Protecting the environment is always a popular issue — until hard choices have to be made. There has been a series of international conferences on the issue, but they have yielded little real progress. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1997, attempts to set international standards for environmental protection collapsed under the weight of public expectations and political considerations. The Earth Charter Commission is trying a new tack. Last week, the group released a model code of conduct for business and public affairs and will push for the United Nations to endorse it by 2002.

The 16-point Earth Charter is modeled after such bold statements as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its guidelines pledge to “respect earth and life in all its diversity,” while creating “democratic societies that are just, sustainable, participatory and peaceful.” Among the members of the Earth Charter Commission are such luminaries as Cochairman Maurice Strong, who was former secretary general of the 1992 Earth Summit, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, former head of the Soviet Union, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands, and Diet member Wakako Hironaka.

While such documents are sometimes derided as empty statements, they provide a rallying point for governments, activists and businesses. They set benchmarks, gradually achieving greater weight and genuine status in international society. The idealistic declarations of a half-century ago, for example, were the starting points for the genocide charges leveled against former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet and provide a foundation for the international war-crimes tribunals that are now in session.

Moreover, there is rising public sentiment in support of the ideals embodied in the charter. The mass demonstrations that rocked the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization last year reflected growing concern about corporate activity and underscored the need for rules that guide corporate behavior. Nongovernmental organizations have already taken up the challenge and have been pressuring global businesses to change their practices. Organizations such as the World Federation of Engineering Associations and the World Tourism and Travel Council have already applied the charter principles in their own policies.

Popular support for Earth Charter principles means that toeing the line is not only ethical, but it also makes good business sense. Consumers vote with their pocketbooks; the failure of companies to heed public sentiment will hurt their sales.

There is a myth that only the intransigence of business — made manifest through its influence over elected officials — stands in the way of the adoption of such international standards. That is not true. Many developing nations see “ethical” guidelines as devices to discriminate against their products. They fear that any global rules will only deepen the divide between haves and have-nots. (In other cases, corrupt officials turn a blind eye to environmental destruction as a result of payoffs.)

That need not be the case. There is little evidence for the proposition that the competitiveness effects of environmental policies drive investment decisions. In other words, companies do not move operations to find the location with the loosest laws. Nor do they try to save money by using less expensive — i.e., dirtier — technology. Instead, they tend to standardize equipment while aiming to meet future standards. That means that environmental guidelines need not disadvantage developing countries.

Trade produces economic benefits that increase national welfare as well as pay for cleaner technologies. The failure to adopt standards leads to environmental destruction that robs a country of its national wealth. In short, there is no necessary conflict between trade and the environment. (And if standards keep companies from greasing the palms of corrupt officials, so much the better.)

The key word is partnership. Developed and developing countries have to work together to promote sustainable development. Businesses and governments need to structure policies in ways that encourage environmental responsibility. Private citizens have to make the pursuit of green policies profitable by voting at the ballot box and in the marketplace for politicians and companies that embrace environmentally sound policies. The Earth Charter sets out the guidelines for all interested parties. But they will make a difference only if we all use them.

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