This report looks at trade flows of material resources and their environmental impacts. It also demonstrates how both multilateral trade rules and regional trade agreements can be used proactively to advance the circular and greener economy and minimize the environmental impacts associated with resource extraction.

    Did you know?

    Trade in material resources – biomass, fossil fuels, metals, and minerals – has increased by more than 90% in the past two decades.

    Did you know?

    One third of all materials resources extracted in the world are linked to the production of traded goods. 

    Did you know?

    The raw materials used to extract and produce traded goods are three times higher than the direct volume of material resources traded across countries.

    The report

      Trade Footprints IRP
      Download the full report here.
      Download the factsheet here.
      Download the infographics: Trade footprintsGlobal materials use

      The discussion paper "Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity, and Trade" is jointly developed by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Environment and Trade Hub and the International Resource Panel (IRP).

      The publication updates the IRP’s findings on trade footprints and builds on the work of UNEP’s Environment and Trade Hub to offer policy recommendations focusing on the role of trade in moving production and consumption away from linear to more circular models. 

      Trade is responsible for much larger amounts of material extraction than direct trade flows indicate, when accounting for the additional materials, energy, water and land used in the extraction and production of traded goods but left behind as wastes and emissions in the exporting country.

      In 2017, the material requirement for trade was three times the direct trade as more than 35 billion tons of material resources were extracted globally to produce 11 billion tons of directly traded goods. This means that one-third of the total 92 billion tons of material resources extracted in the global economy that year were destined to produce goods for trade.

      Such analysis by the International Resource Panel of the materials embodied in trade reveals that resource-intensive processes have shifted from high-income importing countries to low-income exporting countries, with a corresponding shift in associated environmental burdens. 

      The extraction and processing of resources for export depletes natural assets, while increasing waste, emissions, loss of biodiversity, land degradation and water pollution. Appropriate policies are therefore needed to address the adverse environmental impacts of trade and ensure that trade helps drive the transition towards a fairer, more sustainable and circular economy.

      Policy analysis by UNEP's Environment and Trade Hub shows how both multilateral trade rules and regional trade agreements can be used proactively to advance the circular economy and minimize the environmental impacts associated with resource extraction.

      • Recommended citation: UNEP and IRP (2020). Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity and Trade. United Nations Environment Programme. Nairobi, Kenya

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