The fashion industry’s search for environmentally friendly and ethical leather alternatives continues, with brands seeking buttery and durable options to replace traditional cow hide.
Those efforts have so far yielded a smattering of plant-based and lab-grown results, but replicating the qualities that for centuries made leather such an indispensable and covetable material remains a tall order.
Mexico-based material manufacturer Desserto believes it has hit the sweet spot between feel and function with its cactus-based leather replacement. And on Friday, Los Angeles sneaker brand Clae debuted its first kicks made from the desert-dwelling flora.
“Part of the team at Clae is vegan, and we’ve always had vegan material options in our collection since the beginning,” Jerome Thuillier, the company’s brand director, told Sourcing Journal, citing materials like hemp featured in is current line. To supplement a new sustainable materials program for recycled PET and natural rubber, “we wanted to go further to develop a material both vegan and more sustainable as possible—a non-animal alternative to our premium leathers that could meet our quality standards that we’ve always been known for,” he said.
The company connected with Desserto, winner of the 2020 Green Product Award, which distinguishes sustainable and innovative products and services already on the market, offering startups and established companies a platform for networking. Adapting the material maker’s products to the technical requirements of Clae’s existing sneaker styles was a “lengthy and trying,” process, Thuillier admitted. “We did not relent, convinced that we were pioneering and paving the way to one of the best non-animal material options for footwear.”
Eventually, the partners landed on a formulation that held up to wear-and-tear, as well as meeting the minimalist label’s stringent aesthetic requirements. Clae’s signature Bradley lace-up silhouette in cactus leather has a natural rubber sole, recycled nylon laces made from plastic waste, a non-toxic neoprene heel tab, and is shipped in 100 percent recycled cardboard packaging. It is now available for pre-sale on Clae.com for $130 in white, black and green.
Cactus leather has several features in common with premium leather, such as softness and durability, offering an alternative to animal skins without compromising on the aesthetics, Thuillier said. “Consumers might purchase a pair made of cactus without even noticing,” he added.
When asked what put the unorthodox leather alternative on the brand’s radar, he said Clae sought a water-friendly option to traditional hides. In addition to the water it takes to support the cultivation of cattle across the globe, tanneries rely heavily on water-dependent processes that expel chemicals into surrounding waterways.
The cactus plant’s modest water requirements elevated its appeal. Desserto’s nopal varieties are grown on a plantation in Zacatecas, a centrally located state in Mexico, where they flourish without intervention, according to co-founders Adrian Lopez Velarde and Marte Cázarez.
“For the species we plant we do not need an irrigation system—it grows abundantly with only rainwater, thanks to the rich minerals of the land and altitude of this region,” they said. “We select and cut only the mature leaves of the plant without damaging it, so every 6-8 months we will have a new harvest in the same plantation.”
According to Velarde and Cázarez, the plants can also withstand low temperatures during winter, making them a year-round crop, and their relatively small thorns offer few safety risks to the company’s agricultural team during harvest.
After the leaves are cut, they are dried in the sun for three days until they reach optimal humidity levels, the founders said. “Therefore, there is no furnace or use of additional energy like gas” in the desiccation process. A patented blend of heavy metal, phthalate and dye-free chemicals is then applied to the leaves.
“It offers great durability, resists moisture and liquid spills, but what makes us different is that this organic and sustainable material can replace the use of animal leather and other synthetic materials that are not friendly with the environment,” the founders said, adding that the material offers breathability and resistance to bacteria, fungi, UV rays and cold temperatures.
“All the remaining organic cactus material that is not used in our formula is exported and sold domestically in the food industry, so you can imagine how organic and safe it is,” they added. “We use some of the salvageable waste from our production for samples and the rest is sent to a recycling project to obtain various energy products such as gas and coal.” The Desserto plantation has been certified organic by the USDA and has received equivalent certifications in Germany, too.
“All of what is produced with leather can be substituted by our materials,” Velarde and Cázarez claimed, citing opportunities in the automotive, aeronautic, furniture and even sports industries, with the potential to produce products like balls and boxing gloves.
Clae’s Thuillier echoed the optimistic projections, touting the material as “one of the seeds for a more sustainable future,” especially in the fashion sector.
“Cactus leather is not just a new material,” he added. “It is a technical feat.”