Desserto – Vegan leather starting from cactus plantations: the upcoming steps

The textile is developed exploiting the state of Zacatecas green fortune, creating occupation opportunity for inhabitants and capturing CO2

Desserto – The choice for a sustainable community framework

Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cazarez have patented a fiber from cactus. Starting from the experience gained in the automotive and fashion fields and the understanding of the wide use of leather and synthetic fibers. At that time, the solutions offered by competitors in terms of environmental protection were limited and expensive.

Relegated to small portions of collections and unable to implement a civilization in this area. The needs of the market in terms of performance and volume price were clear to the founders. Desserto vegan leather was born from the need to safeguard the future of the planet; and from the desire to exploit the assets of a land like Mexico.

In the Zacatecas region, the plantation of Nopal cactus; also known as the prickly pear, is widespread and resistant to all kinds of temperatures. Being a native plantation, the ranch in which it is grown results as a mixture of the local biodiversity and the natural technique of cultivation boost the regeneration of the soil microflora and microfauna, enabling wildlife to feed also.

The fourteen acres of the cultivation permit to absorb 8,100 tons of CO2/year and the plantations are perennial. Other benefits of this plantation can be found in the social added value. Starting from the byproduct, that rather than being wasted, is directed to the food industry.

On the community side the industry supports innovation in a developing area and creates new jobs for local residents. Attention is also paid to the ethicality of the workforce, allowing for traceability in the farm’s operations. 

The cultivation processes

Nopal cactus plantation is widespread in the Zacatecas region, also in the wild. The warm temperatures for the whole year make it possible to be maintained with rainwater and the earth minerals, without the need for any additional water. Within the ranch where Adriano di Marti company is located, no irrigation system is operated.

The peculiarity of this species, which also makes it more easily workable since it is hand-harvested, is the presence of small and soft spikes; on the contrary there is a great presence of biomass. Environmental protection starts with cultivation, no use is made of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

Each plant can last up to eight years after planting. The growth process is natural and each six to eight months the mature leaves are harvested to be used in the production of the textile. This process is fundamental so that the individual cactus is not damaged.

The cultivation of this type of cactus, that is a CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) plant, does not employ water in the chlorophyll photosynthesis. CO2 is absorbed during night generating oxygen and the water needed is captured by the atmosphere and the dew (only two-hundred liters are implied if compared to C3 plants that need one thousand liters to produce one kilogram of material).

Not all parts of the crop are used in production of the Desserto leather, these organic materials from the cactus are not wasted, but involved within the food industry at a national level.

Nopal leather, the textile development

The variety of plant implied in this process is the Opuntia ficus indica species. The perennial cultivation is maintained with a selection in terms of leaves to harvest, only the mature ones are cut. This process has been patented by the founders and it starts by cleaning the picked parts; while the second step involves the grinding of those.

During the last step in the treatment of the leaves they are left in the sun for about three days; letting them dry naturally until the required moisture level is reached. An extraction of proteins and fibers contributes to the actual creation of the bio resin, fundamental for the texture development.

This material is mixed in a compound together with non-toxic chemicals in order to be shaped in textures. Recycled cotton and polyester or a mix between the two are implemented to create the textiles. The additives used are bio restructured compounds with no restricted substances and solvent free.

The process involves industrial equipment present all the way in the farms to the production laboratory; the production capacity is 500,000 linear meters per month and the workforce through the whole value chain consists of about 600 people.

Desserto sustainability: cost and technical properties of the product

Even the coloring treatment does not create problems to the biodegradability of the product since the pigments are organic. The cumulative amount of energy needed to produce this leather is 115 MJ; while to create animal leather it is about 312 MJ and for synthetics like polyurethane it is about 160 MJ.

In terms of sustainability, cost and technical properties of the product; each customer will have a solution formulated with respect to their own needs and products. In terms of durability compared to animal leather the founder stated. «We don’t like to say that our material is exactly like leather, because it is not. But we have materials that are superior to leather and we have materials that are not superior to leather».

A challenge for the producers is linked to the creation of customized solutions and the implication of great work for the R&D laboratories. The applications of Desserto material over the most diverse fields permit to produce different types of materials.

Some of them are over five hundred thousand polyflex operational cycles and resistant; while others are just above a hundred thousand. Under normal conditions the material can last for over ten years, it results resistant towards humidity, UV and perspiration. 

Each six to eight months the mature leaves are harvested to be used in the production of the textile

The biodegradable process for the disposal of Desserto vegan leather

Landfill conditions are the most suitable for the safe biodegrading of Desserto leather. The method consists of anaerobic biodegradability. Firstly, a test is conducted in order to evaluate the degree of biodegradation of a product. This is exposed to an anaerobic-static-batch fermentation at more than twenty percent solids, measuring the level of carbon in the gas that can be represented by CO2 and CH4.

The remaining part of the percentage evaluates the product biomass parts that are not metabolized to carbon dioxide or methane. This process is able to determine the level of biodegradability when products are placed in anaerobic digester among the compost of waste, explained Adrián López Velarde. Continuing affirming that Desserto leather most performative product can biodegrade at maximum for the ninety percent.

As far as waste disposal is concerned, this vegan material seems convenient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions during the incineration, in fact it saves, at the end of the product life, 1,416.66% of emissions compared to animal leather, and 90.55% compared to polyurethane. Certainly, the product performs well in terms of environmental conservation. But it must also be outlined that at best 10% of the materials used are non-biodegradable. 

The benefits of cactus raw material

Nopal leather can be one among the few viable alternatives to animal or faux leather. Starting from the energy demand in terms of production Desserto saves 878.26% CED (MJ) compared to animal leather, and 78.96% compared to polyurethane (PU).

In general, it can be considered a low-waste cultivation since there is no irrigation system implied and the material dries naturally in a solarium, no chemicals are involved also. The founder explained how the cultivation of this plant contributes to the amelioration of biodiversity and to the enrichment of soil microflora and microfauna.

Proposing an innovative approach in a developing country as Mexico can be considered the main value of the project; that aims to differentiate itself from the process of processing animal skins, maintaining its competitive prices for the market.

Using waste materials from the food industry

Animal leather production tries to be justified in terms of utilization of waste materials from the food industry and it is thought that it can be easily disposed of given the natural origins. Tanneries, on the other hand, use highly polluting chemicals and dyes; which are harmful not only for those who produce them, in the event of a lack of protection.

Also because they are dispersed into the environment both during the industrial process and in the decomposition of the product. The coloring process can be complicated using cactus raw material, if the producer wishes to achieve light or white colors, given the natural green color of cactus.

Desserto leather performed well in that sense, using non-chemical dyes. In the supply chain it seems to be clear the movement of fashion brands toward this direction and Adriano Di Marti is already signing a number of collaborations. Both on local and at a more international one, as with the Karl Lagerfeld signature.

The basis of innovation is respect, as Adrián López Velarde stated, «We just started by creating our own value chain to ensure that social, ethical, economic and environmental practices are done and aligned».

Adriano Di Marti 

is a company founded in 2019. After two years of research, it was established in Mexico by Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez. The main business is based on the development of an alternative vegan leather from Nopal cactus, a very lush species in the Zacatecas region. The developed material is patented as Desserto leather and has competitive characteristics compared to animal or synthetic leather.

Chiara Narciso

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.