Agri-Forestry & Conservation

Making leather from Mexican cacti

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How it all began

Two Mexican entrepreneurs, Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez, have developed the world’s first vegan leather from the nopal cactus. Before hitting upon the idea for their alternative to animal leather the duo worked in the furniture, automotive and fashion industries, where they were exposed to animal cruelty.

Whether from cows, sheep or goats, animal skins have long been used for leather. Now a Mexican duo has come up with a plant-based alternative using a humble cactus.

Traditional leather

According to animal rights group PETA, the global leather industry slaughters more than a billion animals and tans their skins and hides every year. Most leather produced and sold in the US is made from the skins of cattle and calves, but some is derived from sheep, lambs, goats and pigs.

The potential of plants

The cactus-based material, which is known as Desserto, is similar to its animal counterpart in terms of flexibility, breathability and durability. As such, it could be a potential game-changer for the leather industry. It is partially biodegradable, although not completely because it contains some plastic.

Cacti in their natural habitat

The cactus chosen for the leather — which grows in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas — is very resilient and strong and can survive in low winter temperatures. In the quest to remain pesticide-free and use little water, the entrepreneurs rely on rain and minerals abundant in the soil of Zacatecas to sustain their plants.

A cactus that doesn’t hurt

Although cacti can be hard on the hands, the thorns of the nopal cactus, which is also known as the prickly pear, are small enough for farmers to harvest them without too much difficulty. Once the mature leaves have been cut, they are dried under the sun for three days until they contain the right amount of water needed for successful processing.

A new challenge for the desert ecosystem

The team only selects and cuts the leaves without damaging the cactus itself. This process enables them to re-harvest from the plants, which can also be used in Mexican cooking, every six-eight months.

The fashion of sustainable fashion

Earlier this year, the international Green Product Award ceremony honoring companies that create innovative and sustainable products and services was held in the German city of Munich. The Mexican cactus leather was among the winners.