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Voluntary Standards for Business and Human
Rights – Reviewing and Categorizing the Field
Copenhagen Business School
CBS Centre for Sustainability
Dalgas Have 15, 2000 Frederiksberg
Rasche, A. (2021): Voluntary Standards for Business and Human Rights: Reviewing and
Categorizing the Field. In A. Marx, G. Van Calster, & J. Wouters (eds.). Research Handbook on
Business and Human Rights. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Voluntary standards remain an important instrument to regulate corporate behavior in the context of
corporate responsibility and sustainability. Throughout the last 20 years, the number of standards
(e.g., the Forest Stewardship Council, the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact)
has increased significantly. Different factors have influenced this proliferation of initiatives. For
instance, there are differences in terms of the actors who are involved in standardization. Some
standards are backed by coalitions of multiple stakeholder groups, while other initiatives rely on the
exclusive input of businesses and business associations. Also, there are important differences with
regard to the purpose that is attached to voluntary standards. Some initiatives were set up to monitor
production facilities along global supply chains (e.g., Social Accountability 8000), while other
standards provide participants with some broadly defined principles that are supposed to act as a
foundation for learning and partnerships (e.g., the Principles for Responsible Investment). The
resulting landscape of standards is increasingly difficult to oversee and even confusing to some actors,
such as end consumers who need to distinguish between a number of overlapping product labels that
are attached to standards.
This chapter unpacks the phenomenon of voluntary standards. I start by discussing the more general
phenomenon of “standards” in the context of regulation and governance. Next, I introduce a
taxonomy to classify the landscape of standards for business and human rights. The taxonomy
distinguishes standards based on their mode of governance as well as the purpose of an initiative.
While I do not claim that this taxonomy captures the entire complexity of the field (e.g., it neglects
the geographic scope of application), it is a helpful starting point to make sense of key differences
and commonalities between existing standards. The following section reviews the literature on
voluntary standards. Based on a recent literature study (de Bakker, Rasche, & Ponte, 2019), I outline
three research themes: (1) studies discussing the input into creating, managing and governing
standards, (2) research looking at the institutionalization of relevant initiatives, and (3) scholarly work
concerned with standards’ impact. Together, these themes constitute the “3Is” of research on
voluntary standards. Finally, I outline research topics that are part and parcel of the contemporary
debate around voluntary standards, and I also discuss some promising directions for future research
STANDARDS – WHAT’S IN A NAME?
It is important to differentiate standards from other modes of regulating human and corporate
behavior. Brunsson, Rasche, and Seidl (2012, p. 616) define a standard as “a rule for common and
voluntary use, decided by one or several people or organizations.” This definition highlights two vital
characteristics of standards.
First, standards are voluntary and are not enforced through legal sanctions. Standardizers either do
not want to or cannot access legal authority. Standards’ voluntary nature makes them flexible
instruments that can be applied in contexts where legal sanctioning mechanisms are either not
available (e.g., due to the territorially bound nature of national law) or cannot be fully enforced (e.g.,
due to a lack of resources for enforcement). Standardizers use other sanctioning mechanisms to
enforce their rules. Some standards are enforced because “third parties” require firms to comply with
them. For instance, investors can put pressure on firms to comply with certain standards (Amer, 2018)
and large buyer firms can also force suppliers to support certain initiatives thereby making adoption
a precondition for doing business (Guler, Guillen, & Macpherson, 2002). Standards that are widely
diffused are also enforced through peer pressure and mimetic isomorphism (Perez-Batres, Miller, &
Pisani, 2011); not complying with these voluntary instruments would carry risks for corporations
(e.g., to not get access to important markets; King, Lenox, & Tarlaak, 2005).
Of course, voluntary standards can move into mandatory law and thus become tied to legal
sanctioning. This, however, changes the very nature of the standard and makes it a law. Such
“hardening” of soft law remains the exception rather than the rule in the area of business and human
rights. For instance, Swedish state-owned enterprises are required to prepare their sustainability
reports in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Global Reporting Initiative (Swedish Ministry
for Enterprise, Energy and Communications, 2008). Further, van der Zee (2013) suggests that one
way to “harden” the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises would be to include them into
investment agreements. For example, the Norwegian Model Bilateral Investment Treaty incorporates
reference to the OECD Guidelines.
