Exploring the role of voluntary initiatives in the context of growing business and human rights legislation

top picture


11 May, 2021




On 29 April 2021, the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights (GCBHR), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) hosted a joint online discussion, exploring how voluntary, collaborative initiatives can complement mandatory human rights due diligence legislation.

Geneva, 5 May 2021: On 29 April 2021, the Geneva Center for Business and Human Rights (GCBHR), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) hosted a joint online discussion, exploring how voluntary, collaborative initiatives can complement mandatory human rights due diligence legislation.

Ten years ago, in June 2011, the United Nations adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which became widely recognized as the international framework of reference on this agenda. The UNGPs set out the duty of States to protect human rights from abuses by third parties, including business. To do so, the UNGPs suggest a “smart mix” of measures – national, international, mandatory and voluntary – to encourage and enforce business respect for human rights. In recent years however, the debate has shifted towards portraying mandatory human rights due diligence (mHRDD) as the only effective solution. In this context, voluntary collaborative initiatives are often overlooked and dismissed, despite the important perspectives, insights and value that they can bring to making sure that companies operationalize the UNGPs in their business strategies, activities and relationships.

Prof. Dorothée Baumann-Pauly (GCBHR) and John Grova (Advisor to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights) introduced the event and then proceeded to assess the current state of the debate on voluntary initiatives and mHRDD, while also providing an update on the work of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights as we approach the 10th anniversary of the UNGPs.

With the aim of adding nuance to the debate, the GCBHR, the ICC and WBCSD invited André Podleisek (interim Head of Corporate Sustainability, Schindler Group), Richa Mittal (Senior Director Supply Chain Innovation & Partnership, Fair Labour Association – FLA), Sarah Dekkiche (International Cocoa Initiative – ICI) and Yann Wyss (Senior Manager Social Impact, Nestlé) to share their perspectives, experiences and lessons learned from engaging in voluntary, collaborative initiatives.

Some key takeaways from the discussion are summarized below:

1)     Reasons for businesses to engage in voluntary, collaborative initiatives include:

  • the opportunity to test and scale up solutions through collaboration with other companies and stakeholders,
  • the potential to address systemic issues too large or complex for single companies to tackle alone,
  • having a space for knowledge sharing, learning and technical capacity building for businesses as well as other stakeholder groups involved in the initiatives,
  • finding allies that can help in mobilizing and strengthening buy-in to human rights due diligence within a business, in particular when peers, business partners, suppliers or clients are also members of the initiative.

2)     Voluntary initiatives can play an important role in advancing the effective implementation of the UNGPs. The panelists identified a number of factors that companies, governments and other stakeholders can use to identify those initiatives that have the greatest potential to make a meaningful contribution. These factors for strong voluntary, collaborative initiatives include:

  • Being based on recognized standards, frameworks and conventions.
  • Having a governance structure in which different stakeholders are properly represented and have a voice in discussions and procedures.
  • Providing technical expertise and advocating based on facts.
  • Facilitating collaboration and collective action.
  • Offering processes for independent verification, validation and accountability.
  • Embracing transparency by publicly reporting on their own targets and impact on the one hand, and on their members’ efforts and performance on the other.

3)     Voluntary, collaborative initiatives differ significantly from one another. Alongside more obvious differences such as the fact that they often focus on diverse sector, commodity, country, region or human rights issue, another key differentiator relates to membership structure, i.e. whether the initiative incorporates a single stakeholder group, or can be legitimately defined as being a multi-stakeholder platform. Last but not least, initiatives can also be distinguished by the degree to which they are actually voluntary. As Richa Mittal pointed out, while “membership may be voluntary, after companies come into the FLA nothing is voluntary”.

4)     Voluntary initiatives are indispensable for addressing human rights issues that are simply too big for any individual business or other stakeholder to take on alone. Nonetheless, persisting human rights issues and slow progress – especially on systemic issues – over the past decade suggest that voluntary approaches alone are not enough and have strengthened the call for mandatory measures.

5)     Legislative measures are seen as necessary, but experience shows that alone they are not enough to ensure meaningful human rights due diligence. mHRDD needs to be accompanied by an environment that facilitates collaboration to address systemic issues and enables businesses to establish robust human rights due diligence approaches and deliver on their responsibility to respect human rights. Hence, mHRDD does not diminish the value of voluntary, collaborative initiatives but rather increases the need for them. The growing number and rigor of mHRDD measures is expected to act as a ‘push factor’, raising awareness among business on the topic and increasing the demand for platforms that can help companies deliver on their responsibility to respect human rights in line with the UNGPs and/or with new regulation.

Follow this link to watch the recording of the discussion.

More information

Davide Fiedler – Manager People & Society, WBCSD

WBCSD resources on business and human rights