Voluntary schemes and soft law

Climate Change Environment & Planning

Pitching your organisation’s commitments to ensure you’re compliant with all regimes and stakeholder expectations

The term 'soft law' refers to rules, principles or guidelines that are not themselves legally binding, but nonetheless play an important role in promoting compliance with certain standards of behaviour. Rules of 'soft law' can often act as a precursor to the emergence of 'hard law'.

With many governments slow to act on climate change, there has been an increasing number of soft law instruments that seek to impact on corporate responses to climate change.

Relevance of soft law to climate change

For example, in January 2019 the World Economic Forum (which hosts the annual Davos gathering) published a set of principles for effective corporate climate governance, building on the TCFD framework.1 The principles have been rolled out globally through board networks and chapters. In August 2019, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of leading US companies, issued a Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which included a commitment to 'protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses'.2

Soft law can also have a narrower focus. For example, for the project finance sector the Equator Principles provide a risk management framework for financial institutions that allow them to assess and manage social and environmental risk associated with new projects.

Rules of soft law also intersect with other areas of climate-related risk, such as human rights considerations. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require certain conduct of businesses where their activities may affect human rights, including where those activities may have an adverse impact on the environment. Theories of human rights, once confined to the protection of social and political freedoms, continue to evolve and take into account rights to, among other things, clean air, health, water and food, along with the rights of indigenous and other groups whose cultural and political identity is tied to the environment.

Consequences of failure to comply with soft law

For companies, a failure to comply with soft law can carry particular reputational risks due to an expectation of a certain standard of behaviour, even if not legally required. It may also provoke a backlash from the market, seen, for example, in the response to Siemens' decision to honour its signalling contract for rail infrastructure for Adani's Carmichael coal mine. Soft law standards can also intersect with compulsory dispute resolution mechanisms.

A pertinent example of soft law having operation in relation to climate change risks can be found in the Friends of the Earth complaint made in January 2020 against ANZ to the Australian National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which is a non-judicial dispute resolution body for alleged instances of non-observance of the Guidelines. The complaint alleges that ANZ has breached the Guidelines by failing to disclose high risk greenhouse gas emissions resulting from its lending and investment, to conduct adequate due diligence regarding climate-related risks, and to mitigate its adverse environmental impact. The complaint requests that ANZ divest from coal and phase out its investment in other fossil fuels, commit to emission targets in line with the Paris Agreement and disclose climate-related scenario analyses for all sectors it finances.

Key risks and opportunities

Although rules of soft law and voluntary schemes to which a company might subscribe do not themselves impose legal obligations, they still present risks. A business that states a commitment to rules of soft law, but fails to comply with them, may be exposed to reputational and commercial risks, as well as a risk of legal action, such as for misleading and deceptive conduct.

Conversely, failing to pursue soft law standards may also carry a reputational risk, or the risk of non-litigious dispute resolution processes being triggered through the OECD NCP, particularly where other businesses within the same industry have made such a commitment. Additionally, there is a risk that widely accepted norms of soft law may create an accepted 'reasonable standard' for the purposes of bringing legal claims in negligence or for breach of directors' duties, even where the business in question has not made its own commitment.

There may be opportunities for businesses that anticipate the development of hard law and commit to those standards as they exist as rules of 'soft law' ahead of others. Doing so may assist in both heading off conflict with stakeholders and anticipating risks that may arise from non-compliance with those standards.

Two recent decisions demonstrate an increased willingness on the part of courts to hold companies to standards found in policies and guidelines, and in rules of international soft law.

The 2019 decision of the UK Supreme Court in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources Plc allowed for the possibility that a company might be held liable for the adverse environmental and human rights consequences of a foreign subsidiary's activities, based, in part, on the public statements and commitments of the parent.3 1,826 Zambian villagers brought a claim in the UK against a Zambian mining company, KCM, and its UK-based parent, Vedanta. The court held that it was arguable Vedanta itself owed a duty of care to the claimants as it had published a sustainability report emphasising it had oversight over its subsidiaries; released public statements on its commitments to addressing environmental risks and technical shortcomings in KCM's mining activities; provided environmental, health and safety training across its group companies; and both funded and controlled KCM's activities. In this sense, a commitment by a parent company to adhere to soft law standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and to implement such commitments through training, monitoring and enforcement throughout the group, may be used as a hook by claimant groups to bring a claim against a business to the extent it fails to meet such standards at an operational level.

A claim currently before court in Canada concerns the liability of a Canadian-based mining company for alleged violations of international human rights law in Eritrea. In late February 2020, the British Supreme Court rejected an attempt by Nevsun Resources to have the suit dismissed.4 The ultimate decision in the case will be important in determining the extent to which companies can be held liable for their actions under international human rights law and customary international law, and the role of domestic courts in determining such questions.

Key questions

  • What are your organisation's publicly stated commitments in relation to climate change-related risks, and are these aligned with soft law instruments to which it is committed?
  • Who within your organisation is responsible for approving any commitment to a soft law instrument before it is published?
  • How is your organisation assessing its alignment with these commitments, and is this being done on an ongoing basis?
  • Are there key additional soft law standards in your organisation's sector to which your organisation is not currently committed? How does this situate you in relation to the rest of your industry, and is there any associated reputational and/or commercial exposure?



  2. Business Roundtable, 'Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation' (19 August 2019)

  3. Lungowe and Ors. v Vedanta Resources Plc and Konkola Copper Mines Plc [2019] UKSC 20.

  4. Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Araya 2020 SCC 5.

Climate change guide

This insight is part of our climate change guide for legal and compliance teams in Australia