Second, standards define rules that are deliberately decided by people or organizations. This aspect
is important as not all standards necessarily derive from a process of deliberate decision-making. For
instance, so-called de facto standards are based on the idea that processes (e.g., market interactions)
lead to uniformity in the sense that all actors come to adopt one specific set of rules because it is
difficult to deviate from this set of rules. Often, such de facto standardizing can be found in the context
of technical standards (see e.g., David’s, 1985, discussion of the QWERTY layout for typewriters).
Understanding standards as deliberately decided implies that rules are debated and developed by
people and organizations. Often, expert groups or committees develop the rules that underlie
standards (e.g., Tamm-Hallström, 2004) and in many cases different stakeholder groups participate
in this process (de Bakker et al., 2019; Rasche, Morsing, & Moon, 2017).
Characterizing standards in this way allows us to differentiate this type of organizing from other ways
to achieve social order. For instance, social norms differ from standards. Norms have a more implicit
character and are therefore not deliberately decided by certain people or organizations. We learn to
accept social norms as a natural part of the social context to which we belong (Durkheim, 1974). As
Brunsson and Jacobsson (2000, p. 12) write: “Norms are internalized rules that we can follow without
having to reflect on them.” By contrast, standards are explicitly decided rules issued by someone for
THE LANDSCAPE OF VOLUNTARY STANDARDS FOR BUSINESS AND HUMAN
The current landscape of voluntary standards for business and human rights is characterized by a
variety of different types of standards (see also Fransen, Kolk, & Rivera-Santos, 2019 and Gilbert,
Rasche & Waddock, 2011). I suggest distinguishing standards based on two criteria: (1) the mode of
governance underlying the standard and (2) the purpose of the standard itself. Of course, it is also
possible to consider other classification criteria – such as the geographic scope of application, the
degree of formalization or the product category/sector that an initiative applies to. However, focusing
on mode of governance and purpose comes with two important advantages. First, mode of governance
allows to include the input dimension of standards into the analysis. Who sets the rules for a standard?
Who governs an initiative? Answering these questions has consequences for a number of debates
(e.g., the perceived legitimacy of a standard; Scherer, Rasche, Palazzo, & Spicer, 2016). Second,
reflecting on purpose is important, as many studies focus exclusively on certifications and thus
neglect a number of other initiatives that also influence how firms manage business and human rights.
Mode of Governance
The mode of governance refers to whether standards are governed primarily by a single stakeholder
group (e.g., specific firms) or whether they are governed by a coalition of multiple stakeholders (e.g.,
businesses, governments, and NGOs). Standard governance is about who defines the rules that
underlie a standard and who steers the initiative (e.g., in terms of decisions). Single-stakeholder
standards have mostly appeared as initiatives which are exclusively driven by corporations and
business associations (Egels-Zandén & Wahlqvist, 2007). One key motivation behind setting up such
business-led standards is to limit the influence of other stakeholder groups. Examples of business-led
initiatives include: the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) and the Alliance for Bangladesh
Worker Safety. One key critique of business-led initiatives refers to their lack of inclusiveness and
the resulting lack of balancing different voices and perspectives when making decisions (Fransen,
By contrast, multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) include stakeholders from different sectors into the
development of the rules that underlie the standard and also its governance. Stakeholders in MSIs
often cross the state/non-state and profit/non-profit boundaries (Fransen & Kolk, 2007). In most
cases, MSIs rely on the input by NGOs and businesses, although governmental actors, unions,
business associations as well as academics also frequently participate in relevant standards. Ideally,
MSIs seek to balance the interests of these different stakeholder groups in their governance structures.
As stakeholder inclusiveness and a consensual orientation are important dimensions when judging
input legitimacy, MSIs are usually described as enjoying higher levels of such legitimacy, especially
when compared to single-stakeholder standards (Mena & Palazzo, 2012). However, in practice, many
MSIs remain unbalanced. The UN Global Compact, for instance, describes itself as a “business-led
multi-stakeholder initiative” (Helmchen, 2010, p. 360) and thereby acknowledges that business-
related stakeholders have the majority of seats on the Board of Directors.
