What explains the evolution of negotiations on liberalising environmentally friendly goods and services over the past 15 years and the EU’s position on these? In December 2016 negotiators did not succeed in their goal of concluding an Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) in Geneva. This was considered by many participants and observers as a missed opportunity for a win-win for the global economy and the environment. Protectionist wrangling over which products should be on a list for speedy liberalisation was seen as the main reason why the negotiations (temporarily) failed. However, we show that the environmental objectives of these negotiations had already gradually been pushed to the back by commercial objectives. While there had been attempts in early phases of the negotiations to make the environmental effects of goods primordial, in the end a commercial logic prevailed. We point to the importance of the paradigm of ‘liberal environmentalism’, which makes it difficult to promote trade-conditioning measures in an already commercially biased policy subsystem. We focus particularly on the EU as one of the key actors in the EGA negotiations. Through a number of interviews with European policy-makers and civil society representatives, and desk research of negotiating documents and secondary literature, we find evidence of the prevalence of liberal environmentalist thinking, the dominance of trade actors in the policy subsystem and difficulties for environmental actors to penetrate these negotiations. We conclude that trying to reconcile trade and environmental objectives in a synergetic (‘win-win’) manner does not make a successful conclusion necessarily easier.