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Desserto Cactus Leather: Grabbing Entrepreneurship by the Thorns

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Sometimes the well of innovation runs dry for entrepreneurs, but for the founders of Desserto Cactus Leather, dry was just the inspiration that they needed.

Animal leather not only kills cows, but uses rivers of water in its manufacturing process and produces landfills of waste. In search of a better leather, Desserto has patented a technology that transforms mature cactus leaves to a soft multipurpose material. The product is aimed towards brands of all sizes who are looking to transform their respective industries by taking a stand against the normalized unsustainability of leather.

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Cultivating an Idea

Founders Adrian López Verlarde and Marte Cázarez were dissatisfied. Within their respective industries, Adrian having been involved with automobiles and Marte with fashion, they experienced first-hand the environmental degradation resulting from leather and its production.

Growing up in rural areas of Mexico where the livelihood of their families was dependent on nature, a connection to the land is coded in their DNA. Marte and Adrian first met studying abroad, which is when they became aware of the role of manufacturing in contributing to global warming.

Years later after returning to Mexico, fate (more accurately mother nature) veered Marte and Adrian on the same path once more, as they happened to be working in the same city at the same time. The friends caught up and found common passion for sustainability both locally and globally.  Their separate industrial experiences with conventional leather motivated them to look for alternatives, and so began their joint venture to create a sustainable leather.  It wasn’t long before they took leap of faith, a risk common to entrepreneurs, and left the comfort of their jobs behind to launch a sustainable enterprise.

But what raw material could equal the leather from cows?

After intense research and brainstorming, one idea stuck: cacti.

Prickly Problems with Leather

To fully grasp and appreciate Marte and Adrian’s motivation and mission, it is important to understand the problem behind their innovative solution.

Not only is there the ethical dilemma of slaughtering cows, but raising cows is resource intensive.  Cows are among the highest contributors of greenhouse gases, which cause global warming. Though the argument can be made that leather production is a pragmatic way to use the hide of an animal that would otherwise go to waste as a byproduct of the meat industry, the process of treating leather, called tanning, is extremely environmentally detrimental as well. The most common form of leather tanning, using Chromium, results in a toxic and hard to treat waste effluent which can contaminate rivers and lakes.  Moreover, because the quality of animal hide varies, much partially tanned leather is thrown away, wasting the embodied energy from the tanning process.

An alternative, synthetic leather, involves no cows but still has serious environmental impacts. It is made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU), both plastics that take substantial energy to produce and release toxic chemicals as they break down. But fear not! Cactus leather can, like a desert sandstorm, blow away the competition.

Sustainable from Start to finish

Desserto’s goal to revolutionize the leather industry starts by offering a high-quality product.

Cactus made sense to Adrian and Marte for both environmental and cultural reasons.  A native plant to their home country, Cactus is known for its stability and resilience.  It is abundant and carries symbolism of the culture of Mexico. “It is even on our flag!” Adrian pointed out to me. Without the experience to raise outside capital, they used money from their savings and family loans to begin a two-year research and development process to make their envisioned product a reality. “At the beginning many people were skeptical about the project and didn’t think it was going to be possible, but we stuck to it”, he explained. Eventually they settled upon a cactus species, technology, and production cycle.

“Desserto is more than a plant-based material, but a value chain within itself”, he said before detailing the meticulously thoughtful process of making their cactus leather. Taking a form of biomimicry, nothing is done to the land that disrupts natural processes. In fact, Desserto is restoring natural ecosystems by capitalizing on land use change. In Mexico there is an abundance of unfertile land due to overexploitation by unsustainable agricultural practices. However, because of the cactus’s resilience, planting cacti in these areas rejuvenates the land. By doing so, farmers are provided with a job and biodiversity is slowly welcomed back. Additionally, Desserto ensures the growing of their cacti is done sustainably, as their plantations operate organically under global standards of ethical and environmental practices. 

Because the cactus is a desertic plant, it needs no irrigation. When ready to harvest, mature leaves of the cactus are cut (which regrow in a few months) and no soil is disrupted. The leaves are then mashed and dried. The drying process occurs in the sun, so no fossil fuels are used. Next, they undergo a special pulping process where the fibers and proteins of the plant are broken down and oils are extracted before being sent to a lab. Within the laboratory a special bio-compound is made and can be spread on basic fabrics (Desserto recommends recycled fibers) to form astonishing varieties of plant-based leather, smooth to the skin and the heart. Any byproducts not used are sent to be made use of in food industry for various purposes.

Harvesting mature cacti leaves

Carbon Negative Farming

And it isn’t just Desserto’s supply chain that’s sustainable, but the cactus itself.

