Plant-based leather alternatives are a growing market, with innovators turning to pineapple, olives, and coconuts to produce eco-friendly materials. Earlier this year, high-street retailer H&M unveiled a vegan jacket made from pineapple leather, while German footwear brand Thies launched a line of leather shoes made from olive leaves. Closer to home, Kerala-based brand Malai fashions leather and accessories from coconuts!

With growing awareness on the effects of the leather industry on the environment and animals, the market for cruelty-free alternatives will keep growing. So many brands are out there, trying to make vegan leather as low-impact as possible by using plants to create leather-like fabrics. Two entrepreneurs in Mexico have developed a durable vegan leather from cactus, and it could very well replace animal leather!

Until recently, pretty much all vegan leather was made of plastic-based materials. But over the past few years, innovators have discovered many ways to make vegan leather out of everything from pineapples to cactus leaves to flowers. The vegan leather industry has come so far from the days of good old leather, so to celebrate, we have rounded up some of the most exciting plant-based leathers on the market.

Amazingly, every vegan leather is made from a plant; but unfortunately, none of them are fully biodegradable yet. That is because each material is either made with a mix of plants and polyurethane or is plant-based and coated with a plastic-based resin. While there are a few brands already selling fully compostable sneakers, no one has been able to crack the case of compostable vegan leather shoes yet. But the good news is, most of the brands are working towards perfecting their respective vegan leathers to make their shoes biodegradable.

Vegan leather pretty much always has a lower impact than animal-based leather, whether it is plant-based or completely synthetic. Not only does vegan leather leave animals out of the equation, but the process of harvesting (aka breeding, raising, and killing animals) and tanning leather has a high environmental impact. Raising animals (typically cows) for leather requires large amounts of land, water, and feed; the animals emit methane into the atmosphere; and the excrement from cattle ranches and factory farms pollutes the nearby waterways, soil, and air, which becomes a public health risk for people who live nearby.  

The company’s vegan leather is made from a mix of polyurethane and bio-oil. The bio-oil is sourced from cereal crops that were organically grown in northern Europe in a carbon-neutral process. The company is trying to move away from using polyurethane to make its vegan leather and recently rolled out a new product using viscose made from eucalyptus bark.

 Green says he has met with representatives from all the “key” vegan leather suppliers, and to his knowledge, “all other vegan leathers made from plants also contain polyurethane in their composition, usually in their finishing or as the backing material. It is a required component in the production.”

But luckily, Green thinks a 100 percent biodegradable vegan leather is short. “At the moment, the technology does not exist to exclude polyurethane totally, but I don’t think it is long until we are there,” he says. Dessert vegan leather,  made from nopal cactus leaves, is organic, “partially biodegradable,” soft, and durable — so durable that it can be used to make furniture and car interiors in addition to fashion items like wallets, purses, and shoes.

Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez came together to create a cruelty-free alternative to animal leather, and just last month, they debuted Dessert, a first-of-its-kind organic leather made entirely from nopal or prickly-pear cactus. They plan to sell Desserto fabric to other designers and fashion brands, rather than design and sell their products. The nopal cactus grows in abundance across Mexico without requiring any water, making it a low-impact crop.

Cactus leather is a sustainable leather alternative made from Opuntia Cactus (also known as Nopal) that has been developed in Mexico. It is called desserto and is a highly sustainable plant-based vegan leather made from cactus, often distinguished by its great softness to touch while offering great performance for a wide variety of applications and complying with the most rigorous quality and environmental standards. Developed by two Mexicans who used to work in the automotive and fashion industries – where they identified strong environmental impact in both sectors – this vegan leather aims to offer a cruel-free and sustainable alternative, without toxic chemicals, phthalates, and PVC.

Production of Vegan Leather

It is one of the world’s most traded products, leather is part of a booming $80 billion industry. Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez have developed a method of transforming cacti into vegan leather that looks so realistic, you would never guess it was made from this desert plant. They called their cactus vegan leather Desserto, and it is made from cacti grown on their plantation in the Mexican state of the Zacatecas. The cactus is known for its rugged, thick skin, which makes it the perfect texture to simulate animal leather.

“The idea of using this raw material was conceived because this plant does not need any water to grow, and there is plenty of it throughout the Mexican Republic. Besides, to be able to incorporate this material into various industries, it is essential to count on a stable, abundant supply of raw material. We currently have 2 hectares where we cultivate nopals, as well as an expansion capacity of 40 hectares. Regarding production capacity, we have 500,000 linear meters a month.”

The cactus plants are in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, the dessert farm is an example of how innovation can be developed responsibly. There, the harvesting process respects the cactus cycle where they select and cut only the mature leaves of the plant around every 6 – 8 months. No irrigation systems are used as the cacti grow healthy with rainwater and earth minerals found in the area.

Dessert is made with leaves from the Prickly Pear Cactus. Mature leaves are cut from organically grown cactus plants, cleaned, mashed, and then left out in the sun to dry for three days until the desired humidity levels are achieved, before processing. The process for cactus leather involves using either the new young leaves or the mature leaves of the plant. It can then be dyed naturally using methods developed by Adriano Di Marti, López Velarde’s, and Cázarez’s company. This makes for vegan leather that is certified organic and can hold up to regular usage for nearly a decade.

The organic raw material is then processed and mixed with non-toxic chemicals and then shaped into any texture and color. The ranch is fully organic, so no herbicides or pesticides are used in the process. All the remaining organic cactus material not used is exported and sold nationally to the food industry. 

Properties of Vegan Leather

It is also flexible, breathable, and durable, making it an ideal replacement for animal and synthetic leather. The touch and feel of the material are also soft and very similar to real leather. The product is also highly sustainable with a lower carbon footprint than other leather alternatives. It also happens to be:

  • Less water intensive
  • Free from phthalates
  • Free from toxic chemicals
  • PVC-free

The desserto cactus vegan leather has the technical specifications required by the fashion, leather goods, furniture, and even automotive industries. It is flexible, breathable and does not stain. With the durability of around ten years, the cactus leather’s basic features, elasticity, customizable and breathable, are like those of animal or synthetic leather. The features are complemented by earth-friendly traits that include being partially biodegradable and having no toxic chemicals, phthalates, and PVC.

Uses of Plant Leather 

Apart from being natural and cruelty-free, the material also meets the specifications of several industries and can be used in:

  • Fashion
  • Leather goods
  • Furniture
  • Automobiles

Vegan leather is on par, in terms of pricing, with genuine leather. So far, the company has created car seats, shoes, handbags, and even apparel. In another plus for the environment, cactus leather is partially biodegradable and does not contain any plastic—another issue with synthetic leather. This makes for a true alternative to animal leather that does not harm the planet.

Dr.N.N. MAHAPATRA

Business Head (Dyes)

Shree Pushkar Chemicals & Fertilisers Ltd., Mumbai