Culture Sustainable Fashion What Is Cactus Leather? Is It Sustainable? Does this unique vegan material meet our sustainability standards? By Sharmon Lebby Sharmon Lebby LinkedIn Twitter Writer University of South Carolina Sharmon Lebby is a writer and sustainable fashion stylist who studies and reports on the intersections of environmentalism, fashion, and BIPOC communities. Learn about our editorial process Published May 31, 2022 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Image courtesy of Desserto Culture History Travel Sustainable Fashion Art & Media Holidays Community In This Article Expand How Is Cactus Leather Made? Environmental Impact Cactus vs. Animal Leather Cactus Leather vs. Cotton The Future of Cactus Leather Cactus leather is a bio-based material lauded for its breathability, an area in which other vegan leathers fall short. This unique material is used for handbags, shoes, apparel, and furniture. Even car companies are jumping on the bandwagon; Mercedes-Benz applied leather alternatives, including cactus, to the interior of a concept electric car in January 2022. Cactus leather comes straight from the prickly pear cactus, automatically making it a fairly sustainable material. Learn all about how it is made, how it compares to other common materials, and the future of the cactus leather industry. How Is Cactus Leather Made? Cactus leather is made from the nopal cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) also known as the prickly pear or Indian fig optunia. The cactus is harvested twice a year by cutting off only mature pads (cactus leaves) so that the cactus isn't harmed and can continue to grow. The pads are then cleaned, smashed into smaller pieces, and left out in the sun to dry for at least three days. The drying process, which is dependent on humidity levels, can take up to five days. Fibers are separated from the dried mulch. Then, a powdered protein is extracted, taken to a laboratory, and mixed with varying formulas that include dyes to form a liquid bio-resin. The resin is then poured on top of a carrier material to form cactus leather. The type of material used is dependent on the future application of the textile, but recycled cotton, polyester, or blends of both are what is typically used. Environmental Impact The prickly pear cactus used to make cactus leather is a fast-growing plant that doesn't need much water or pesticides. It is easily grown in arid conditions and is considered drought tolerant, an important quality for water conservation. Its hardiness also makes it ideal in an industry that is reliant on weather and climate conditions, creating a good income source for farmers. The cactus has proven to be adaptable and hard to kill, which makes it great for cultivation. However, these same characteristics have caused it to become an invasive species in some areas. For instance, in Ethiopia, the species is hedging out grazing and cultivable areas. This means the land could soon be useless for farming other crops. Despite this, one of the most promising parts of farming cacti is its ability to sequester carbon, allowing it to play a part in climate change mitigation. Carbon Sequestration Carbon sequestration is the process of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in some form. This is done naturally by trees, grasses, and other vegetation, including cacti. In fact, studies have shown that cactus systems are better at keeping carbon in the soil. Sequestering carbon in the soil means fertile growing areas and less carbon in the atmosphere. Since carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, being able to draw it out of the atmosphere would help slow global climate change. Desserto Currently, Desserto is the only manufacturer of cactus leather. The farming practices are certified organic and use only rainfall to water the crops mitigating the use of excess water. The process is energy efficient, using the sun to dry the cactus mulch versus other mechanical methods. The company uses a bio-polymer, which is partially made from organic renewable compounds. (Desserto bears the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Biobased Product label.) The dyes used to color the fabric are also organic. There is a byproduct, but Desserto makes sure the waste from the process is used. Most of it is used for animal feed, but it can be used in many other ways. "It's directed to the food industry, but at an increase [in] value. So the farmers benefit from that," co-founder Adriano Velarde told Treehugger. "They even export it and they do dietary supplements... You can even brew beer with it." Cactus vs. Animal Leather Leather has a long and troubled past. The toxins used to tan the leather are often under fire as well as the treatment of animals. Leather does have a couple of redeeming features. One is how long it lasts. The other is being sourced from a renewable resource. However, while it only lasts a short time in the atmosphere, the impact methane has is great and agriculture is one of its primary origins. Cactus eliminates most of these problems and instead reduces carbon from the atmosphere and is able to be grown without the use of pesticides. As the fabric is relatively new, it is not known exactly how long it will last. That said, there is a study that shows the performance of the fabric is comparable to conventional leather. Cactus Leather vs. Cotton Cotton and cactus have one thing in common: they are both cultivated crops. Cotton, however, is a water- and pesticide-intensive crop. There have been efforts to combat this such as water conservation practices and the growing trend of cultivating organic cotton. While some cotton crops don't use irrigation and rely solely on rainfall, moderate water usage is one of the cactus's prime characteristics. The Future of Cactus Leather Cactus leather appears to have a bright future ahead. Not only can growing cactus help the carbon emissions but the plant can be used in a multitude of ways. Its adaptability and ability to draw in carbon are ideal attributes among the growing concerns for climate change and greenhouse gases. As long as progress moves toward using more eco-friendly carrier materials, the impact cactus leather has on the environment will be low compared to conventional leather and PVC-based alternatives. View Article Sources Bettenhausen, Craig. "Mercedes interior uses cactus and mushroom leather, biotech silk." Chemical & Engineering News. Jan 7 2022.