Company impacts on the environment that affect the health or livelihoods of local communities

The condition and protection of the world’s environment and its natural resources, including water, are inextricably linked to the enjoyment of human rights. This relationship was first addressed by the international community at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. The conference’s main point of focus was to discuss how the increasing impairment of the world’s environment was impacting on ‘the condition of man, his physical and mental well-being, his dignity and his enjoyment of basic human rights in developing as well as developed countries.’

Business and industry in general have been identified as a major contributor to environmental degradation and human rights violations due to the pollution and other impacts on the land, air and water. A 2010 study by the UN estimated that the world’s top 3,000 companies caused US$2.2 trillion in environmental damage per year, a figure bigger than the national economies of all but seven countries in the world in 2008.

The Human Rights and Business Country Guide aims to illustrate the link between environmental damage caused by companies and adverse impacts on human rights.

Companies may cause, contribute or be directly linked to the following human rights impacts:

  • Adversely impacting the health or livelihoods of local populations though air pollution, land degradation, water contamination or other environmental impacts.
  • Failure to monitor the environmental impact of suppliers, contractors, and other business partners.
  • Failure to inform local communities of environmental impacts.
  • Failure to conduct environmental impact assessments and to meaningfully consult affected communities as such processes are carried out
  • Contribute to water scarcity or food insecurity through pollution or overuse.
  • Corruption when dealing with environmental inspection bodies.


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  • Areas for Attention

    Key components of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights

    There are two basic conceptions of environmental human rights in the current human rights system. The first is that the right to a healthy or adequate environment is itself a human right (as seen in both Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Article 11 of the San Salvador Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights). The second is the idea that environmental human rights can be derived from other human rights, like the right to life, the right to health, the right to food, the right to water or the right to property (among many others). The second conception enjoys more widespread use in human rights courts around the world, as those rights are contained in various human rights documents.

    Nevertheless, relatively little international law is directed toward ensuring that corporations are directly liable for environmental harm. The broadest and most robust effort to date to address corporate liability for environmental harm is the Council of Europe’s Lugano Convention on Civil Liability for damage resulting from activities dangerous to the environment (1993), but the convention only has nine signatories.

    Most international standards remain voluntary initiatives, such as the UN Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. In the absence of widely accepted international standards, countries have various ways of providing legal protection to the environment. Some countries expressively recognise the right to a clean and healthy environment. In some instances countries have legislation relating specifically to adverse private sector impacts on the environment.

    Environmental Impact Assessments

    During the design phase of a business project, an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) should be conducted to predict, identify, assess and mitigate the possible adverse impacts that a project might have upon the surrounding environment and human population. The key objective of the impact assessment is to inform a company’s decision-making processes and assist in the implementation of environmental, social and health considerations, such as the placement of infrastructure and the use of technology and materials to avoid, minimise or mitigate potential impacts. The scope of the assessment should include consultation and engagement between the company, its workers, its suppliers and contractors, potentially impacted rights-holders affected by the business activities, and other interested parties.

    Environmental and social impacts, including human rights impacts, need to be managed and monitored throughout the lifecycle of the project. An effective ESIA is therefore expected to:

    • Reflect the nature and the scale of the project;
    • Be fully supported by management and informed by relevant stakeholders;
    • Adopt a methodological approach to managing environmental and social risks and impacts; and
    • Aim to further the progress of sound and sustainable environmental and social performance.

    ESIA requirements vary greatly across national contexts. Internationally, the Convention on EIA in a Transboundary Context (1991) is pertinent. While it applies to transboundary impacts in the European context, the Convention provides example provisions that could also be included in other national environmental assessment legislation. The Convention gives substance to Article 17 of the Rio Declaration, which calls for EIAs as a national instrument to assess and manage environmental impacts, including business activities.

    This section of the Country Guide summarizes reports related to whether companies are complying with legal standards on environmental impact assessments, and whether these assessments are adequate in practice. It also reports information regarding whether authorities are enforcing the law relating to environmental impact assessments effectively.


    The right to water and sanitation includes the right of all persons to have access to safe water for personal use, including for drinking, cooking and sanitation. This right was recognised by the UN General Assembly as a fundamental right in 2010. Specific criteria further define the meaning, scope and content of the right:

    • Quality – Water must be safe to drink;
    • Availability – Water must be available in adequate quantities;
    • Accessibility – Water must be physically accessible and equally accessible for women, children, men and people of different social backgrounds; and
    • Affordability – Water does not necessarily have to be free, but must be affordable for people of all incomes.

