What is it?
Cactus leather is a new plant based leather that is the next big vegan material. It is highly sustainable, environmentally friendly, and really cool!
Enjoy this read and, as always, click the numbers in square brackets to check out all the references!
How is it made?
Depending on the type of cactus either young leaves or more mature leaves are picked from the plant. The leaves get cleaned and mashed, then they are treated and pressed into long sheets. This is similar to how cellulose pulp is mixed with water and pressed in machines to make sheets of paper. Finally the cactus sheets are dried in the sun for up the three days. [i]
What treatment is added to the mashed leaves was something I could not find. I would assume it is some form of bonding agent that makes the mash dry evenly, stick together, and get a nice finish. This stage is also where dyes would be added to change the colour. This treatment is the reason cactus leather is currently not 100% biodegradable.
Once tanned the cactus skin is rolled up and can be used similarly to regular leather!
What is the environmental impact?
The core of the cactus is left whole so the leaves grow back in the following months to be harvested once again. Depending on the species, cacti need rare watering in the summer or do not need to be watered at all and grow using just rain water.[ii] The Opuntia cactus only needs 200 litres of water to make a kilogram of dry goods compared to corn which needs 1000 litres of water to make the same amount of solid product.[iii] Cacti are grown organically and grow effectively in arid sandy soils which makes them useful crops for farmers with low nutrient land.
When the cactus leather is made into products it doesn't need to be bonded to toxic materials like polyurethane and PVC to look like leather (click here to read about the impact of PU and PVC).
Unfortunately due to the processing of cactus leather it is only partially biodegradable. It is important to note that animal leathers are fully biodegradable. That said, raising the cows uses a lot more water than cacti and they need to be fed plant matter that has to be grown and shipped to the animals. The commercial leather tanning process can be very toxic compared to cactus tanning [iv].
If you do not want to purchase animal leather this is the closest looking alternative with a fairly low environmental impact.
Hopefully as more companies invest in research the industry will be able to process the mashed leaves in a way that is 100% biodegradable.
Does it look right?
Yes! Cactus leather looks really authentic. Honestly it’s the best fake leather I’ve seen that isn’t made of plastic.
Texture wise it has been described as “buttery smooth” and “flexible” which both sound quite nice! [v]
Canadian company Poppy Barley just released their PLNT line made of cactus leather!
Their leather is 80% biodegradable and made from Laguaro cactus farms in Mexico that are local to their factories so as to reduce the environmental impact of transport. They are lined with cotton canvas that is also made locally.
Click here to check them out.
I haven’t been paid by them or anything I just love their stuff. Will definitely be buying the vegan belt bag!
Cactus leather looks like it has the potential to become a commonly used material. It has everything we want from a vegan leather at a fraction of the impact to the environment. Only time will tell if the pieces have the longevity that animal leathers have but even if they don’t with continued investment in research one day I hope they will.