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The term dematerialization refers to a reduction (in fact a tremendous reduction) in the quantity of materials used to serve the production and consumption needs of our societies. Dematerialization is an input-oriented strategy, which, in contrast to traditional ‘end-of-pipe’ measures, intends to tackle environmental problems at their source. The concept of dematerialization argues that current environmental problems (such as climate change and biodiversity loss) are closely related to the volume of material and energy used for the production of goods and services: if the input decreases the overall environmental impact will decrease as well. Arguments for dematerialization thus point to how (much) our social metabolism has to decrease.

Dematerialization is also intended as a response to the fact that the availability of non-renewable resources is coming to an end and that some important renewable resources, like fish and timber, show higher rates of consumption than their reproduction rate.

Dematerialization is often used in relation to, and confused with the term decoupling. Resource decoupling means reducing the rate of resource use per unit of economic activity measured in GDP. Decoupling generally refers to the economy and its activities, while dematerialization takes the Earth’s capacity and its limitations as a reference point. A general distinction exists between relative and absolute decoupling. Relative decoupling is achieved when resource use grows less than GDP. Absolute decoupling means that the economy grows but resource use remains at least stable or decreases. Dematerialization, as defined here, would show up as absolute decoupling, i.e. an absolute reduction in material and carbon use but without any relations to GDP.

Some nations claim to have managed an absolute decoupling of their economy (i.e. stabilizing resource use despite growing GDP) as a result of their resource efficiency programs. In reality, the consumption of materials and carbon in these countries increases. It is only that the actual resource consumption takes place in countries from which they increasingly import material goods. This raises a question of environmental justice. Regarding such physical trade balance between regions, Europe is the biggest shifter whereas Australia and Latin America are the largest takers of environmental burden. It is this shift that has created the impression of absolute decoupling in Europe.

Most countries, however, do show a relative decoupling which means that material consumption is still increasing but at a pace slower than economic output.

Whether relative or absolute decoupling occurs: technological and market-based solutions remain far from being adequate for the scale of the challenge faced if population and income continue to grow. Therefore, a more appropriate mechanism for absolute dematerialization are carbon and resource caps, for example as envisioned in cap and trade agreements that reduce the possibility for “leakages” and rebounds (Resource Cap Coalition, 2012). The aim of cap agreements is to realize an absolute reduction in resource use through resource allowances that get progressively lower year by year. This can constantly transform production and consumption patterns and provide incentives for innovations towards products and services with low material input. A planned resource cap can also contribute to re-localizing the economy with shorter economic cycles and higher self-sufficiency.


This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Sylvia Lorek



Lorek, S. (2014) Dematerialisation. In: D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F. and Kallis, G. (eds) Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era. New York: Routledge.

Resource Cap Coalition (2012) Capping resource use – Proposal for a reduction of non- renewable energy use within the EU. Budapest.


For further reading

Dittrich, M., Giljum, S., Lutter, S., Polzin, C. (2012) Green economies around the world? – Implications for resource use for development and the environment. Vienna: SERI.


Useful websites

Resource Cap Coalition


This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Sylvia Lorek

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.


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