What is Cactus Leather & Why Is It The Hottest New Vegan Leather?

Leather: the fashion must-have that just won't quit. Every season, it's back on the trend-watch lists and paraded on catwalks around the globe. For those who like the edgy yet sophisticated look of leather (*raises hand*), there used to be just two choices: either reach for a petroleum-based “pleather” garment that would pollute the planet, or wear the skin of a tortured, violently killed animal... and still pollute the planet. As choices go, this one wasn't a winner.

But today, things have changed. These days, the term “leather” has come to encompass creations made from pineapples, mushrooms, cork, apples, grapes, mangoes...and cacti. That's right, the only plant you managed not to kill is more versatile than you think.

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist and vegan fashion expert.

What is cactus leather and how is it made?

Desserto's cactus leather, one of the latest innovations in sustainable fashion, is a vegan leather made from the leaves of nopal cactus – a plant that grows abundantly in Mexico, without even needing any water (which is why it 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 (such as bags and shoes), 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.

Is cactus leather durable?

Made to last, this product is highly durable and resistant to water, abrasion, rubbing, and tearing. 

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 raising animals on a large scale for human consumption. Desserto's material, which is made from an organic cactus formula, with a backing crafted from recycled polyester and recycled cotton, is kinder to both animals and the environment than animal skins and petroleum-derived plastics.

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.”

Where to buy cactus leather fashion?

Vegan brands are seizing the opportunity to be the first ones to pioneer cactus leather: the material has a beautiful finish and feels lovely in the hand. On the environmental front, cacti don't require water to grow and they're a natural carbon sink. All in all, it's a real leader amongst bio-based vegan leathers.

French-chic label Thalie uses it for its exquisitely crafted handbags; Bohema use it alongside Pinatex and Grape Leather for their on-trend vegan footwear; Mexican brands SENTIENT and Carmona Collection champion local innovation by using cactus leather for their vegan bags and vegan shoes; and New York vegan handbag brand Kaila Katherine uses it for their luxury bags that would rival any designer label for both quality and style.

Natalie Deana and Rebecca Joy from edgy accessory label Frida Rome agree: “We wanted to work with a vegan leather made from plants and free of PVC, and a supplier that is always working to improve its sustainable impact, which we believe to be the case with our supplier of cactus leather. Not only is it vegan, but its suppleness and the variants of textural finishes are the closest to animal leather that was available to a new brand like ours – and it's one of the closest leather replicas on the market to date.”

You can discover our full Cactus Leather collection here.

Conscious material research is the future of fashion, and the fabrics of the future are vegan. Eco-friendly, animal-free, and loved by designers, cactus leather is here to stay. Keep watching this space.

By Sascha Camilli

Discover our full Cactus Leather collection here.

Love sustainable vegan leathers? Take a look at our edits for Apple Leather, Grape Leather, Pinatex, MIRUM® and Cork Leather

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Feature image by Kaila Katherine

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