Within the MFA framework, import and export flows are accounted for by their weight at the time the material or product crosses the border of a nation state. In the country of origin, there usually occur additional material flows for production of the traded goods that are not part of the tonnage of imports and exports, called indirect flows (Eurostat 2001a) (Figure 12.1). If a country produces a commodity for domestic consumption internally, this typically generates more material flows within this country than importing the same commodity, and vice versa with exports. The global division of labor within the world economy enforces these processes of production chains spread over several countries. In MFA this creates a discrepancy between the materials accounted for as used within a country (domestic material consumption) and the overall amount of resources this socioeconomic system is based on. This will be discussed in the section on raw material equivalents (RMEs).
Relating biophysical imports and exports to DE shows the dependency of the observed socioeconomic system on trade. A high ratio of imports to DE expresses a high dependence on foreign natural resources and a tendency to outsource the environmental burdens of resource extraction and early stages of processing. The ratio of exports to DE indicates the role of a supplier of raw materials in the international division of labor. A high ratio of exports to DE describes a country that exploits its natural resources for final consumption elsewhere. Comparing the economic value of imported weights with that of exported weights appears to be an interesting measure for the economic value attributed to biophysical imports and exports. If the economic value of imported tons is much higher than the one of exported tons, a country loses natural resources without gaining real economic profits from exports. The other way around, a country with low economic values of imports and high values for biophysical exports gains high economic profits by trade without losing much natural resources.
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