Cactus Leather Is Cool! But Is It Sustainable?

Finding more sustainable materials to work with has been central to making fashion more sustainable and more environmentally friendly. Especially for those of us who aren’t so keen on animal agriculture, much less wearing garments made from animal skin. We totally understand the sentiment and textiles made from plant-based raw materials have surfaced as great vegan alternatives. One such material is cactus leather.

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What is cactus leather?

This plant-based leather is literally made from the paddles (leaves) of cactus plants — the Nopal cactus to be exact. You may recognize the species used by other names like the prickly pear cactus, the mission cactus, or the Indian fig cactus.

It is found in abundance in Mexico and is native to the Americas. Both the paddles (nopales) and the fruit of the Nopal cactus are edible and important to the Mexican diet. If you are interested in trying to eat some of your own, just make sure to remove the tiny needles they are covered in first.

When transformed into a textile, this vegan-friendly material can be used in a number of applications, like animal-based leather or other faux leather alternatives.

From furniture to handbags and clothing, you may be seeing a lot more of this material on the market — especially when it comes to ethical fashion brands. Unlike other vegan leather alternatives, it is highly breathable and waterproof. It is also partially biodegradable and can last up to 10 years.

How is cactus leather made?

To make this material, the mature paddles of the cactus plant are harvested. This can be done without harming the entire plant and the plants can stay in production for many years. The paddles are then cleaned, broken down, and the remaining product is left to dry (in some cases using a sun drying process). Next, the fibers and proteins are separated and transformed into a resin using a non-toxic process. The resin is then applied to a carrier like organic cotton or a synthetic fabric like polyester. Where carriers like polyester are used, we’d recommend looking for products made from recycled polyester or trying to avoid them altogether.

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What’s the Environmental Impact of cactus leather?

The cactus used to make this material grows abundantly in locations like Mexico where it is native, so there is no need for pesticides or insecticides during the farming process. The Nopal or prickly pear cactus has been found to be an invasive species in Africa and Australia where it was introduced.

These plants can also grow without the need for irrigation, relying only on rainwater which means a lower environmental footprint in that respect too.

Furthermore, the process of making leather from cactus is considered non-toxic, where no harmful chemicals need to be involved which is great. Popular cactus leather brands like DESSERTO even carry a USDA Organic certification.

On the other hand, synthetic materials like bamboo viscose, lyocell, and modal involve chemicals that must be carefully handled even when they are sustainably produced. That’s why it is so important to shop with reputable brands like TENCEL or to look for reputable third-party certifications wherever possible. It must be noted that, when they are sustainably produced, these synthetic fabrics are fully biodegradable and even compostable in some cases.

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Image: Desserto

What is the difference between cactus leather and animal leather?

Unlike animal leather, cactus leather is not very chemical intensive. Animal leather can involve a lot of chemicals, particularly during the tanning process where things like chromium, ammonium salts, and arsenic are used.

These materials are toxic when inhaled, increasing cancer risk among workers who are exposed to them. They can also wind up in waterways when improperly disposed of, causing harm to nearby communities.

Some leather production can also involve some pretty unsavory practices. Things fetal leather require the fetuses to be taken out of the womb. These leathers are prized for their soft texture but it also feels like a bit much to us.

A bio-based leather made from cactus steers clear of any animal cruelty and doesn’t require any toxic chemicals whatsoever. It may also carry a much lighter carbon footprint where plants are grown and sourced locally, using less intensive agricultural practices.

What is the difference between cactus leather and organic cotton?

The main difference here would be that organic cotton is purely plant-based. There are no synthetic materials involved — like polyester, nylon, or spandex — unless otherwise specified as part of a fabric blend.

Cotton requires a lot of water to grow, however, and cactus is a much less thirsty crop. For 1 kg of cotton, an estimated 10,000-20,000 liters of water is required in some places, whereas for 1 kg of cactus only about 200 liters of water is needed. And it doesn’t have to be piped in to feed the cactus plants.

Though the growing process for the cactus plants has these significant advantages, organic cotton is fully biodegradable and can even be composted at home. Just make sure it is certified by a reputable third party such as GOTS to verify that the entire production process – from farming to manufacturing – follows organic standards that make it safe for the materials to be returned to the environment without causing any undue harm.

PROS

  • Vegan and cruelty-free
  • Non-toxic
  • Breathable
  • Waterproof
  • Versatile applications

CONS

  • Requires a carrier which is sometimes a synthetic non-biodegradable material like polyester — a big no-no when it comes to the most (and least) sustainable fabric
  • It is difficult to dispose of at its end of life

Purses made from cactus leather

1. A_C Cactus leather purse

A model holding a brown cactus leather purse. Pin
Image: A_C

Founded by designer Tessa Carroll, A_C stands for Ahimsa Collective. Ahimsa means to cause no harm, and its name a reflection of its commitment to working as such. With a focus on the power of making small positive, collective improvements every day, this Australian brand also embraces a design journey that ensures great care throughout the product development process while honoring its commitment to the life cycle of all of the elements that come together to make their final products.

Find a wide selection of timeless, contemporary handbags, as well as other accessories like organic cotton scarves. Their cactus-based goods include the Claudia Shopper, the Darcy Daypack, and the Monica Belt Bag — with some color options to choose from.

A_C — materials and fabrics

Materials used include organic and recycled textiles, as well as vegan, plant-based leathers like Cactus and Silica Sand.

A_C — ethical sourcing

Their leather is sourced from DESSERTO, a plant-based vegan leather made from cactus without any pesticides or fertilizers. It is also grown with rainwater, with no irrigation needed.

To make their handbags, A_C partners with a factory in China which they ensure is above the regulatory standard, providing salaries above the minimum wage, generous annual leave, paid maternity leave, and more.

A_C — corporate responsibility

The brand offers the option to rent their products which is a great alternative when it comes to creating a thoughtful sustainable wardrobe, or a minimalist one even. To reduce its carbon footprint, A_C donates profits to carbon removal projects through its social enterprise. They also offer a Buy Back Program and handbag repairs which really shows just how concerned they are about their product's lifecycle. 

Price range: $$$-$$$$

2. Everlane

A model carrying a brown cactus leather bag. Pin
Image: Everlane

Everlane is well known for its basics including essentials like sustainable sweatpants and fair trade pajamas. Their main selling point is that their garments are not marked up like other retailers, and they show you just how big that gap can be. Find cactus-based handbags including The Cactus Leather Hobo, The Cactus Leather Oversized Hobo, and The Cactus Triangle Tote. Color options include black, pepper (green), and honey, depending on the style.

The most highly rated option is the Cactus Leather Hobo. Reviewers rave about the feel of the material. It is available in Black and Pepper.

Everlane — materials and fabrics

Everlane also uses DESSERTO cactus leather noting that the cactus used has important carbon sequestration characteristics and the fact that 50% of the byproduct from DESSERTO’S operations is redirected to the food industry and for cattle feed.

Everlane — ethical sourcing

Everlane works with numerous factories that are subject to auditing standards and expectations outlined by the brand in their Vendor Code of Conduct which is based on the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) standards on human rights. To conduct audits the brand works with third-party auditing partners including ELEVATE, Arche Advisors, and Intertek. They also do more to ensure that the factories they work with align with their values and offer a detailed look at all of their partner factories.

 Everlane — corporate responsibility

For packaging, shipping bags are made from 100% recycled plastic or of FSC-certified paper rather than virgin plastic.

Price range: $$$$

Shoes made from cactus leather

1. Urbankissed

A pair of black and white cactus leather shoes. Pin
Image: Urbankissed

Founded by Sophie Brunner, Urbankissed is a marketplace focused on curating conscious fashion favorites and innovative upcoming brands. Find clothing, lingerie, bags, jewelry, menswear, and more, as well as a wide selection of cactus leather boots. You will also find some Nopal ballerinas, Nopal cactus pumps, strappy sandals, and slides – definitely worth a look.

Their bestseller is the Blacky Chic Nopal Cactus Leather Stiletto by BOHEMA — handmade in Poland using DESSERTO Cactus, with an apple leather lining, and recyclable leather rubber soles. Sizes range from US 5-10.

The Alex Pumps are also by BOHEMA, and offer the option to have a little fun with combinations using black and white. The shoe is super adorable, and flat for anyone who’s into that. Sizes range from US 3-11.

Urbankissed — materials and fabrics

This will vary depending on the brand, but you will find plenty of primarily cactus-based options, along with other vegan plant-based alternatives so look out for that as well.

Urbankissed — ethical sourcing

All brands must go through the Urbankissed Slow & Ethical Index and you can choose from the values they use as a guide when shopping, including natural materials, plastic-free, vegan, etc.

Urbankissed — corporate responsibility

The brand is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation community and offers carbon-neutral deliveries for shipping.

Price range: $$$-$$$$

2. CLAE

CLAE focuses on offering minimalist and timeless products, all while working to reduce its environmental footprint, and you can really tell by the looks of its Bradley Cactus sneaker. With its classic silhouette and timeless details, you can choose from three color options white, black and green. Sizes range from 4 to 14 in Men’s. Consider finding your corresponding size in Women’s using their handy size chart.

CLAE — materials and fabrics

DESSERTO leather, cotton, canvas lining, 100% natural rubber sole, EVA insole, and neoprene tab detail.

CLAE — ethical sourcing

CLAE shoes are designed in Los Angeles and carefully handcrafted in Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It is unclear whether their manufacturers carry any certifications but the brand ensures that their producers adhere to their values.

CLAE — corporate responsibility

For packaging, CLAE uses eco-friendly packaging made from recycled cardboard.

Price range: $$$$

Jackets made from cactus leather

1. Amour Vert

A model wearing Deadwood River Cactus Leather Jacket. Pin
Image: Amour Vert

Amour Vert is a sustainable clothing brand that focuses on offering sustainable fashion made in California. A go-to for lots of great basics as well, we found a gorgeous Deadwood River Cactus Leather Jacket within their virtual aisles. It is Beige and definitely serves some polished biker vibes. Sizes range from XXS-XL though they may not all be available. This jacket is a bestseller for Deadwood.

Amour Vert — materials and fabrics

DESSERTO Nopal leather like many of the other brands featured here.

Amour Vert — ethical sourcing

Deadwood Studios jackets are handmade in Stockholm.

Amour Vert — corporate responsibility

Deadwood initially started by mixing vintage garments with new garments to make their own creations. This has changed over time but they still focus on using production leftovers, deadstock materials, and factory offcuts.

Price range: $$$$

2. VEDA

A model wearing the jayne classic leather jacket black. Pin
Image: VEDA

VEDA is a women-owned and women-led studio and factory based in NYC, founded by Texas-born and NYC-raised, Lyndsey Butler. Their initial purpose was to create the perfect leather jacket, and they definitely got our attention. One of their bestsellers is the Jayne classic leather jacket black, but they also offer a vegan option in their vegan baby jane, made of course from a cactus-based fabric in this guide. 

Their jackets really exude edge in just the right way, and best of all they offer extended sizes ranging from XS-6X. The prices are definitely on the higher side of things but we appreciate them making extended sizes an option altogether so if you have the cash you can really invest in a timeless jacket that will last you many, many years. And maybe even get passed down.

VEDA — materials and fabrics

Their Nopal leather is also sourced from Mexico, using sustainably farmed cactus. If something is not available in vegan leather, VEDA invites you to reach out to see if they may be able to accommodate you.

VEDA —  ethical sourcing

Garments are produced in their NYC studio. When garments are produced outside of their studio, VEDA ensures that it only works with vetted partners.

VEDA — corporate responsibility

For packaging, VEDA uses recycled, compostable, or reusable materials.

Price range: $$$$

A final word on cactus leather 

Finding vegan garments is definitely made easier by the advent of materials like this. The only catch is that they may not necessarily be the most sustainable option all around, especially when looking for very specific items like a faux leather jacket. They are definitely an improvement though and we can’t deny that.

But as always we recommend checking the secondary market like one of the many secondhand online stores that really make the best option when it comes to sustainable ethical clothing, slow fashion, and everything in between. And if you can shop from a store in your town, or nearest you, that is even better. 

Don’t forget to check the brand directory for everything sustainable living, including some of the best sustainable fashion brands, home goods, plastic-free essentials, and more.

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