The cactus’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and thrive in desertic conditions rests on its unique properties as a CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) species, which are different from most plants we commonly hear of which are in the C-3 class. Cacti only need about 1/5 of the amount of water that C-3 species need to produce the same quantity of biomass, which is due to the cactus’s hydroscopic properties that absorbs humidity from the atmosphere. This process happens in the night, so that the sun doesn’t evaporate what is being absorbed. Additionally, by activating their metabolism at nighttime they are converting CO2 to oxygen when C-3 species are not.

In operating plantations of cactus, Desserto is sequestering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a rate faster than the company is producing it, a concept called carbon negative farming. With an overload of excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, Desserto isn’t satisfied with being an environmentally neutral company, but acts as one that is regenerative for our planet. To put this in numbers, Desserto’s 14 acres of cactus plantations absorb 8,100 tons of carbon dioxide per year, yet the company only generates 15.3 tons (a comparison that I had to read multiple times before understanding). Furthermore, because their cactus species (Opuntia ficus-indica) needs no irrigation, Desserto cactus leather production uses exorbitantly less water than it’s synthetic and animal counterparts (I could rattle off numbers, but I will let you read for yourself at (https://desserto.com.mx/e-lca).

Varieties of Desserto leather

It’s all about Balance

So, what’s the catch, right? For a material being produced sustainably from plant to product there must be a cost. Well, as it turns out acting sustainability is as equally beneficial to the environment as it is those acting sustainably. Respecting the land’s natural processes, Desserto works successfully as a balancing force to areas of environmental disarray. This ensures the long-term functionality of the company as an operation and business, as unfortunately there are many areas of imbalance to capitalize on.

Because brands using leather (and synthetics) are gradually facing the market demand and their own corporate ethics that they need to make changes to become more sustainable, there is increasing demand for Desserto’s material. I asked if scaling would be an issue for Desserto as more and more companies come running to buy their product. “We are a company that is purpose beyond profit”, Adrian said, “But here in Mexico there is a lot of land that is deteriorated and needs to be reforested”, which means there’s a lot of room for Desserto to grow. From my perspective this growth is inevitable; Desserto has already proven to be a standout material in the textile industry after only officially launching 2 years ago. They have received countless recognitions and awards, and have already been a part of exciting collaborations with huge brands such as Fossil, Karl Lagerfeld, and H&M. Seeing such huge brands transform their material and show commitment to sustainability gives Adrian great satisfaction and me (as a climate-concerned consumer) great inspiration. It demonstrates that sustainable products, like Desserto, are shifting the tides within industry.

In terms of price, cactus leather ends up being about the same as animal leather. To make their material as accessible as possible, Desserto is working to expand their product line to offer a variety of options at different prices. Sustainability isn’t something that should be gatekept for those that can afford it, and consumers should be able to buy and enjoy products free of ethical and environmental burden.

Hence, in restoring sectors of Earth’s natural balance, Desserto exists in balance as well.

And it comes Full Circle

Desserto’s circular form of production continues beyond their plantations, laboratories, and country. Though Mexico is a huge component of their brand and base market, they don’t want their product to be limited to their surroundings, and they export 80% of their product.  The growth of Desserto brings healthy agriculture, clean manufacturing, and the creation of jobs, “The problem [of climate change] is global. It’s not national”, Adrian noted passionately.

Adrian and Marte also make efforts to empower sustainable entrepreneurs like themselves by offering speaking engagements, consultations, and no-strings attached sampling. Having communication with and making their material resources available to students is important to them, as they want to promote sustainability for future creators.  Adrian looks forward with optimism, “Younger generations are the decision makers of the near future”, he told me, “Who knows who’s going to be the next big brand? It will be amazing to see that happen with a founder that has sustainability well understood from the get-go”. He also described how it can be difficult for long-standing companies to change their established practices, which is why it is so important that newer companies already adopting sustainability have support.

Though it is not easy creating a sustainable business Adrian gives words of advice he would’ve given to himself when starting the company. With a bright smile he chuckled, “I think it is important to be resilient, as cactus”. Supporting the unexperienced entrepreneurs of whose position Adrian and Marte occupied just years ago, Desserto’s brand comes full circle beyond production.

Cactus leaf on Desserto leather
Tatum Pryor
Author: Tatum Pryor

Tatum is a rising sophomore at UNC majoring in Environmental Studies with projected minors in Food Studies and Business administration. She is passionate about sustainability, particularly that in the agricultural sector. Sustainability for her embodies economic, environmental, and social viability. She is excited by entrepreneurs uplifting communities and the environment alike, and is excited to share their stories as inspirational tales in the midst of climate change discussions centered around doom and gloom.

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