Purpose of Standards
The purpose of voluntary standards for business and human rights varies. I distinguish three different
types (see also Gilbert et al. 2011). First, a number of standards aim at certification (e.g., the Forest
Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council, Social Accountability 8000). These standards are
usually tied to global supply chains and aim at monitoring relevant production facilities, such as
factories or farms (e.g., in the textile or coffee industry). Most certification standards do not directly
monitor relevant production facilities but accredit so-called “certification bodies” which then carry
out audits on their behalf. Certification standards are compliance-driven instruments; the main goal
is to comply with the underlying rules as well as possible. Non-compliance is usually punished by
either revoking a certificate or by requiring corrective actions from relevant organizations.
Reporting standards offer frameworks that firms can adopt in order to standardize the disclosure of
environmental, social and governance information (e.g., the Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon
Disclosure Project; see e.g., Milne & Gray, 2013). Reporting standards have a more indirect influence
on business and human rights (when compared to the rather direct effects of certification instruments),
because they provide important stakeholder groups with transparency about the actions and omissions
of a firm vis-à-vis its human rights obligations. Usually, reporting frameworks specify what
information has to be reported (e.g., specific indicators) and how disclosure is supposed to take place
(e.g., through the involvement of stakeholder groups). Most reporting standards do not verify the
information that is provided by companies. However, firms can hire assurance providers in order to
have the information externally verified.
Finally, principle-based standards offer broad values-based principles that act as a foundation for
firms’ engagement with the business and human rights agenda (e.g., the UN Global Compact and the
Principles for Responsible Investment). Often, principle-based standards act as an “entry point” for
firms to learn about their human rights obligations and to establish relevant partnerships (Rasche &
Kell, 2010). Standards that are based on principles operate without any formal monitoring
mechanisms. Instead they use other means of enforcement. The UN Global Compact, for instance,
publicly delists participants that do not report on implementation progress vis-à-vis its ten principles.
The assumption is that firms will try to avoid delisting because they are likely to experience negative
reputational effects (Hamid & Johner, 2010). The lack of monitoring and verification mechanisms
shows that such standards should not be understood as a seal of approval or label.
An Emerging Standards Landscape
We can use the two discussed dimensions – that is, standards’ mode of governance and their purpose
– to map the territory of voluntary standards that are relevant to the business and human rights field
(see Figure 1). Classifying an initiative does not involve either/or judgements. Rather, the two
outlined dimensions need to be understood as occurring on a continuum. For instance, some standards
emphasize multi-stakeholder governance but remain dominated by one stakeholder group (e.g., the
UN Global Compact), while other initiatives may be formally designed as a single-stakeholder
initiative but involve other stakeholder groups as advisors (e.g., the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker
Safety). Also, the purpose of a standard is not always clearly defined. For example, some of the
principle-based instruments have created their own reporting requirements (e.g., the Equator
Mapping voluntary standards in this way shows that studying the (lack of) links between existing
initiatives is important. On the one hand, standards with a different purpose can complement each
other (Rasche, 2010). Firms have to explore ways to use certification, reporting, and principle-based
initiatives in ways that they mutually support each other. This shows the need to “orchestrate” the use
of different types of standards (Abbott & Snidal, 2010). National governments and international
organizations play a key role in this context, as they can incorporate voluntary standards into their
own regulatory frameworks (e.g., by mandating them or by providing ideational support) and thereby
help firms to see complementarities and interlinkages among existing initiatives.
