German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN)


Sustainable Consumption for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services


Germany imports over 200 million tons of raw materials and products from outside the EU every year. Their cultivation, extraction and production destroy valuable natural habitats in the countries of origin, pollute water and soil and use up important water resources. Especially due to imports of soy, palm oil, cotton, hard coal as well as iron, copper and aluminium ores, consumption in Germany is a major contributor to the overexploitation of nature in other countries. 

In order to protect biological diversity and ecosystem services worldwide, consumption in countries such as Germany must change fundamentally.

Cotton plant (© Dirk Grasse/Piclease)
The picture shows a cotton plant.

The Project

The aim of this project was to analyse the effects of German consumption on biological diversity and ecosystem services in the countries of origin, and to develop instruments and recommendations for more sustainable consumption. The Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW), in cooperation with scientists from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg (ifeu), began working on this task in November 2017. The project was funded by BfN.

he table shows the impact of the consump- tion of selected imported goods in Germany on the biodiversity and ecosystem services of the countries of origin.

Resource extraction with devastating impacts to nature (© Iris Göde/Piclease)
The picture shows a quarry with two excavators, surrounded by green vegetation.

During the project, the researchers examined the diverse global trade relations between Germany and the non-European countries of origin of various raw materials and products. Moreover, the three case studies of soy, cotton and lithium were assessed in detail.

The results of the study show serious impacts of German consumption on the nature of the producer countries. For example, imported soy is mainly used as animal feed for livestock such as chickens, cattle and pigs in Germany. 

Soy shipment at the port of Hamburg (© Margret Engelhard)
The picture shows how soy meal is loaded out of a transport ship.

Soy is grown in monocultures on vast land areas, causing the destruction of species-rich habitats such as rainforests and tropical savannahs. Cotton, too, is usually grown in monocultures, intensively irrigated and excessively treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The local population suffers from the loss of important ecosystem services and the health issues caused by the high use of pesticides. When lithium is extracted from the salt lakes of Chile, these rare ecosystems are disturbed and immense quantities of fresh water evaporate. Lithium is mainly used for the production of batteries, e.g. for household appliances, smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles.

It is evident from these results that consumption patterns in Germany and other countries in the Global North must change rapidly and fundamentally. In order to reduce the consumption of soy, cotton and lithium, effective solutions include a shift towards low-meat diets, an end to the "fast fashion" culture and less motorised individual transport. Many other concrete measures and proposals for more sustainable and nature-friendly consumption were developed as part of the study.

Further Outlook

Presentation of the study at the project conference (© Sebastian Schobbert/IÖW)
The picture shows the three main authors of the study with two representatives of BfN and BMU.

The study "Sustainable Consumption for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services" was presented on September 30th 2019 at an international conference at the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) in Berlin. The publication is freely available online.

A the conference, a further increase of public visibility for the topic of sustainable consumption was demanded, as well as joint action by national and international stakeholders in order to make actual progress towards sustainable consumption.

Time frame of the project

November 2017 bis October 2019

Funding programme

Research and development project

Project management at BfN

Dr. Bettina Hedden-Dunkhorst, Division of International Nature Conservation (AG I 2.3)

Last Change: 17/02/2020