    The role of business in water and sanitation service provision has been subject to the attention of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. For example, the Special Rapporteur has recommended that non-State service providers exercise due diligence to ensure human rights compliance, and that states have in place strong regulatory frameworks to govern water service providers in line with human rights standards.

    Participation & Access to Information

    Communities have a right to access information regarding activities that impact their environment so that they are better able to assess potential and actual impacts, as well as take necessary actions to protect themselves and their surroundings from harmful substances.

    International human rights law increasingly recognizes that all persons have a right to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. While the burden of facilitating the public’s access to information generally falls on the state, companies that undertake activities that may have environmental impacts play an important role in respecting and fulfilling the right, because they generate and control environmental information.

    According to the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998) Article 2(3), ‘environmental information’ means any information about the state of the environment, factors, activities and measures that affect or are likely to affect the environment, cost benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used in environmental decision making, and the state of human health and safety as affected by the environment. If a company fails to provide necessary environmental information to the right actors in a timely manner, including health and safety information and hazardous activities undertaken by the company, the right to access to information could be abused, which could potentially lead to a greater risk of damage to the environment and the right to health, among other rights.


    Individuals have the right to the enjoyment of a variety of facilities, goods, services and conditions necessary for the realisation of the highest attainable standard of health (as seen in Article 12 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). The right to health includes healthcare, but also the underlying determinants of health such as safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, adequate supply of safe food, nutrition, housing, occupational health, environmental health and access to health-related information.

    Environmental damage has various ways of adversely impacting the right to health. Industrial waste or chemicals can manifest themselves in local food and water sources, causing temporary or permanent health issues to people depending on them. Air pollution can cause various respiratory illnesses. The purpose of this sub-issue is to highlight private sector impacts on the environment that adversely affect the right to health of individuals or communities.

    This section of the Country Guide describes national legislation related to air, water and land pollution, and the extent to which these laws are implemented in practice.

  • International Instruments

    There are several international law protocols and principles that specifically address the topic of environment and human rights, for example:

    • The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972);
    • The Declaration on Environment and Development (‘Rio Declaration’) (1992);
    • The Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998); and
    • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997).


    These laws are relevant in the area of business and human rights as many of the provisions have implications for business activities when implemented into domestic law. For example, the provisions in the Aarhus Convention relate directly to consultation carried out by the government or companies regarding environmental impacts of projects, including environmental and social impact assessment processes.

    The precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle are also relevant in relation to human rights impacts which result from environmental harm caused by business-related activities. The precautionary principle seeks to ensure that where it is suspected but cannot be scientifically proven that an action may create a risk of harm to the environment or the public, the party taking the action has the burden of proving that the action is not harmful. The polluter pays principle seeks to ensure that the costs of pollution prevention, control and reduction are borne by the generator of the pollution, rather than society at large. Both of these principles have been implemented into a number of international agreements, including the Rio Declaration, as well as national legislation and regulation.

  • Human Rights Guidance for Businesses

    Guidance by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and other institutions to help companies ensure respect for human rights when addressing common challenges.

    Due Diligence Library

    The following recommendations have been developed by The Danish Institute for Human Rights through research and engagement with companies


    Precautionary Approach

    Does the company support a precautionary approach to environmental issues?
    • The company provides information to stakeholders about uncertainties and potential risks to workers, consumers, the public and the environment of the company’s products and processes.
    • The company identifies any soil and water contamination at its site or sites, assesses the environmental impacts and remedies any significant contamination.
    • The company tries to avoid environmental damage by regular maintenance of production processes and environmental protection systems (air pollution control, waste water treatment systems etc.).
    • The company conducts systematic risk assessments of materials used, products and processes to apply the precautionary approach.
    • The company ensures transparency and engages in regular stakeholder dialogue with neighbours, civil society organisations and others with an interest in the company on critical environmental issues.
    • If relevant, the company supports scientific research on environmental issues relating to the company’s products and processes.


    Emergency Response

    Does the company have emergency procedures in place to prevent and address accidents affecting the environment and human health?
    • The company has identified the hazardous operations and the potential consequences on human health and the environment if an accident occurs.
    • The company has detailed procedures, plans, equipment and training programmes to prevent accidents and emergencies.
    • The company has detailed procedures, plans and equipment to effectively respond to accidents and emergencies if they occur.
    • The company trains workers to respond to accidents and emergencies, including carrying out emergency drills at least once a year involving all workers.
    • Where there is significant risk of impacts on local communities, the company has a procedure that enables it to immediately notify affected local communities about industrial emergencies, and informs about emergency response, evacuation plans and medical response.