On the other hand, the coexistence of multiple standards with very similar aims can also be perceived
as a problem. Such standard “multiplicity” has particularly been observed in the context of
certification standards, for instance in the garments industry and also the global coffee sector
(Fransen, 2011). As Fransen et al. (2019, p. 405) remark: “The pattern in these sectors has
traditionally been that the first CSR standard to emerge would be governed by a coalition of NGOs
and businesses. Afterwards, additional CSR standards emerge, driven by businesses that often do not
appreciate multi-stakeholder governance, or are critical of other elements of the first-emerging CSR
standard.” Multiplicity can have detrimental effects on market actors, for instance for producers (who
often have to pay for multiple certifications in order to keep their relations to buying firms) as well
as end consumers (who are confused by the existence of multiple competing labels with similar
claims). Some studies, however, have also highlighted potential positive effects of standard
multiplicity, such as mutual learning between standard setters (Overdevest, 2010) as well as a possible
“race to the top” in a competition for the best set of rules to govern a certain issue area (Bernstein &
Certification Reporting Principles
Bangladesh Wor ker
VOLUNTARY STANDARDS ON BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS – REVIEWING KEY
STREAMS OF RESEARCH
De Bakker et al. (2019) have reviewed the literature on voluntary standards in the area of corporate
sustainability and responsibility (n=293). They concluded that the literature can be grouped into three
main themes (“the 3Is”): (1) studies discussing the input into creating, managing and governing
standards, (2) research looking at the institutionalization of relevant initiatives, and (3) scholarly work
concerned with standards’ impact.
One key topic within the scholarly debate is standards’ input legitimacy. Input legitimacy refers to
the belief that “decisions are derived from the preferences of the population in a chain of
accountability linking those governing to those governed” (Mayntz, 2010, p. 10). One important
dimension in this debate is whether standards are inclusive enough to legitimize their underlying
rules. Mena and Palazzo (2012) define inclusivity (i.e. the involvement of relevant stakeholders into
governance) as one key element of a standard’s input legitimacy. As standards cannot derive their
input legitimacy from democratic election processes, the inclusion of different stakeholder groups –
who are either affected by or who can affect the regulated issues – is an important prerequisite for
high levels of perceived legitimacy. Many studies have criticized the lack of representation of relevant
stakeholders in the governance of standards (see e.g., Gilbert & Rasche, 2007; Pichler, 2013; Ponte,
2014). Pichler (2013), for instance, shows that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
privileges business interests over those of smallholders, plantation workers or indigenous groups.
Another stream of research has focused on the politics inherent to the development processes of
voluntary standards. Especially MSIs are likely to face political maneuvering, as participants come
from different societal sectors and hence do not always have interests that are well-aligned (see e.g.,
Bartley, 2014; Hatanaka, Konefal, & Constance, 2012; Levy, Brown, & de Jong, 2010). Hatanaka et
al. (2012) argue that most of the political maneuvering within standard development happens
“backstage” – that is, it is not visible to the public. They contend that actor groups often use framing
techniques to advance their positions (e.g., by framing certain products or practices as
(un)sustainable). Such research emphasizes that inclusive governance by itself is not a guarantee for
higher levels of legitimacy. The efficacy of multi-stakeholder governance mechanisms may be
undercut by participants’ political maneuvers as well as a poorly designed process of rule
development (e.g., not making the standard open to public consultation and feedback). Research has
also shown that the politics inherent in MSIs usually reflect existing power relations between actors
as well as constraints imposed by the institutional environment. Levy et al. (2010) discuss the
development of the GRI and show that the institutional entrepreneurs, who set up the standard,
strategically put more emphasis on the collaboration with larger companies so that the initiative could
diffuse swiftly within the corporate world. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a situation in which the
corporate sector shaped the standard to a higher degree than activists or labor organizations.
The institutionalization of voluntary standards has been studied from different angles. A number of
studies have explored what motivates corporations to adopt relevant initiatives. Many studies
highlight the role of economic advantages, for instance by showing that standard adoption can
improve access to capital (Amer, 2018), allows firms to reap reputational benefits (Nesadurai, 2013),
and can be seen as a reaction to increasing consumer demand (Johannson, 2014). This market-based
perspective assumes that it is in the interest of market actors themselves to adopt standards, especially
in those contexts where businesses directly face end consumers (Spahr, 1998). As firms experience
some of the challenges related to their own social and environmental behavior as collective action
problems, they sign up to voluntary standards to mitigate these problems (Bartley, 2007). Firms
cannot on their own easily signal credible information to consumers about their social and
environmental performance because consumers tend to disbelief firms’ own claims (Milgrom, North,
& Weingast, 1990). Certification standards help to address this problem as they are usually based on
much broader alliances between different stakeholder groups.
Bartley (2007) outlines an alternative perspective to the market-based approach. His political-
institutional perspective gives more weight to the role of other, non-business, actors (e.g., NGOs and
governments). The institutional emergence of standards becomes the product of politically motivated
moves of certain actor groups. Looking at forest certification and labor rights standards, Bartley
suggests that conflicts over the legitimacy of intergovernmental as well as governmental regulation
in these areas created a “space” for more privatized solutions to emerge. This makes the emergence
of standards a political project around the market; rather than a solution to collective action problems
that is sought within the market (Bartley, 2007, p. 336).
Another question related to the institutionalization of standards concerns their diffusion. What makes
voluntary standards diffuse? Practically speaking, it is clear that some standards have managed to
“mainstream” their operations (e.g., the Forest Stewardship Council). Such mainstreaming refers to
a significant increase in the volume and number of certified production facilities and/or products
(Klooster, 2010), usually because large-scale buyers or big suppliers started to adopt a standard
(Ponte, 2012). Although mainstreaming can help a standard to achieve scale and changes the practices
of strategic actors in an industry, it can also undermine the governance of relevant initiatives as large
actors start to “capture” the multi-stakeholder model (Llach, Marimon, & Alonso-Almeida, 2015).
With a number of standards having reached high levels of diffusion, it is increasingly important to
understand the implications of different schemes interacting with each other. Eberlein et al. (2014)
outline a framework for studying such interaction effects. Their framework contrasts different
components of the regulatory process (e.g., rule formation, rule implementation, and evaluation) with
different dimensions of interactions (e.g., drivers of interactions and effects of interactions). For
instance, a number of drivers for interaction are located at the actor level (e.g., the values and
resources that standards possess). Some schemes may overlap and be in competition with each other
(Reinecke, Manning, & von Hagen, 2012), while other initiatives can align their interests and start
collaborating (Lambin et al., 2014). A related question concerns the response of state-based regulators
to the emergence of private governance schemes. Gulbrandsen (2014) outlines a number of
possibilities for public-private interactions, including states pressuring poorly performing standards
to improve their requirements (whenever standards compete for public recognition) and states
reinforcing voluntary schemes (whenever the achievement of public policy objectives depends on
The (lack of) impact of voluntary standards can be measured in different ways (see also the chapter
by Elizabeth Bennett in this volume). One stream of literature discusses impact in the context of a
standard’s output (e.g., number of participants or number of certified factories). However, focusing
the discussion entirely on outputs can be misleading. For instance, the UN Global Compact has a
rather high number of signatories (around 12,000 as of January 2021). This, however, tells us little
about the actual impact that the initiative is making on those who are supposed to profit from
implementation. Rasche et al. (2018) show that even the UN Global compact’s impressive output
needs to be treated with care, because the initiative also had to delist 60% of participants (from 2000
until 2015) for failure to comply with its reporting requirement. The more interesting question, then,
is: How can we explain existing output patterns?
Rasche et al.’s (2018) study highlights the role of resource dependency – that is, the vast majority of
firms that are delisted from the UN Global Compact are small and medium-sized enterprises, as these
types of firms are less impacted by the negative reputational effects that a public delisting would
create. The study showed much lower delisting rates for larger and publicly listed companies, as these
firms are disproportionally exposed to reputational risk and are often closely monitored by civil
society actors. The effect of corporate size on standard implementation has also been discussed in the
context of certification standards. Ponte and Cheyns (2013), for instance, show that the RSPO’s rules
favor larger estates which can achieve economies of scale, while smaller farmers usually have
problems obtaining the certification.
Another stream of literature discusses impact with regard to the outcomes that standards create for
final beneficiaries. Overall, the literature paints a rather sobering picture when it comes to outcomes.
Most studies conclude that standards only create selective impact on specific stakeholder groups or
lead to marginal improvements (see e.g., Gulbrandsen, 2009; McCarthy, 2012; Ponte, 2012). These
insights have given rise to a discussion of policy-practice decoupling – that is, firms mostly adopt the
formal policies underlying standards but do not change their actual day-to-day practices. Aravind and
Christmann (2011) find in a study of ISO 14001 certification that there was no significant difference
between the environmental performance of certified and non-certified facilities. Similarly, Berliner
and Prakash’s (2015) study of UN Global Compact implementation even finds that on some
dimension firms participating in the standard performed worse than non-participants.
Behnam and Maclean (2011) discuss what drives such decoupling behavior. They conclude that
standards which lack clarity, have no effective sanctioning and assurance mechanisms, and carry low
costs of adoption are more exposed to decoupling behavior. While principle-based standards have
mostly received critique due to their rather vague principles and the lack of sanctioning mechanisms,
certification standards are often criticized for the poor quality of auditing. Studies have called into
question the existence of vested business interests within the auditing industry (Pattberg, 2006) and
also the lack of involvement of local stakeholders during audits (Hale & Opondo, 2005).
CONTEMPORARY ISSUES AND NEW DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH
Contemporary Issues in Research on Voluntary Standards
Research has started to acknowledge the role of regulatory intermediaries. Traditionally, scholarly
work has focused on either the producers of standards’ rules or the targets of regulation, while those
organizations that stand “in between” rule-makers and rule-takers (e.g., auditors and consultants)
were often neglected (Abbott, Levi-Faur, & Snidal, 2017). Although some research has explored the
role of monitors in the downstream dimension of rule-taking (e.g., Locke, 2013), the current debate
on intermediaries also focuses on informal roles that intermediaries play in the upstream rule-making
stages (Brés, Mena, & Salles-Djelic, 2019). For instance, auditors that were involved in certifying for
the Marine Stewardship Council also built up valuable knowledge and expertise. This expertise, in
turn, was used during upstream rule-making processes as a kind of “intermediation feedback” (Auld
& Renckens, 2017). Brés et al. (2019) have suggested to focus on two interrelated dimensions while
discussing informal intermediation. One the one hand, such intermediation can refer to the degree of
officialization – that is, whether intermediation is endorsed by a legitimate regulatory authority. For
instance, when unofficial actors act as de facto intermediaries (e.g., consultants; Brés and Gond,
2014). On the other hand, the level of informality of an intermediary can also refer to how formalized
and explicit its involvement into the regulatory process is (e.g., whether and how such engagement is
Another contemporary issue in the field of voluntary standards relates to exploring the network
structures that underlie the rapidly developing system of private regulation. Several standard setters
have established partnerships (e.g., the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact),
while in other cases standards offer each other traceability services (e.g., UTZ offers this to the
RSPO). Some standards have also become members of umbrella initiatives and thus form what Ahrne
and Brunsson (2005) have called meta-organizations. The ISEAL alliance, for example, is a network
in which a range of standard setters are organized to share best practices (Loconto & Fouilleux, 2014).
This emerging network of linkages has only just begun to be studied (Fransen and Conzelmann, 2015;
Henriksen and Seabrooke, 2016; Henriksen and Ponte, 2018) and requires further theoretical
development. Social Network Analyses can help to model the nature of the links between standards
(e.g., their intensity or reciprocity) and can reveal the structural attributes of the larger network (e.g.,
its size, centrality, density and stability). Henriksen and Seabrooke (2016) show how professionals
from different standard setters engage in coordination as well as competition, and how the underlying
network can be more important to addressing transnational issues than the institutional mandate that
a particular standard has over an issue. While a particular standard may hold a central position in an
organizational network, control over how a certain responsibility issue is addressed may come more
from its associated professional network within which action-guiding norms are developed.
New Directions for Research on Voluntary Standards
The current literature tends to highlight how standards are created and institutionalized, while it puts
less focus on the institutional work that is carried out to disrupt and weaken relevant initiatives.
Disruption can happen in a number of different ways. For instance, governmental actors can
undermine standards whenever they see their own territorially embedded interests negatively
affected. The Nordic Council of Ministers, for example, pushed for the development of Guidelines
for the Eco-labelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Wild Capture Fisheries, adopted by
the UN in 2005 (Foley, 2013). According to Gulbrandsen (2012, p. 128), these guidelines were “an
effort to regain control of an issue area dominated by non-governmental actors”. Theoretically
speaking, future scholarly work should consider the institutional work literature (Lawrence &
Suddaby, 2006) to frame such disruption processes. The institutional work literature has explored
how disassociating the moral foundations of a practice can cause disruptions. As voluntary standards
often rely on a moral framing of its practices, disassociating the standard from its moral foundation
can create significant disruptions. Forthcoming research can explore whether and to which degree
such disruptions occur, which actors are driving them, and how standard setters respond.
Another promising area of research relates to a stronger consideration of the multiple systems in
which standards are embedded. Currently, most studies assess standards’ impact with regard to their
“target domain” (i.e. the policy domain in which the standard claims to make a difference). However,
standard adoption can often have (un)intended consequences that reach beyond the target domain
because the social-economic dynamics created by standards often interact in various ways with the
ecosystem conditions that surround them (Levy & Lichtenstein, 2012). Moreover, environmental
problems that are addressed by standards are interconnected in various ways, since natural systems
exhibit non-linear characteristics (Whiteman, Walker, & Perego, 2013). For instance, assessing the
impact of the Carbon Disclosure Project would mean to look beyond firms’ contribution to
atmospheric CO2 concentration and to acknowledge the interaction effects of emissions with water
availability and land scarcity due to the desiccation of land caused by water shortages (Rockström et
al., 2009). Extending the scope of standards’ impact assessment could account for such dynamics and
it could possibly also lead to stronger collaboration between the social and natural sciences.
Finally, more research is needed to clarify how to best manage the trade-off between compliance and
goal achievement (Wijen, 2014). On the one hand, principle-based standards usually have more
flexible rules and thus encourage non-compliance and symbolic adoption. Yet, these more flexible
rules can usually cope well with the higher degree of complexity that is inherent to some human rights
problems. On the other hand, certification standards have more specific rules, which are however
often too rigid and hence undermine standards’ ability to achieve the envisioned goals (e.g., because
the rules cannot account for the complexity underlying some human rights problems). Future
empirical research needs to clarify how this trade-off is best addressed. Wijen’s (2014) conceptual
article already outlined some possibilities: (1) adopting a systemic mindset and designing rules that
have no (or little) side effects on the intended goals of a standard, (2) stimulating goal internalization
so that adopters internalize the objectives that the standard aims for, and (3) develop contextualized
rules (“niche institutions”) that would account for special circumstances on the side of adopters.
This chapter discussed the role of voluntary standards in the context of business and human rights.
By now, the literature on voluntary standards is well established and cuts across multiple academic
disciplines such as political science, management studies law, and development studies (de Bakker
et al., 2019). This multi-disciplinary character of the discourse is a strength and a weakness. It is a
strength because it allows to explore standards from different theoretical and empirical angles and
thereby highlights unknown opportunities and problems. It is, however, also a weakness because
different disciplines often do not exchange enough insights and we therefore risk creating a silo
mentality within the larger discourse. What is needed, then, are more opportunities to exchange
research results across disciplines and to create projects which are inter-disciplinary by nature.
My discussion showed that voluntary standards remain a “necessary supplement” (Rasche, 2009) to
harder forms of regulation, especially since corporate conduct cannot be easily regulated across
national borders. Voluntary standards are therefore a vital part of the “smart mix” of regulatory
measures that Ruggie (2011, p. 8) called for. Such a “smart mix” will only be successful if national
and international legal instruments are better aligned with softer forms of regulation. This requires us
to rethink how public and private governance interact and how these interactions can be
institutionalized and coordinated. Cashore and Matas (2012) suggest that voluntary standards may
establish a “gold standard” for best performance, while governmental regulation can set minimum
criteria so that worst offenders cannot adopt voluntary initiatives in the first place. Moving forward,
there is a need to better understand how and where such interactions can happen. A more contextual
consideration of the interplay of various regulatory approaches is likely to set the tone for future
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