There are many leather alternatives on the market. The reasons for not purchasing leather goods may be as they are animal derived, or due to leather’s environmental impact. Although many alternatives are better choices, they can still have a negative environmental impact as many are plastic based. However, with advances in material science, and a demand for change, there are now better options. There are some well known materials that are now becoming more widely used, such as Pinatex which is made from pineapple leaves. One material which is gaining traction is a cactus based leather created by Desserto in Mexico. This material is similar to leather as it has softness and durability, it even has the technical specifications required for it to be used in the fashion, furniture and automotive industries.
Desserto was founded by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, who are both from Mexico and have now based the company in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Together they developed the cactus leather for 2 years before it was first shown in October 2019. The idea began when they both identified a problem with environmental pollution in their lines of work, the fashion and automotive industries.
This cactus leather is the first of its kind, and is made from Nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear. The cacti are harvested based on their natural cycle. Mature leaves are cut around every 6-8 months, which can then grow back. It also only takes 3 of these leaves to create one linear metre of the material. The farm itself uses no irrigation, only rain water and the earth minerals of the area make the plants grow. Cactus is also a natural carbon sink. The 14 acres Desserto farm absorbs 8,100 tons of CO2/year, while they only generate 15.30 tons of CO2/year.
Leather alternatives are an important environmental solution. It is estimated that cow-derived leather has three times the negative environmental impact as synthetic options, such as polyurethane (PU) leather. The Amazon has 200 million cattle, this is the largest cause of deforestation, contrary to belief that this is for logging. The area used for cattle pasture in Brazil is almost twice as large as the land area of the UK. While it is estimated that 20% of the Amazon has been destroyed, and an equivalent size to UK is lost every year. This cattle is not only used for meat, but also for leather. Although skin is seen as a by-product of the meat industry it in turn can have a huge environmental impact. The demand and processing of leather is what makes it so unsustainable. The tanning process uses extremely damaging chemicals. Chromium-tanned leather is the most common process, and is one of the most polluting. This creates a toxic mixture of Chromium salts and tanning liquor. One tonne of tanned hide creates 20 to 80 cubic meters of waste water with Chromium concentrations around 250 mg/L and Sulphide concentrations at roughly 500 mg/L. While many also forget about the pre-processing of the material. To clean the leather, offal effluence is created. This is normally treated with chemicals, such as pesticides, in order to stop mould growth during transportation. All of these chemicals and waste materials then end up in waterways.
The cactus used for the material is grown by Desseerto in Mexico. These cacti are native to the region and as the plants are perennial, they last for around 8 years. The farm makes sure that the cactus cause no harm to biodiversity and only add to the area.
Once cut the leaves are dried in the sun for 3 days. They are then processed into a raw material which is used in Desserto’s patented formula, mixing it with non-toxic chemicals. It is then turned into a sheet with any desired texture. The product images they have released are just examples to showcase the material. The pair do not plan on making their own products. Instead, their aim is supply the material to other designers and brands. They felt it important to provide solutions that others could use, in turn spreading the conversation about sustainability and making these biomaterials more readily available to the public. The strong molecular bonds of the material means that it has high resistance to abrasion, rubbing, tearing, tensile and a great durability. Making it perfect for any product that would usually be made from leather, such as; handbags, shoes, car seats, and furniture.
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