No decoupling, only displacement

The use of global multi-region output-input analysis to understand international trade footprints

Consumption-based accounting (CBA), or footprinting, provides a spatial understanding of how goods and services are produced. Footprinting creates a snapshot of goods’ and services’ input resources: there’s both a quantification and a geolocation of the material, energy, and labor used to produce goods and services for consumption. Footprints of international trade have been analyzed with the use of global multi-region input-output (GMRIO) modelling. Input-output models show the interconnectedness of different actors and industries; GMRIO can depict supply chains showing both the material flow from initial resource use to end-use product use, as well as the impacts associated with both the producing industries and consumption. Recent advances in the application of GMRIO to footprinting include quantification of more environmental and social impacts, integration with physicochemical models, combining data from different scales into a single framework, and working on open data platforms that allows more actors to share and use data. Footprinting can enable an understanding of how consumption is one part of the world is directly responsible for social and environmental impacts in another part of the world thereby illuminating geographic disparities in and causes for socioenvironmental impacts and economic growth.

Wiedmann and Lenzen suggest that “between 10% and 70% of environmental or social impacts are associated with (embodied in) international trade of goods and services.” And this impact is not felt equitably! In general, basic resources are extracted and used in developing countries with dramatic and significant impacts like higher rates of air pollution and associated health impacts, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, increased rates of child labour, and corruption. Results from GMRIO studies make it clear how both environmental and social impacts of consumption have been displaced to developing countries, but that overall there has been no decoupling of environmental impacts from economic growth. Displacement of productive industries and extractive industries to developing countries may have resulted in greater net environmental – and social – impacts as typically developing countries have fewer protective environmental and social regulations, less efficient energy productivity, and greater socioeconomic equality.

What is most insightful and eye-opening from this work is that “no country meets basic social needs without transgressing biophysical boundaries,” or that currently no country manages to meet its own social needs without compromising the social needs of another country. Informed by results from CBA and GMRIO studies, both demand- and supply-side interventions can be crafted to mitigate social and environmental impacts of trade e.g. protectionist policies like tariffs, product certification schemes to encourage conscientious consumerism, widening social and environmental regulations, and promotion of resource efficiency in production. In the same way that a combination of interventions, including social and environmental regulation, in developed countries deterred destructive productive and extractive industries, it can be hoped that the same can be applied to developing countries.

This work seems to make transparent the culprits and the victims. Why hasn’t more been done here to resolve this?


Wiedmann, T., & Lenzen, M. (2018). Environmental and social footprints of international trade. Nature Geoscience, 11(5), 314-321.