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Desserto: Turning cactus into vegan leather for the world’s top fashion brands

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Adrián Velarde and Marte Cázarez launched Desserto in October 2019. Nine months later, they discuss their lives’ sacrifices, the fashion industry, and the hidden potentials of cacti.

“We had to quit our social and economical stability for something we had no idea would come true,” says Marte Cázarez, co-founder of Desserto, from his office in Mexico.

Betting all their odds on nothing but an idea, Cázarez and his partner Adrian Velarde spent two-and-a-half years on research before showcasing their alternative to animal leather in Milan, Italy, in October 2019.

The co-founders originally met in Taipei, Taiwan at the age of 19.

The moment they discovered they had the same date of birth, they immediately became friends. They returned to Mexico nine years ago to start their careers alongside each other.
Together, they accumulated years of experience in the automotive, furniture and fashion industries; and today, they supply some of the world’s leading fashion brands with leather made solely from cactus. Yes, cactus.

 

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Their cactus leather is cruelty-free, sustainable, and contains no toxic chemicals, phthalates, or PVC.

It is also partially biodegradable, leaves no waste. It currently supplied to the fashion, furniture, and automotive industries.

Cactus is a lot more than just a symbol of the Mexican Republic.

It has the potential to generate thousands of jobs and turn global industries upside down. And, the co-founders add, no additional energy or water needed.

“What we consume absolutely has a direct consequence on our planet,” agree the two co-founders.

While the majority of leather is taken from cattle that are bred for the meat industry, saving the scraps that would otherwise be discarded, depending on this process is not in itself vegan.

“The fashion industry is one of the most powerful economic engines in the world. But it’s also one of the ones that harm the environment the most,” says Velarde.

Cattle ranches require acres of deforestation, thousands of litres of water, and tonnes of feeding resources.

Textile companies use cotton, which is equally as water-intensive and cannot survive without applying vast amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers. Velarde and Cázarez’s methods revolutionise the way we generate our materials.

 

Desserto’s plantations span 40 acres of land, rescued from other agriculture sectors that had been depleted and abandoned.

With cacti, the two entrepreneurs seek to restore the soil properties, while reducing all water, chemical and energy inputs into the fields. Its processes have been organically certified by organisations such as the USDA, EOCC, and DAKKS.

The Nopal cactus is unlike corn, fruit trees, vegetables, and 90% of plants we know. It’s a Crassulacean Acid Metabolism class species, which doesn’t contain chlorophyll.

So while most others, which are considered C3 class species, work during the daytime and use up to 1000 litres of water to generate 1kg of biomass, cactus operates at night and only requires 200 litres for the same mass. 

The plant’s natural hygroscopic mechanism additionally means there is no need to irrigate it; cactus plants absorb humidity from the air independently.

With no change to land use, no biodiversity impact, and a lifespan of at least 10 years, cactus plants are one of the most efficient sources of leather alternatives out there.

 

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Every six to eight months, the plants are then harvested and left to dry in the sun. Next, the protein is extracted and goes through several stages of manufacturing.

Any excess leaves along the way can be used to plant more cacti. The non-reusable fibres left behind are forwarded to the Czech Republic and Thailand, where they are put into dietary supplements, because of their high nutritional content.

As well as changing the way we make leather, Desserto is driving feedstock prices up so native farmers can cultivate and sell cacti more cheaply and efficiently for food.
“It’s a very accessible way of generating jobs because it doesn’t matter if you have water or herbicides, you just need the plant — the same plant will give you more plants, and so on,” explains Velarde. 

“One of our Australian customers who visited our plantations called it ‘the cockroach of the plant world’,” he adds, smiling. In Mexico, locals eat cacti raw. But Cázarez struggles to describe its flavours. “I guess it tastes like cactus,” he jokes.

 

The business was still in its prime when the coronavirus hit, but Desserto had stayed in touch with the rest of the world and prepared for the pandemic’s arrival.

“It did hit us, economically, but we were lucky enough not to have to ever stop shipping products,” states Velarde.

They set up mini-warehouses in towns outside the virus’s reach, and temporary workstations inside their staff’s homes. So that everyone could keep working in isolation.

Covid-19 is still prevalent in Mexico, but the business owners are maintaining a positive outlook.

“Consumers will be thinking more and taking more care over the materials they buy. Because, now more than ever, being environmentally focus is really important,” says Cázarez.
Desserto founded in response to the climate emergency and the plastic pollution crisis. That the fashion industry has instigated.

While neither Velarde nor Cázarez is fully vegan, they recognise that everything we consume in our lifetime will leave a trace on the planet. 

cactus leather
Photo: Desserto

“That’s why we currently collaborate with the biggest players in the market. Because we want to make a real change in the world. If they make this transition with Desserto, then we can make a positive change in the industry,” Cázarez explains. 

The suppliers have already won multiple awards, including Germany’s Green Product Award 2020, Monte Carlo’s Fashion Week Sustainable award, and second place at the LVMH Innovation Awards. But the co-founders are yearning for more. 
“In five years’ time, we will be one of the main suppliers of sustainable materials to the fashion and automotive industries,” says Velarde.

As well as gaining international representation through the Asian, European and North American markets as suppliers. One day, Desserto will be a fashion brand of its own.

Olivia
Olivia Rafferty
Olivia is the Assistant Editor of The Vegan Review. An aspiring Middle Eastern correspondent currently studying journalism at City, University of London, she is passionate about the planet, she believes veganism is the first step to solving the complexities of climate change.