particularly trendy in 2024, but their production poses problems such as animal suffering, exploitation and high environmental impact.
  • Cactus leather from the so-called nopal cactus offers an environmentally friendly option with benefits such as low water and energy consumption and sustainable harvesting.
  • Although the innovative material is cost-effective and animal-friendly, the plastic base brings challenges such as difficult recyclability and harmful ingredients.

What is cactus leather?

As the name suggests, the innovative leather is made from a cactus, more precisely from the leaves of the nopal cactus or prickly pear. In earlier times, this plant was initially used as a dietary supplement for obesity and diabetes, until the first companies discovered the cactus for the fashion industry as an alternative to animal materials. The resulting leather is durable, soft, water-repellent and breathable, and therefore has a similar feel to conventional leather.

How is cactus leather made?

To get to the bottom of how cactus leather is made, it's worth taking a look at North America, more specifically Mexico. Here, the mature leaves of the cactus plant are harvested on special ranches, with the plant itself remaining for up to 8 years. A very sustainable cultivation method, because the cactus plant is always preserved and only the leaves are processed into leather. Due to the rapid regrowth, these leaves can then be harvested every 6-8 months.

After the leaves are harvested, they undergo a drying process for three days. The only thing that is sufficient for this is exposure to sunlight on the cactus leaves. In numerous cactus leather production processes, the dried leaves are ultimately mixed with plastic and placed on a delicate cotton applied as a basis.

Is cactus leather a sustainable alternative to conventional leather?

At first glance, the innovative material made from the cactus plant seems quite promising, but there is still room for improvement, especially in further processing. Plastic is often used in the production of cactus leather. Due to its ingredients and lack of recyclability it's not considered as environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, producing leather from the cactus plant means less animal suffering and CO2 emissions. Cactus leather has these advantages and disadvantages:

AdvantagesDisadvantages
  • cost-effective
  • no animal suffering whatsoever
  • Cacti grow with extremely little water
  • Simply harvesting the leaves, the plants themselves remain
  • Plastic mixture is difficult to recycle
  • Plastics can be toxic, which can lead to poor health conditions for workers in production facilities
  • One of the raw materials for plastics is petroleum, an environmentally harmful resource
  • Long transport routes from Mexico to Germany

Cactus leather as a cross-industry innovation

The material is used exactly where conventional animal leather is needed - in the fashion or automotive industry, as a component of watch straps or in phone accessories. Due to its robust and hard-wearing nature, this vegan leather proves to be a perfect alternative to conventional versions. A key player in cactus leather production is the company Desserto, which can already boast successful collaborations with renowned brands such as H&M, Mercedes Benz and Fossil. However, this trend towards vegan leather is also becoming popular with more and more smaller companies.

Promising potential with need for development

The fact that more and more designers are turning to cactus leather is entirely understandable: its production is cost-effective and requires only a fraction of the resources needed for conventional leather. The fact that no animal has to suffer for this process also makes it a more ethical alternative for end consumers. However, this innovative material still needs improvements. Companies need to think about how to replace commonly used environmentally harmful plastics with more ecological options so that cactus leather can truly count as a sustainable material.


FAQ's:

What is cactus leather?

Cactus leather is a plant-based material derived from the nopal cactus and is known for its durability, softness and water repellency.

How is cactus leather made?

Cactus leather is made in Mexico by harvesting the cactus leaves, drying them under the sun and then mixing them with plastic, applying this to a thin cotton fabric as a base.

Is cactus leather sustainable?

Cactus leather offers some sustainable benefits, such as low water consumption and animal-friendly, efficient harvesting practices, but challenges such as the use of plastics and environmental impacts from transportation cannot be ignored.

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