    Energy Consumption and Climate Change

    Does the company take measures to reduce energy consumption and emissions of greenhouse gasses?
    • The company complies with regulation regarding use of energy resources and emissions of greenhouse gases.
    • The company has a climate strategy that identifies opportunities to reduce the company’s energy consumption and/or emissions of greenhouse gases.
    • The company has initiated practical activities to reduce energy consumption and/or greenhouse gas emissions.
    • The company provides information and trains employees to implement energy reduction measures.
    • The company monitors its energy consumption and/or emissions of greenhouse gases.
    • The company has defined a baseline for its greenhouse gas emissions, which includes a definition of the business operations and activities, and the greenhouse gases that are accounted for e.g. as described in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
    • The company has targets for reducing its energy consumption and/or emissions of greenhouse gases.
    • The company engages with the government and civil society organisations to develop policies and measures that provide a framework for the business sector to contribute to building a low carbon economy.


    Water and Waste Water

    Does the company take measures to reduce water consumption and treat waste water?
    • The company has the necessary permits to extract water or obtain water from the public water supply and for any waste water discharges.
    • The company treats waste water before discharge to reduce adverse environmental impacts. If waste water treatment takes place outside the company’s premises, the company is aware of the effectiveness of the treatment.
    • The company monitors waste water discharges, including types, limit values and quantities of pollutants in the waste water.
    • The company has targets for reducing water consumption and/or increasing the amount of water reused or recycled in different business operations and activities.
    • The company provides information and trains workers to implement measures to reduce water consumption and reduce the need for waste water treatment.
    • The company’s use of water and its waste water discharges do not negatively affect the sustainability of water resources, the natural environment or the availability of water for drinking and sanitation purposes.
    • The company engages with national, regional and local public authorities, and civil society organisations to address water sustainability issues related to affected water resources.


    Waste Management

    Does the company take measures to prevent and reduce the production of waste and ensure responsible waste management?
    • The company has the necessary permits for the handling, storage, recycling and disposal of waste, and, if relevant, complies with requirements for transporting hazardous waste across borders.
    • The company has a strategy to manage waste responsibly and continuously attempts to prevent and reduce the production of waste.
    • The company ensures that waste relevant for recycling is sorted and handed over to a recycling company.
    • The company monitors the types and quantities of waste produced, including where and how waste is recycled, treated or disposed of.
    • The company has targets for reducing waste production and/or increasing waste reused/recycled and measures its progress against these targets.
    • The company provides information and trains workers on the safe handling, storage, transport and disposal of hazardous and special waste types.
    • The company marks areas used for storage of waste, and properly labels all containers for storing waste, including a relevant symbol of danger for hazardous waste.
    • The company requests recycling/treatment/disposal receipts from transport contractors.
    • The company uses licensed contractors for the transport, recycling, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste.


    Air Emissions

    Does the company prevent, reduce and treat air emissions?
    • The company has the necessary permits for emissions to air, and complies with legal requirements (e.g. air pollution standards and limit values).
    • The company provides information and trains workers on how to manage air emissions.
    • The company monitors the types and quantities of relevant emissions to air.
    • The company treats relevant pollutants before they are emitted to the atmosphere (e.g. by using filters).
    • The company continuously attempts to prevent and reduce air emissions.


    Noise, Odour, Light and Vibrations

    Does the company prevent and reduce impacts on the surrounding environment from noise, odour, light and vibrations?
    • The company has the necessary permits for levels of noise, odour, light and vibrations, and complies with legal requirements (e.g. standards or procedures).
    • The company provides information and trains workers to manage noise, odour, light and vibrations.
    • The company monitors levels of noise, odour, light and vibrations on the surrounding environment.
    • The company treats/minimises impacts to ensure that there are no significant levels of noise, odour, light and vibrations.
    • The company continuously attempts to prevent and minimise the levels of noise, odour and light (e.g. enclosed production, shielding, etc.).


    Chemicals and Other Dangerous Substances

    Does the company minimise the use and ensure safe handling and storage of chemicals and other dangerous substances?
    • The company has the necessary permits and complies with legal requirements for the handling, use and storage of chemicals and other dangerous substances.
    • The company does not manufacture, trade and/or use chemicals and other dangerous substances subject to national or international bans or phase-outs.
    • The company provides information and trains workers on the safe handling and use of chemicals and other dangerous substances.
    • The company monitors the quantities of all chemicals and other dangerous substances used in production and maintenance.
    • The company marks areas used for storage of chemical substances and products.
    • The company properly labels all chemical substances and products including name of the chemical and a relevant symbol of danger.
    • The company considers substitution important and continuously tries to use less harmful chemicals and substances.



