Sustainable Management of Critical Materials: What is It, and Why Do We Care?

By: TANJA SREBOTNJAK, Director of the Hixon Center

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the sustainable management of critical materials. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Wartime ad on preserving oil drumsRecently, I participated in a weeklong workshop on the sustainable management of critical raw materials. The workshop, organized by the EU Commission-funded project “SusCritMat,” mainly caught my interest because of its focus on life cycle assessment (LCA).

I was also curious about the aspect of critical materials; a topic I was not very familiar with beyond the geopolitical and environmental debates surrounding rare earth minerals.

If critical materials and their sustainable management awaken your curiosity, too, then read on and I’ll share with you a bit of what I’ve learned during that week in the Swiss Alps. This will be a multi-part series of entries on this issue, so you can choose to read what catches your interest. Let’s begin with a little history of critical materials.

Critical materials are generally elements (metals or other) that are considered to be of high importance to a domestic economy. Importance in this context can mean that the materials contribute to the manufacturing or operation of high-value products and/or are vital for national security interests. Furthermore, critical materials are elements that are at risk of supply shocks, for example, because a large share of global production is located in a politically volatile region.

Advertisement on CC41 utility logo for clothing

The study of critical materials began in Europe with World War II: as countries were shifting production towards military and field equipment, they began to try and secure the supply of the necessary raw materials and commodities. Europe’s wartime manufacturing thus economized many every-day household goods by developing low resource-intensive alternatives, promoting reuse and recycling, and simply making do with less. The United Kingdom’s Board of Trade, for example, developed the CC41 logo in 1941, which marked controlled commodities that had to meet strict austerity regulations, because they were needed to support the war effort. The logo was applied to clothing, furniture, footwear and other products, and it inspired simple “utility designs” that reduced material consumption. The United States also saw the need to build up reserves in important materials, and in 1939 passed the first “Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act. [1] The federal government used this law to spend $100 million to purchase 42 critical materials deemed necessary for military production.

The post-war period of reconstruction, rapid economic expansion, and general prosperity in Europe and North America pushed critical materials considerations into the background again. Nonetheless, the late 1940s thru 1970s witnessed several new resource shocks such as the West Berlin blockade in 1949 by the Soviet Union, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and the oil crises of the 1970s. The 1970s also saw a visible rise in environmental degradation and a growing concern about resource scarcity that were convincingly expressed in the Club of Rome’s book, “The Limits to Growth.” [2] The calls by the Club of Rome and environmental advocates for greater resource efficiency and reduced consumerism were met with equally strong voices from those, among them many leading economists such as Robert Solow, who believed that technology and innovation would turn resource scarcity into an opportunity for new products and services instead of a catastrophe threatening human society. It is certainly true that the doomsday scenarios of “peak oil” and chronic food shortages have so far not come to pass, but commodity markets have entered what many economists describe as a new era of volatility. [3] This creates substantial risks for businesses and governments, because many of today’s products and technologies require far more raw materials and composites than they did in the past, and sometimes these dependencies on critical resources can be difficult to identify.

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While the debate on resource scarcity versus technological innovation is ongoing, the concept of critical materials has gained more momentum in larger policy debates: in Europe primarily within the context of moving to a low-carbon, renewable energy system, and in the U.S. predominantly from a national security and economic protectionist perspective. Many new clean energy technologies, such as batteries for electric vehicles, require materials that (i) Europe depends on through imports, (ii) are by-products of mining for other (non-)minerals and hence linked to their market supply volatility, and (iii) may cause considerable adverse environmental and social effects in their production and refining. Thus, in conjunction with EU policies on renewable energy, resource efficiency and the circular economy, the European Commission began in the 2000s to develop a methodological approach to assessing Europe’s dependence on critical raw materials (CRM) and has since released lists of CRMs in 2011, 2014 and 2017. [4] In the U.S., critical materials strategies are seen through the lens of protecting vital industrial sectors such as IT, high-tech, and automotive, as well as to ensure energy security. The former requires securing long-term, stable supply contracts with producers of rare earth metals and other commodities, many of which are based in countries with authoritarian or volatile political systems. The latter, while having been a long-term strategic objective of U.S. resource policy, has seen a decline in urgency resulting from the domestic shale gas and oil boom, but this boom has not alleviated environmental and climate change concerns.

By now you are probably curious to learn which materials are considered critical. I thus provide below the 2017 list of EU critical materials before talking more about measuring material criticality in the next installment of this blog series.

Table 1: 2017 European Commission list of critical raw materials.

Antimony Gallium Phosphate rock
Baryte Germanium Phosphorus
Beryllium Hafnium Scandium
Bismuth Indium Silicon metal
Borate Magnesium Tantalum
Cobalt Natural graphite Vanadium
Coking coal Natural rubber Platinum group of metals
Fluorspar Niobium Rare earths elements (heavy and light)


  1. United States House of Representatives, 1939. “Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act
  2. Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. and Behrens, W.W., 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York.
  3. Deloitte Consulting.
  4. European Commission, 2018. Critical Raw Materials.

Image Sources

  1. “Keep’em Flying Back”
  2. “CC41 Utility Clothing”
  3. “Housewives! Save waste fats for explosives!”