Humans are using leather for a long time. Leather is heavily demanded in the clothing, shoes, furniture, and automobile industries. But how much harmful this leather is to humans and the environment? Although many people associate leather with cows, in reality, different animals are killed for making leather (pigs, goats, crocodiles, etc.). The skin of the animal is removed and preserved through a process called ‘tanning’. The animal leather requires chromium-tanning which is basically slushing of chromium salts and tanning liquor. This technique though popular is extremely harmful to humans as well as the environment. Looking into the numbers, 1 ton of hide results in 20-80 m3 of wastewater with the concentrations of chromium and sulfide as 250 mg/L and 500 mg/L respectively. Other than these toxic chemicals and heavy metals, flesh, hair, blood, and bones are discarded which pollutes the land and water.
We do have an alternative for animal leather - faux leather. But like animal leather, faux leather is also not environmentally friendly and sustainable. Faux leather is made from plastic and comes with its own negatives like it doesn’t breathe, has toxic chemicals, is vulnerable to tear, and environmental waste.
To curb pollution and meet the exceeding demand for leather, Desserto launched the world’s first sustainable and environmentally friendly leather. Founded in 2019, Desserto was born in Mexico. Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez developed vegan leather from Nopal cactus as an alternative to animal or synthetic leather. The aim of Desserto is to “offer cruelty-free, sustainable alternatives, without any toxic chemicals, phthalates and PVC”. The vegan leather by Desserto can be used by the “fashion, leather goods, luxury packaging, and furniture industries”. Desserto’s leather is organic, vegan, breathable, strong, and biodegradable. It “offers high resistance to abrasion, rubbing, tearing, tensile and a great durability”. It lasts up to 10 years and it is flexible, breathable, and doesn’t stain.
Overall, Desserto gets 2 planets as nothing is perfect and for Desserto we definitely have some questions which need to be addressed for a perfect 3 planet rating. But as Desserto is a young and new company, it is already doing better than several other billion-dollar industries. Desserto definitely deserves applause for its breath-taking, environment-friendly, vegan leather innovation.
Desserto uses Nopal cactus as raw material because of the reason that “it is very resilient and strong, it can handle low temperatures during winter without dying and its thorns are very small so it’s easier and safer for our agriculture team to harvest.” In general, cactus can grow in severely degraded soils that are not fit for other crops. The cactus plantation is perennial meaning one plantation lasts 8 years and doesn’t need to cultivate annually. The Nopal species is native to Zacatecas (a state in Mexico) and requires 200 liters of water to produce 1 kg of dry material compared to 1000 liters (average) to grow 1 kg from other crops.
Desserto claims their vegan leather is free from phthalates, formaldehyde, and plastics (PVC) which are popularly used in traditional leathers. Phthalates are used to soften PVC and can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system. Similarly, formaldehyde causes skin irritation and suffocation. They also cause soil and water toxicity.
Desserto uses polyester, cotton, recycled fibers, and cactus-infused cotton for the backings of the leather. Polyester is made from ethylene, which is derived from petroleum. Polyesters are mostly synthetic and non-biodegradable causing pollution around the world. Similarly, cotton organic or not requires a huge amount of water and energy to grow. As there is not much information about recycled fiber, it is difficult to say whether these fibers are righteous or not.
In Mexico, Desserto has a ranch where they grow their raw material - cactus. To make their plantations fully organic, Desserto didn’t cut down any trees but allows the native Nopal cactus to blend with the wild flora so as to avoid any harm to biodiversity. Desserto doesn’t use an irrigation system in their ranch but depends upon rainwater, reducing the water usage. The ranch is free from pesticides and herbicides. They only select and cut the mature leaves of cactus which allows them to have a new harvest every 6-8 months. The cut leaves are then cleaned and mashed. Then these mashed leaves are dried under the sun for 3 days. After drying, they process the organic raw material using Desserto’s patented formula where they mix the leather with non-toxic chemicals and finally shape them into different textures and colors.
There are some attention-grabbing positive numbers from early life-cycle assessment of Desserto’s cactus leather. Like they save 1,864% greenhouse gas emissions, 500% eutrophication impact (blooms of blue-green algae which leads to depletion of oxygen level in water bodies), 164,650% of water, and 878% energy demand compared to animal and faux leather. Moreover, one of the intriguing steps taken by Desserto is to divert the remains of cactus to the food industry.
Researching the leather backings, Desserto neither mentioned the source nor the nature of their polyester, which raises the question about its sustainability. Similarly, the usage of leather backings made from cotton and recycled fibers attracts suspicion as there is not enough information about the source, manufacturing, and processing. In addition to that, as we don’t know what exactly goes into Desserto’s patented formula, it is difficult to say if the formula is 100% non-toxic and environment-friendly or not.
There are no reports and data on the workforce and working conditions of Desserto employees. Hence, it is difficult to say if there are any labor issues like inadequate pay, gender inequality, child labor, or worker mistreatment regarding cactus farming.
For a product to be environment-friendly, it's not only important to have the raw materials sourced from a sustainable source but also maintaining sustainable practices across the supply chain and workplace. Definitely, the vegan leather by Desserto is much better compared to animal or faux leather. But these missing links and unanswered questions affect their standing among sustainable/planet-friendly products.
Harmful effects of phthalates