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Leather and the Environment. It's not sustainable.

The reason that we started Doshi was obvious. We wanted to give people a choice to wear materials that were not made from an animal’s skin. However our research on leather revealed how vast and extensive the detrimental effects of animal leather stretched.  While the makers of leather will argue that leather is a by-product, the focus of the argument for or against leather shouldn’t rest here. Leather and the meat derived from an animal go hand in hand.

As vegans, we care deeply about animal welfare. We believe that humans, vegan or not, care about the humane treatment of animals and don't want to see animals exploited as a resource for our consumption and vanity. There are two other pervasive issues that result from our consumption of leather products: 1) we are contributing to the degradation and ultimate destruction of our environment and 2) we are harming, both directly and indirectly, the people who produce it.

We have therefore decided to break down the steps it takes to make leather into what we are calling "The Lifecycle of Leather” where we will examine the effects of the leather industry on the environment, people, and animals.

These steps include:

  1. Deforestation and Land Use Change (Altering of Ecological Landscapes)
  2. Raising Animals
  3. Slaughtering Animals
  4. Converting Skin to Leather
  5. Economics and the Sale of Leather
  6. Solutions

Deforestation and Land Use Change (Altering of Ecological Landscapes)

Image obtained from Canva, using Free Media License Agreement

Image obtained from Canva, using Free Media License Agreement

Where Is the Problem?

Leather is a co-product of the animal agriculture industry derived from the hide (skin) of animals. The most commonly used animal leather is derived from cattle, followed by domesticated animals such as oxen, sheep, lamb, goats, buffalo, pigs, and horses as well as exotic animals such as alligator, walrus, seal, zebras and more [1]. Because animals need to be raised for these purposes, it is imperative to look at how animal agriculture is reshaping our landscapes. To understand the effects of leather production on land use, we break down the various geographical areas impacted by deforestation and agricultural development. 

On a global scale, 27% of all viable, terrestrial land is now used for cattle agriculture, the leading use of land on Earth. Cattle agriculture outcompetes our remaining global forests, which comprise 26% of viable, terrestrial land [2]. As per capita income increased in developing countries, meat consumption has increased. For instance, since 1980, protein supply from livestock in the diets of Asian countries increased by 131%, followed closely by Latin America [3]. Our World In Data has created a  visual map of this evolution between 1961 and 2018 as countries developed.


The U.S. currently raises the greatest global number of cattle for beef production, followed by Brazil, and China mainland  [4].However, this differs from the top hide-producing countries (both Cattle & Buffalo), which are, in order, China, U.S., Brazil, Argentina, India, Australia, and Mexico. Due to China’s enormous manufacturing industry, many countries, largely the US, export their hides to China for leather production [5].  Our research showed, per 2011 numbers, the US is the world’s largest exporter of hides (over 750,000 tons annually) and China, the world’s largest importer (over 1,000,000 tons annually) [5]. China is the world’s leader in leather production.

Graph created using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

To raise cattle, land is needed, but how much are we talking about? According to the USDA, the amount of land used for animal agriculture is a staggering 654 millions acres, and as depicted below, enough to cover most of the midwest [6]! This vast majority of this land is attributed to beef and dairy cattle, whose herd count in America as of January 2021, is 93.6 million [7], almost one cattle for every three people.  An additional 127.4 million acres are dedicated to feed lots.Together, animal agriculture takes up approximatelyone third of the land in the continental United States!Cattle dominate the United States land usage, and subsequently account for about 41% of all animal agriculture greenhouse gas emissions [8]. Hog farms follow, accounting for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions, and buffalo and chicken account for 8% each [8].


Graph created using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the Amazon rainforest, cattle numbers have jumped from 5 million in the 1960’s to astaggering70-80 million cattle today [9],twicethe amount of humans that live in the same area.

Focusing on the top two cattle producing countries, the United States and Brazil, what do these numbers mean for the environment?

What Is the Problem?

Though the detrimental effects of deforestation in the Amazonian Basin are well studied, not as much information is shared about how livestock agriculture has reshaped the United States’ ecology.

The majority of range and pastureland in the US used for cattle farming and thereby leather production,is concentrated in the Northern Great Plains, mainly North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, parts of the Corn Belt which includes the additional states of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest [10]. The Northern Great Plains and Corn Belt were historically home to various prairie ecosystems, habitats whose biodiversity and ecological impacts we are only recently beginning to understand and appreciate.

At one time, almost 450 million acres of prairie existed in the United States [11], this has beenreduced by an estimated 82-99% of its original size [11] so that it is now one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world according to the National Park Service [12]. A vast majority of this land use change is directly due to agricultural use.

A similar fate is occurring in Brazil’s Amazonian Basin. An estimated 15% of Amazon Rainforest has been lost in the last 50 years due to an increase in deforestation and subsequent cattle grazing [9]. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO), 80% of deforested areas have been replaced with pastures and agriculture. 

What’s more, only 55% of all global food production actually goes towards feeding humans, 36% of the world’s crops are used directly for livestock feed, and another 9% for biofuels [13]

Yet, deforestation and agricultural development have far reaching consequences that impact more than just those living in the corresponding ecosystems.

Why does this matter?

Deforestation and agricultural development impact the environment in a variety of ways. 

Carbon Dioxide Sources & Sinks

Both the Amazon Rainforest and the Northern Great Plains act as sources of carbon sequestration. This means, the trees and prairie fauna take in carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere and convert it into carbon for their own metabolic processes, or to store within the soil, effectively reducing the greenhouse effect. Globally, grasslands are estimated to store a whopping 34% of the global terrestrial stocks of carbon, beaten only by global forests which store an estimated 39% [14].

