The international division of labor and embodied working time in trade for the US, the EU and China

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In sustainability analysis, human time is a crucial and overlooked societal limit. Some core countries overcome their time budgets and preserve their socio-economic structures by using energy and importing working time embodied in products and services. This paper analyses the roles of the United States, the European Union, and China in the international division of labor using the Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism (MuSIASEM) framework. We calculated working time in production, consumption, and trade both in absolute and per capita terms, for the different economic subsectors in 2011. Energy Metabolic Rates (energy use per hour) and Economic Job Productivity (value-added per hour) complemented the analysis. Whereas the greatest share of the workforce in China was still in agriculture, the US and EU had it in the tertiary sectors by outsourcing large shares of agriculture, mining, and industry: they import about half of the labor time in their consumption. At the global level, the trade of embodied labor is a zero-sum game. This fact questions the long-term viability of the current pattern of development enjoyed by the EU and the US, as well as the possibility for emerging economies to complete a similar transition to a post-industrial economy.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106909
Pages (from-to)1
Number of pages10
JournalEcological Economics
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021


  • International Trade
  • Unequal Exchange
  • Limits
  • Embodied Labor
  • Sustainable Production and Consumption
  • Externalization


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