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In recent years, companies have increased their voluntary commitments to reducing carbon emissions and implementing sustainability goals. While existing research mainly focuses on government-organized voluntary environmental programs (VEPs), exploring corporate voluntary commitments is essential. The business sector’s active role in environmental management is noteworthy. Traditionally, governments have relied on command-and-control regulations and market incentives to compel companies to protect the environment. However, companies are now demonstrating a willingness to go beyond legal requirements. Naturally, we seek answers to whether these commitments are effective, what factors can contribute to their authenticity, and how we compare these voluntary commitments to other VEPs.

Research on VEPs began in the 1990s and peaked between 2002 and 2008. During this period, scholars primarily focused on government-organized VEPs, overlooking business-led corporate social responsibility initiatives and VEPs organized by civil society organizations (CSOs). Comparing VEPs’ direct results to mandatory approaches, researchers found that VEPs had limited benefits due to weaker outcomes. However, it is challenging to quantify VEPs’ benefits by only numbers. Notably, existing research predominantly studied Western countries’ programs and comparison studies, but excluded China (the world’s second-largest economy). To address these limitations, this thesis systematically reviews VEPs developed by businesses, CSOs, and government agencies in the United States and China. This research aims to enhance our understanding of VEP effectiveness and impact by examining various social actors' contributions.

The thesis explored the following questions: (1) Differentiate key terms used in existing research– VEPs and voluntary approaches. (2) What motivates different social actors to develop VEPs? (3) How to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of these VEPs? (4) How does existing law in different societal settings support VEPs’ development and implementation? (5) What is the relationship between VEPs and future legislation? Would different societal settings matter? The thesis adopted a program-organizer-oriented perspective, focusing on the key players involved in VEPs: program organizers, participants, and supervisors. By examining these interactions, the research sheds light on effective environmental governance strategies.

Chapters 2 to 4 delve into the incentives driving companies, CSOs, and government agencies to develop VEPs in the United States and China. The thesis proposes a checklist-like framework to evaluate VEP effectiveness and authenticity applied in the aforementioned chapters. This framework comprises four key indicators: the organizer’s willingness, the substantial content of the VEP design, stakeholder participation, and the quality of information disclosure. The thesis further examines and compares how existing laws in the U.S. and China regulate the proposed indicators and whether these legal requirements contribute to VEPs’ effectiveness.

Additionally, Chapters 2 to 4 examine how existing laws in both countries regulate these proposed indicators and their impact on VEP effectiveness. Importantly, each chapter identifies conditions that influence the translation of VEPs into future legislation; it also highlights the limitations within current legal frameworks, hindering the establishment of effective multi-actor schemes to hold VEP participants accountable for their commitments.

Chapter 5 is the final chapter, comparing three distinct types of VEPs organized by different social actors (businesses, CSOs and government agencies). Despite differences in governmental systems, remarkable similarities emerge between VEP developments in the United States and China. The thesis (based on the discussions in previous chapters) reveals that VEPs transcend their role as mere flexible, cost-effective engagement alternatives described in the existing literature. Instead, they serve as bridges to future legislation and solutions for environmental gridlocks. These findings hold true across diverse societal settings. Chapter 5 further concludes with practical suggestions to enhance collaboration among businesses, CSOs, and governments in both countries through effective VEP development and implementation.