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Ecologically unequal exchanges driven by EU consumption


In our globalized economy, the consumption of goods and services induces economic benefits but also environmental pressures and impacts around the world. Consumption levels are especially high in the current 27 member countries of the European Union (EU), which are some of the wealthiest economies in the world. Here, we determine the global distribution of ten selected environmental pressures and impacts, as well as value added induced by EU consumption from 1995 to 2019. We show that large shares of all analysed environmental pressures and impacts are outsourced to countries and regions outside the EU, while more than 85% of the economic benefits stay within the member countries. But there is also uneven distribution of costs and benefits within the EU. Over the analysed period, pressures and impacts induced by EU consumption largely decreased within the EU but increased outside its borders. We show that Eastern European neighbours of the EU experienced the highest environmental pressures and impacts per unit of GDP associated with EU consumption. The findings of this research add to the discussions on outsourcing environmental pressures and impacts and highlight the need for a reduction of pressures and impacts induced by EU consumption.

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Fig. 1: Relative distribution of pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption inside and outside of the EU-27 in 2019.
Fig. 2: Relative distribution of pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption in 2019.
Fig. 3: Relative change of pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption between 1995 and 2019 inside the EU-27, outside the EU-27 and in total.
Fig. 4: Relative distribution of value added associated with EU-27 consumption in 2019.
Fig. 5: EV-ratios in 2019 for pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption.
Fig. 6: EV-ratios from 1995 to 2019 for pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption for countries who joined the EU after 2000.

Data availability

Final demand data for the 27 EU member countries, as well as global MRIO tables and environmental extensions were retrieved from the EXIOBASE v.3.8.1 database ( Coefficients for biodiversity loss from land use were collected from ref. 12. Data for calculating regional average GDPpc were retrieved from the World Development Indicators DataBank (, the World Economic Outlook (October 2022) ( and the United Nations World Population Prospects 2022 ( For creating maps, shapefiles from Natural Earth ( and the Eurostat R package66 were used. Data for recreating the results and figures are available in the Supplementary Code. The main results are collected in the Supplementary Data.

Code availability

Code developed for data processing in MATLAB, Python and R are available in the Supplementary Code.


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We thank support from Greenpeace Germany for the initial data analysis, modelling and discussions as part of the project ‘Outsourced Environmental Degradation of the EU’. We acknowledge the National Natural Science Foundation of China (7221101088, 72140001, 72243004, 72174111), the Shandong Natural Science Foundation of China (ZR2021MG013) and the Major Program of the National Social Science Foundation of China (21ZDA065).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



K.H., Y.S. and B.B. conceptualized and designed the study with crucial inputs from K.F. and H.Z. B.B. performed the MRIO and EV-ratios analysis with help from Y.S. and Y.Z. C.P. performed the social network and regression analysis with help from Y.Z. Y.S., C.P. and B.B. prepared the manuscript. B.B., K.H., C.P. and Y.S. contributed to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yuli Shan, Christina Prell or Klaus Hubacek.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Kurt Kratena, Konstantin Stadler and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Relative change of pressures and impacts associated with EU-27 consumption between 1995 and 2019.

Relative changes within EU-27 countries are highlighted in an extra panel in the bottom left. The ecotoxicity results from EXIOBASE dataset have to be seen as lower bounds.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Discussion, Fig, 1 and Tables 1–4.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

Main results.

Supplementary Code

Zip file containing code and data necessary to recreate the results of the analysis.

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Bruckner, B., Shan, Y., Prell, C. et al. Ecologically unequal exchanges driven by EU consumption. Nat Sustain 6, 587–598 (2023).

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