Deforestation and agricultural development due to clear cutting, burning, and other measures act in the opposite fashion, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Second only to fossil fuel combustion, deforestation is a leading anthropogenic (man-made) source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [15], greatly increasing the greenhouse effect and speeding up our global climate change. Per the World’s Resources Institute,“...tropical tree cover loss is now causing more emissions every year than 85 million cars would over their entire lifetime” [16].

Soil Degradation & Nutrient Depletion

Soil degradation is a major concern in areas whose land use has changed for cattle agriculture. 

For example, in the U.S., corn is now the most produced crop in our heartland region [17],and around 40% of all corn production in the US is used for livestock feed and residual use [17].Contemporary methods for growing corn in the US have altered the top soil levels (the carbon and nutrient rich level of soil needed for growth) so much so that 1/3rd of all fertile soil is now considered degraded and gone from midwestern farm land [18].This lowers our food yield and availability, and comes at an extreme economic cost, roughly $44 billion dollars per year [19].To grasp just how serious this problem is, topsoil loss is the devastating consequence of the 1930’s Dust Bowl era farming methods, which caused the partial-forced migration of an estimated 2.5 million people out of the plains states [20].

Unlike the Great Plains, soil in the Amazon Rainforest is known for naturally being quite nutrient-poor. Most of the nutrients in rainforest soil come from decomposing organic matter after a tree or other plant form dies and begins to break apart, releasing nutrients on the surface of the soil for uptake. When deforestation occurs, that loss of organic matter leaves the soil depleted of necessary nutrients for agricultural purposes. To curb this problem, farmers use fire to clear an area of a forest, which makes nutrients available to the soil in the form of ash, essentially fertilizing it for use. However, we know burning emits carbon dioxide, and is only a temporary solution. Eventually natural degradation occurs again from the poor soils, forcing farmers to burn more area, and begin the process once again in a new spot. 

This is such a significant problem, the term Sudden Death Disease (SDD) has been coined for these degraded pastures that can no longer sustain any profitable plant yield [21].Studies from the 2000s found that only 50% of areas logged for agricultural purposes in the Amazon actually had active cattle grazing occurring, the remaining half of logged areas were either abandoned due to soil degradation or had secondary forests derived from abandoned pastures [22].This cycle means that due to the inevitable soil degradation, cattle farmers in the Amazon will need to continuously slash and burn more forested areas in order to sustain their cattle agriculture. Beef and leather production will always equate to additional deforestation.

If leather production necessitates additional land use change, what happens to the wildlife?

"Amazon Tree Frog, Brazil" bybenedict.adam is licensed underCC BY 2.0

Habitat & Biodiversity Loss

Biodiversity has quite a few definitions, but one of the leading definitions from the American Museum of Natural History states, “biodiversity is the variety of living species on Earth – plants, animals and microorganisms – and the ecosystems they form [23]”. Why is it an important concept? Biodiversity ensures that an ecosystem can continue functioning. In other words, if one species were to become extinct, a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem would have other species that could make up for that loss. In an unhealthy ecosystem that lacks biodiversity, each extinction/migration of a species out of the ecosystem can potentially cause a devastating collapse of the food web and therefore the functions of that ecosystem. Functions that provide food, fresh water, nutrient-rich soil, and many other resources we take for granted.

Currently, scientists theorize that modern day extinction rates (The rate at which species become extinct in a set number of years), is over 100 times greater than it would be naturally [24]. Periods of unusually high extinction rates have occurred five different times in the Earth’s history, periods we now recognize as mass extinction events. It is predicted that this current trend of species extinctions at unprecedented levels and frequency means we are entering or have alreadyentered into a sixth mass extinction event [24]. Some of these important biodiversity hotspots where extinction of species could mean the loss of our own species include the Amazon Rainforest and the Northern Great Plains.

Tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon Rainforest, are known for being the most species rich ecosystems in the world [25], which is why deforestation has such a significant impact on biodiversity. As more species are crammed into smaller spaces, or seperated patches, the less likely a species will survive due to competition, lack of necessary resources, possible disease transfer, or unsuccessful mating. The Great Plains, once the rival of the African Savannahs, suffers the same issues. The remaining 4% of prairie in protected areas are attempting to support an estimated 95 mammals, 220 butterflies, 300 birds, and some 1600 plant species that rely on it, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

But it’s not just plants and animals that rely on these habitats. What happens to the humans?

Humans Rights Issues

Particularly in the Amazon Rainforest, deforestation has played a significant role in human rights issues. The consistent slash and burn techniques used to change the forest into productive cropland has wide reaching health effects to locals. In 2019, an estimated 3 million people in the Amazonian Basin were exposed to hazardous air quality from fire particulates. According to reports from the Human Rights Watch, many of the fires occurred near or in Indeginous Peoples land (by outside groups, many of which were illegal), depleting their crops, hunting game, and medicinal plant sources [26].

What are the solutions?

Doshi Debut Paper Backpack 1.5 - Made from a Kraft Paper Exterior & Tyvek Lining

The evidence is clear that animal agriculture has multiple devastating effects on our environment from soil degradation to biodiversity loss. Luckily, everyone can make a difference by choosing to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption and buying products that are more sustainable.  

 There are many great alternatives to products made from animals. Instead of putting your money into an unsustainable industry, you can instead invest in products that respect animals, the environment, and the workers. Say “no” to a toxic industry that causes suffering and pollution. 

At Doshi, our commitment to animal welfare is fundamental to our values, but our mission doesn't end there. Our mission entails stewardship of the planet by helping to eradicate the harmful impacts of raising animals for leather-based vanity items.


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