    Does the company prevent, minimise and remedy significant impacts on biodiversity?
    • The company has the necessary permits to operate in or alter the natural environment, and complies with legal requirements.
    • The company is committed to operating within the framework of international conventions addressing biodiversity (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety and the CITES Convention).
    • The company has assessed important positive and negative impacts of its operations and activities on the natural environment and biodiversity (e.g. IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species and no alien invasive species).
    • The company has previously and/or is currently taking measures to prevent and reduce the impacts of its operations and activities on biodiversity.
    • The company clearly labels products containing GMOs and indicates if GMOs have been used in the production process.
    • The company ensures that it has not had any unintended releases of GMOs.
    • The company documents that workers have been adequately trained to handle GMOs.


    Natural Resources

    Does the company ensure that natural resources are used in a sustainable manner?
    • The company has the necessary permits and complies with legal requirements regarding the cultivation, harvest, extraction and/or use of natural resources (e.g. wood, fish, metals, oil, coal etc).
    • The company complies with legal requirements regarding the cultivation, harvest, extraction and/or use of natural resources (e.g. wood, fish, metals, oil, coal etc.).
    • The company ensures that workers are trained in the sustainable cultivation, harvesting, extraction and/or use of natural resources.
    • The company continuously attempts to prevent, minimise and remedy significant impacts on natural resources through environmentally friendly methods and alternative resource use.
    • The company ensures that its use of renewable resources does not negatively affect the sustainability of the resource (i.e. the resource’s ability to regenerate).
    • The company demonstrates efforts to substitute non-renewable resources used in production with renewable resources.
    • The company works with local and national public authorities as well as with international institutions to address sustainability issues related to natural resources (e.g. wood, water, fish, metals, oil etc.).


    Environmentally Friendly Technologies

    Does the company encourage the development and use of environmentally friendly technologies?
    • The company uses environmentally friendly technology.
    • The company regularly evaluates its processes and technologies to see if there are more environmentally friendly alternatives.
    • When developing new technologies and products, the company focuses on developing environmentally friendly technology e.g. by using life cycle assessments (LCA), design for sustainability or a cradle-to-cradle approach.
    • When planning new investments in technology, the company considers the best available technology and stipulates minimum environmental criteria.
    • When investing in new buildings, the company implements environmentally responsible and resource-efficient materials and/or technologies.
    • The company makes information describing the environmental performance and benefits of using environmentally friendly technologies available to stakeholders.


    Standards & Guidance

    NGO and institutional resources to enhance human rights due diligence efforts by businesses. These resources are drawn from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
    • CEO Water Mandate (2011): Launched as a collaborative initiative of the UN, UN Global Compact, the Government of Sweden and a dedicated group of companies, the CEO Water Mandate is a public-private initiative designed to assist companies with the development, implementation and disclosure of policies and practices relating to water sustainability. It covers six core elements: direct operations, supply chain and watershed management, collective action, public policy, community engagement and transparency.
    • IFC Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability (2012): The IFC Performance Standards provide directions to businesses on due diligence on environmental and social matters. Several of the standards are pertinent to environment, including: Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks and Impacts (PS1), Resource Efficiency and Pollution Prevention (PS3), Community Health, Safety, and Security (PS4), and Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources (PS6).
    • Institute for Human Rights and Business, Draft-Business, Human Rights & the right to water- Challenges, dilemmas and Opportunities, Roundtable Consultative Report (2009): This report summarises the views of various stakeholders on issues pertaining to the right to water, including consideration of the scope of a company’s responsibility to respect the human right to water; the applicability of the human rights-based approach to management of water-related issues; and the business case for engaging with water-related issues.
    • ISO 14000 Standards on Environmental Management Systems: Developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation, the ISO 14000 Standards provide businesses and organisations with a number of tools to assist in their environmental management systems. The key objective of the standards is to encourage different actors to reduce the negative impact that their activities may have on natural resources such as air, water or land.
    • United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (est. 2008): Amongst a range of issues, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur includes consideration of the regulation of the private sector in the context of private provision of safe drinking water and sanitation.
    • Global Water Tool (2007): Developed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, this tool is designed for companies and organisations to map their water use, including risks associated with water use in global supply chains.


    Key Resources

    Organisations & Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives