With the purpose of creating an alternative to animal leather, Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez, both from Mexico, developed vegan leather made with nopal (a cactus species) and named it Desserto. In a chat with Paulami Chatterjee, the founders discuss the idea that went behind developing Desserto, some of the unique qualities it has, and the plans ahead.
What got you going on the path of sustainability?
Adrian Lopez Velarde: When I used to work for the furniture and automotive industries, and Marte in the fashion industry, we were aware of the environmental impact that these industries were having because of the use of animal and synthetic leather. Both of us were concerned and began to source sustainable alternatives in the market but we found that those were hardly compatible with such applications given the degree of technical and mechanical quality specifications which weren't met. So, we decided to quit our jobs and focus on developing a plant-based material which could meet the high-quality standards of these industries while being highly sustainable.
How did it occur to you to make leather from cactus plants?
Marte Cazarez: We had to brainstorm on which plant to focus our R&D on and being in Mexico where cactus is not only abundant but also a national symbol which can be seen in our national flag, we decided to focus our efforts around this plant. Down the line, we figured that cactus was the ideal plant to work with because of its low environmental footprint. It does not require water irrigation systems to grow, nor pesticides or herbicides given the natural strength this plant has. Also, the growth rate is very quick and is abundant all over the country which makes it a scalable raw material which is affordable and can be planted and harvested by anyone in most regions around the world regardless of climate change which normally affects agriculture. It is important to remark that we don't kill the plant, we just cut the mature leafs and then process them into our raw material. So, the same cactus plants give us more raw material every 6-8 months. Also, by encouraging cactus plantations we contribute to CO2 reduction given the natural efficiency of the plant to absorb CO2.
What is your business model right now?
Lopez Velarde: Our business model focuses on four main aspects: social, economic, environmental and ethical sustainability. We take care of the rural agricultural sector which collaborates with us, stimulate their economy by adding value into their production chains to create highly sustainable materials to be incorporated into the major relevant industries such as fashion and automotive while taking care of ethical practices all along our value chain.
Have you patented this special leather?
Cazarez: Yes, we have patented Desserto (cactus vegan leather) and its production processes.
How many people are employed with you at present? Do they require any special training with respect to the special leather you make?
Lopez Velarde: At this moment, we have directly hired 30 people along our value chain and all of them have been given the proper training aligned with our code of conduct which covers safety, ethical practices and environmental awareness.
How and from where are you sourcing the cactus from? Where are your factories based at?
Cazarez: In Zacatecas, Mexico, we work with organic certified farms under USDA-Organic, Oko Garantie and DAKKS accreditation. Our factories are in Mexico City.
How easy or difficult it is to source the right quantities? Are there any challenges involved in getting the raw materials?
Lopez Velarde: The quantities are not a problem since the major concentration in the world of the cactus species we use are in the Mexico region; however, since we are talking about a plant-based raw material it is critical to work with nature which has its own degree of difficulty.
Cazarez: Transportation of the cactus raw material isn't an easy task given the natural hydroscopic properties of cactus; humidity levels have to be controlled at all times.
What is the average time taken right from sourcing the cactus to the finished product? How much of cactus is consumed monthly to produce leather?
Lopez Velarde: About 3-4 weeks. About 10 tonnes.
What is the annual production capacity of your leather products? How do you plan to scale up?
Cazarez: Our current maximum production capacity is 500,000 linear metres per month.
Lopez Velarde: It is a matter of working along the demand. We are confident that we will be able to respond in an efficient way.
A portion of this interview was first published in the June 2020 edition of the print magazine.