When Green Values Meet World Commerce ; WTO Weighs How Much Environmental Standards Should Shape Global Trade

Article excerpt

A year ago, Home Depot sent a message to its wood suppliers: Start sending us Douglas fir, plywood, and mahogany that meet international "green" standards.

Since Home Depot is the largest home-improvement business in the world, the message reverberated like the sound of an ax in the forest. Hundreds of vendors started searching for wood companies that respect the rights of indigenous people, avoid clear-cut logging, allow their workers to organize unions, and don't pollute.

But is Home Depot's new preference for green two-by-fours and molding an impediment to trade? Or is the giant retailer's move something all consuming nations should start to require?

The issue of green standards promises to be one of the most contentious debates facing the World Trade Organization (WTO), as it begins negotiating a trade agenda for the next millennium. The spur, say environmentalists, came when environmental standards were left out of the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"We now realize the economy and the environment are linked," says Daniel Esty of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy in New Haven, Conn. "The environment has to be carefully addressed in the new round."

To make this point, thousands have converged on this environmentally aware community, where they are arguing that increased trade and economic activity is bad for the environment. At the very least, they want a moratorium on a new trade pact until an environmental-impact study can be completed. Business groups have set up newsrooms to offer sound bites that they, too, care about the environment - but also want to make money and provide jobs.

Both sides are adept at using statistics to bolster their case. Businessmen point to a 1996 World Bank study that found open (nontariffed) economies grow twice as fast as closed ones.

"There is a strong correlation between environmental performance and the national income of the citizens," says Scott Miller of US Trade in Washington. "Rich countries protect the environment more than poor ones."

Not so, say environmentalists, who argue that transnationals from rich countries are exploiting poor countries.

Logging is one of the most contentious issues. The US will present to the WTO a plan to remove all tariffs on forest products, initially in the developed world, later for developing countries.

"Our concern is that it would lead to increased logging in some of the most sensitive and biological forests in places like Malaysia, Chile, and Indonesia," says Antonia Juhasz, head of international trade and forest products for the American Lands Alliance.

Forest-products organizations, however, counter that a Clinton administration environmental-impact study concluded that removing tariffs on logging would increase consumption only 2 percent by 2010 and would increase logging activity by only 0. …