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International Trade

Trade and the Environment

A strong majority accepts the view that trade has implications for the environment and supports the idea that environmental standards should be incorporated into trade agreements. A very strong majority rejects the WTO's current position that, in general, countries should not be able to restrict imports based on the environmental effects of their production.

For some time now Americans have been responsive to the idea that trade has implications for the environment. In particular, Americans have responded to the idea that businesses may seek to avoid abiding by US trade standards by moving their factories outside of the US and then exporting their products back to the US.

This idea was prominent in the early 1990s surrounding the NAFTA debate. Two Gallup polls from that period, taken in September and November 1993, presented a series of arguments against NAFTA, including one that said: "the environment will suffer, as businesses move to Mexico to avoid the stricter environmental standards in the US." About 3 in 5 agreed with this argument, while about one-third disagreed. [1]

Similarly, in October 2005 59% agreed with the proposition that “Freer trade puts the United States at a disadvantage because of our high labor and environmental standards”; 36% disagreed. [1a]

Incorporating Environmental Standards Into Trade Agreements

To respond to the possibility that increased trade might put downward pressure on environmental standards, many have argued that environmental standards should be incorporated into trade agreements. As discussed in "Reservations About the Effects of Trade in Practice," numerous polls have shown that a very strong majority of Americans endorse the view that a variety of considerations, including environmental standards, should be incorporated into the process of developing trade agreements.
In addition, poll questions that ask specifically about incorporating environmental standards find very strong support. In a June 2005 PIPA poll, an overwhelming majority of 93% said that countries that are part of international trade agreements should be “required to maintain minimum standards for protection of the environment.” In January 2004 PIPA also found 93% agreement. CCFR polls in 2002 and 2004 also found over 90% agreeing to this same statement. [2]

In November 2000, a poll by the Tarrance Group and Greenberg Quinlan Research presented respondents with two statements on the issue. More than 3 in 5 (62%) chose the one that said, "Future trade agreements should contain safeguards that require the US (United States) and other countries to enforce strong environmental protections, even if it limits trade." Only 22% percent chose the opposing statement, "Expanding trade is critical to the US economy and trade agreements are good for our economy, even if they do not contain strong environmental protections." Seven percent said "both" and 10% did not know. [3]

This attitude is consistent with a broader attitude in support of having more international agreements on environmental issues. In the October 1999 PIPA study, arguments in favor of such agreements were found convincing by very strong majorities, while con arguments fared poorly. (See Globalization: International Environmental Agreements)

Barring Imports Made in Environmentally Harmful Ways

Another major controversy surrounding trade and the environment centers on the WTO Secretariat's current position that countries cannot put up barriers to products based on the process of how they were made. The primary concern is that if such exceptions were allowed, countries would make them very freely and thus create a barrier to trade. In PIPA’s 1999 and 2004 trade polls, strong majorities rejected the WTO Secretariat's position that, in general, countries should not be able to restrict imports based on the environmental effects of their production, even though the argument defending the WTO position also mentioned the potential costs to the economy and jobs (see below). [4]

Some critics of environmental considerations in trade agreements say that concern for the environment is really old-fashioned protectionism in a new form; that the real goal is to save jobs rather than the environment. But other data shows that Americans are willing to place the long-term health of the environment over short-term concerns about jobs. In 1998, a poll by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked the following question:

Here are some values that everyone agrees are important. But sometimes we have to choose one value over another. If you absolutely had to choose between each of the following two values, which is more important to you, personally, protecting the environment, or increasing jobs and economic growth?
A majority of Americans (52%) chose the environment, 37% chose jobs, and 10% volunteered that both were equally important. This result falls in the middle of results from surveys from 1992: in a Los Angeles Times question, 49% chose the environment and 30% chose jobs; in a Gallup question, 62% chose the environment while 29% chose jobs. Also in 1992, the New York Times asked whether protection of the environment should be given priority, even if it cost jobs "in your community." In this case, the public was evenly split at 45%, with 10% undecided. [5]




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