Measuring material efficiency: a review of the historical evolution of indicators, methodologies and findings

Chao Zhang*, Wei Qiang Chen, Matthias Ruth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Increasing material efficiency, or material productivity, is essential for decoupling resource depletion and associated environmental pressures from economic development. This paper reviews the historical evolution of indicators monitoring material efficiency, their underpinning methodologies and major findings in the past three decades. Early studies investigated the material-economy relationship through intensity of use (IU) of some selected single materials. Economy-wide material flow accounting (EW-MFA) established a standardized framework for aggregating overall material inputs into an economy. Consumption-based material footprint (MF) analysis extended the system boundary to cover global resource extraction along supply chains to satisfy final consumption. Studies on material cycles (MC), especially metal cycles, further helped trace all major life cycle stages of anthropogenic material use, with the capability to account for in-use stocks of materials and products. Impact-based indicators investigate the opportunities to reduce negative environmental, social and economic impacts of material use, which is the ultimate purpose of improving material efficiency. Monitoring material efficiency with different indicators might lead to very different conclusions regarding a society's dependence on material and its dematerialization trend. We present a generalized framework for constructing all kinds of material efficiency/productivity indicators and make the case that election of indicators should be problem-oriented and policy-relevant.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-92
Number of pages14
JournalResources, Conservation and Recycling
Early online date7 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2018


  • Decoupling
  • Dematerialization
  • In-use stock
  • Intensity of use
  • Life cycle impact assessment
  • Material cycle
  • Material efficiency
  • Material flow accounting
  • Material flow analysis
  • Material footprint
  • Resource efficiency

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