Outdoor trade-deal debate: Lower tariffs could come with cost to the planet

Environmental groups warn Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal isn't receiving enough scrutiny for its policies favoring business over the planet.

Free trade could help reduce costs for outdoor products, but would it come at the expense of the environment?

That’s a question the outdoor industry is asking as the Obama administration seeks to “fast track” a deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement would likely help lower the cost of outdoor products made in Asia, Australia and South America. But environmental groups caution that the TPP’s protections for the planet are weak and unenforceable, and that the trade deal lends too much favor to investors in settling disputes over the enforcement of environmental laws when they jeopardize a company’s profits.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership could provide outdoor companies producing goods in the 11 included South American and Asian Pacific countries — Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Japan — duty-free access to the United States. Those companies currently face import tariffs of between 14 percent and 28.2 percent for performance apparel, according to Rich Harper, policy advisor on government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association.

“We’re looking at trying to do relief wherever we can and one advantages of the TPP is the number of countries and the number of markets — it involves so many countries and so many companies,” Harper said.

The Obama administration argues the policy lays down a framework for 21st-century labor rights and environmental protections, but legislation to fast track the approval policy — or effectively bypass lengthy debates in Congress — has been opposed by environmental groups including 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Law, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environmental Health Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A January 2014 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund of a draft of the TPP’s environmental chapter made public by WikiLeaks criticized the TPP’s environmental components as lacking methods of recourse if standards are unmet and failing to protect the environmental assets of these countries, which include Australia’s Great Barrier reef and the biodiversity hotspot of the Peruvian rainforest, from overfishing and the illegal exportation of endangered or threatened wildlife as food, luxury goods, pets and trophies. Where previous versions of the TPP, dating to the Bush administration, called for countries to craft laws as part of the Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA), the latest draft shows a TPP country would be asked merely to “affirm its commitment” to those environmental policies. If a country is found failing to meet those commitments, an arbitral panel may be convened to assess the matter and assist in crafting a mutually agreeable plan of action, but if that plan is not met, there’s no apparent recourse. The revision, the analysis argues, “renders the obligations … virtually meaningless.” Parity to environmental and commercial obligations would help ensure “that countries do not waive or weaken their obligations under MEAs in order to attract trade or investment, and ensures that a country faces consequences if it does.”

The analysis similarly found that policies to prevent overfishing and illegal fishing were weak and unenforceable, asking that countries simply make their “best efforts to refrain” from those practices that might damage fisheries. TPP countries are also home to wildlife that are in demand for products, which has affected biodiversity in those regions, and are affected by illegal logging, and these environmental groups do not see protections for those resources that might ensure the successful endurance of biodiversity in those countries.

The Sierra Club has also expressed concerns that the chapter on investment, leaked earlier this year.

“There’s a clause in there — the investor state dispute settlement — that would allow big corporations including big polluters to sue governments over policies like climate and clean energy initiatives that they say will affect their profits, so it would in effect undermine a lot of our safeguards and strip those away when we’re trading with these countries,” says Dan Byrnes, associate press secretary for the Sierra Club.

“If the Trans-Pacific Partnership locks in this flawed text, the trade deal would expand a system of investor privileges provided in NAFTA that threatens new safeguards on our air, water, and climate — from fracking moratoriums to carbon-pollution reductions to anything in between,” Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, said in a statement.

Fast track would eliminate Congress’s ability to weigh in on the specific measures of the bill, and that’s also something more than 40 environmental groups oppose.

The policy is still under revision, and Harper, with OIA, said he’s confident the final TPP will be one OIA will continue to support.

“We look at it as an opportunity to extend and bring our values on the environment and labor to the TPP region. These are core values of the industry and we want to work with the administration to have a seat at the table to bring those values to the region,” Harper said. “We want to see environmental and labor provisions in the TPP match the highest standards. … These are core to the industry so we want to make sure that they’re in the final agreement.”

That will include making sure that those environmental standards are fully enforceable, just like the commercial provisions of the agreement, he said, and that they match the highest international standards.

And if the final version doesn’t include strong, fully enforceable protections for the environment, would OIA withdraw support?

“We’ve worked closely with the administration to secure benefits on the commercial side and to help secure some of the highest standards on labor and environment, so we would look forward to supporting such an agreement,” Harper said.

OIA is still in discussions with the Obama administration on components of the TPP, including a list of exceptions to the requirement that materials used to make products must also be sourced from TPP countries, as well as other measures that might reduce tariffs on outdoor apparel. Those include the U.S. Outdoor Act, which would create new classifications for “recreational performance outerwear” and was seeing some movement in congressional committees as of April 22.

–Elizabeth Miller



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