Bags using Desserto vegan leather. Photo: Desserto

By MARK LORENZANA

When longtime friends Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázarez decided to put up their own business in Guadalajara, Jalisco, they had already been working in industries that had a high demand for leather: Cázarez in fashion and López Velarde in the automotive industry. The two business associates met in Taiwan many years ago, and when they eventually came back home to Mexico — Cázarez working in one of the biggest fashion brands in the country, and López Velarde in the supply chain and production of an automotive company — the seed for their signature product, vegan leather Desserto, was planted.

But what spurred on the two friends and business partners to finally say, “Enough is enough, we need to create a sustainable alternative to animal leather”?

“We both were physically working with leather and synthetics. And we realized that while we loved our jobs — we were passionate about what we were doing — in the end, if we decided to stay employed, we wouldn’t be able to move forward with our new ideas,” Cázarez told Pulse News Mexico in a recent interview. “Most of these ideas were to bring in new sustainable materials, but the higher-ups in our jobs would always shut us down — they’d say it’s too expensive, it can’t be done. If we stayed as employees, we wouldn’t have the freedom to make our own decisions and spark real change: making the industry better and more sustainable.”

They founded their company, Adriano Di Marti, in 2019 when the covid-19 pandemic hit. But only months after the company was launched, they immediately had to shut down when the virus started rampaging across the globe — and in Mexico. But a negative eventually turned into a positive, according to Cázarez.

“When we had to temporarily close down because of the pandemic, it was hard. But at the same time, I think the leather industry — some of the companies and brands that used leather — at that time had a change in mindset because of the pandemic. They realized, if this is happening largely because we are not taking care of the environment, then something has to change,” Cázarez said.

“A lot of brands and companies started calling us, searching for sustainable products. That’s why we started growing in the pandemic. From 2019 until now, we’ve been growing a lot.”

Incidentally, another thing that was growing abundantly — both Cázarez and López Velarde noticed, even before they started their company — were cactus plants throughout Mexico, notably, opuntia ficus-indica or the prickly pear cactus, which is locally known as nopal.

At that time, Cázarez and López Velarde knew one thing: They had to find a sustainable alternative to animal leather. They still didn’t know, however, what material they were going to use. But they had that eureka moment one day as they were driving around.

“While driving, we realized that these plants were growing everywhere. Out in the fields, in backyards, everywhere — there was a nopal. So we decided, if nopal in Mexico is the most readily available plant that we have, and if Mexico is one of the biggest suppliers of nopal in the world, then we can make this work.”

And make it work they did, buckling down to do the necessary research on nopal. In the course of this research, they found out just how important — and symbolic — nopal really is in Mexico. (It is, after all, smack dab in the middle of the Mexican flag.)

“The nopal industry generates thousands and thousands of jobs in the country. In the food industry, in the cosmetic industry, even in the construction industry,” Cázarez said. “Also in the course of our research on nopal, we found out that it doesn’t need a lot of water to grow. You don’t need to use any herbicides or pesticides, or any fertilizers. It’s a tough plant that grows in extreme conditions. In a year, it only needs sparse rainfall to grow.”

This is important for a company that wants to produce a more sustainable alternative to animal leather. Raising animals for leather “requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water and fossil fuels,” according to PETA, and that “although some leather makers deceptively tout their products as ‘eco-friendly,’ turning skin into leather also requires massive amounts of energy and dangerous chemicals, including mineral salts, formaldehyde, coal-tar derivatives and various oils, dyes and finishes, some of them cyanide-based.”

Field workers harvesting nopal. Photo: Desserto

Desserto, on the other hand — because it’s essentially vegan leather — wins hands down versus animal leather when it comes to sustainability: There’s minimal waste, and because nopal is a hardy plant, not a lot of water is used and hardly any chemicals. And even when harvesting the nopal, according to Cázarez, they are not killing the plant. They just give the nopal a “haircut” — harvesting the older, more mature leaves, and in six months the plant is fully grown again. (The trade name Desserto, by the way, comes from a combination of three words: the Spanish and Italian words for desert — “desierto” and “deserto,” respectively — and, to imbue the name with a bit of playfulness, the sweetness of a dessert. “If we were to use a plant that grows in the desert, like nopal, Adrián and I agreed that we have to use the word ‘desert’ in some form in our trade name,” Cázarez said, while tossing around ideas with López Velarde way back.)

In terms of pricing, according to Cázarez, Desserto is also very competitive.

“The price range per meter is between the most expensive animal leather and synthetic faux leather,” Cázarez said. “When you do the math, considering wastage of material, how many centimeters per meter is usable, you will see that in the end, Desserto is cheaper. Around 95 percent of our material is usable. In the case of animal leather, almost 40 percent of animal skin is wasted. The skin has marks, it’s not uniform, so a lot of it is thrown away.”

And while Adriano Di Marti has had iconic collaborations with major brands in both the fashion and automotive industry — Givenchy, Balenciaga, Karl Lagerfeld, Mercedes-Benz and BMW — just to name a few, the company takes pride in being able to help smaller brands, entrepreneurs who are just starting out and even students.

“When Adrián and I started the company, we agreed that we would not be like the other suppliers that exclusively sell to big brands. We made a promise that we are going to make our product available for everybody. A student can buy a meter, we don’t care. Why? Because when we were trying to break into the industry ourselves, when we wanted to start our own brand and do sustainable collections, we ran into that same problem of suppliers not willing to sell us the amount of material that we needed. We had to buy at least 1,000 meters, even if we only needed five,” Cázarez said.

In a video profile of the company in the Desserto website, López Velarde can be seen walking in a nopal field, declaring that their hope was not just to help the environment with their vegan leather, but also to help create jobs.

In the four years that Adriano Di Marti has been in existence, the company has expanded to four locations: the corporate offices in Guadalajara (where Cázarez is based, and 11 other employees help him run the company here in Mexico), the nopal fields in Zacatecas (where 10 agricultural teams focus on the cultivation and care of cactus plants), the factory and laboratory in Mexico City (where raw materials are sent and the final product is processed, thanks to 200 workers doing production and lab work), plus a newly opened branch in Italy, which López Velarde runs, along with three other people.

Expanding to Italy, according to Cázarez, is another way for the company to stay true to its sustainability goals. Because two of the biggest markets of Desserto are Europe and Asia, it made sense for the company to put up not just a sales branch in Italy, but also another factory to do production and distribution, locally.

The nopal was considered sacred by the ancient Aztecs, and modern-day Mexicans use it as food, drink and even as medicine.

And now, thanks to Desserto, it is also the source of a sustainable alternative to animal leather.

How sweet is that?

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