Back to search

Importing goods from sustainable production countries could lower EU’s environmental footprint

A new study has analysed how to reduce the environmental footprint of EU trade by preferentially importing goods from countries that have greener production processes. The study concludes that the environmental impacts of 200 product groups imported into the EU could be considerably reduced in this way. For example, water consumption caused by these imports could be cut by 72%, and land use by 65%.

Importing goods, as opposed to producing them domestically, shifts the environmental impacts of production — which include pollution and resource consumption — to the exporting countries. This footprint is said to be ‘embodied’ in the traded goods, and is attributed to the importing nation. The footprint is increasing with globalisation. 
 
The study was conducted to understand how the EU could reduce its embodied footprint in imports. Using the EXIOBASE 3.3 database, the study first traced the environmental impacts of 200 product groups throughout the global supply chains, focusing on four specific impacts: carbon emissions, land use, material use and water use.  
 
The researchers then calculated the embodied environmental footprint for each of these four pressures for the EU-28. They considered the impacts of producing goods traded across EU Member States, as well as those that are imported into the EU. They excluded the impacts of domestic production, given the study’s focus on trade. 
 
The results showed that 13 of the 200 product groups were responsible for over half of each of the four footprints. These product groups are chemicals; motor vehicles; machinery; communication equipment; furniture; fur; food products; leather; air transport; vegetables, fruit and nuts (one product group); forestry products; meat from cattle; and crops.  
 
In total, these 13 product groups accounted for 56% of embodied impact in the EU’s carbon footprint for all 200 product groups; 59% for its material footprint; 76% for its water footprint; and 64% for its land footprint.  
 
The researchers then ranked exporting countries by each of the four environmental footprints per million euros of value for each of the 200 product groups. This allowed them to prioritise imports for each product group from the country with the lowest environmental footprint (up to the export limit of that specific country), with the remainder of the imports coming from the next lowest impact country (up to its export level), and so on, until the EU’s overall  demand for the specific product group is met. The study assumed that overall production levels for each country remain the same. 
 
Shifting the source of imported goods in this way could cut the total embodied water footprint by 72%, land use by 65%, material use by 53% and carbon footprint by 46% – when each footprint is optimised in isolation from the others.

Read further from the source: Science for Environment policy  Sustainable consumption and production or follow:

de Boer, B. F., Rodrigues, J. F. D., & Tukker, A. (2019). Modeling reductions in the environmental footprints embodied in European Union’s imports through source shifting. Ecological Economics. 164: 106300. DOI: 10.1016/J.ECOLECON.2019 .04.012. 

Input-Output Analysis; International trade; Carbon footprint; Material footprint; Water footprint; Land footprint

env