‘Make the distinction between law and justice’ to avoid environmental destruction – lawyers urged at GAIL summit

Indy Johar challenges Global Alliance of Impact Lawyers summit delegates to aim for radical environmental justice, while other speakers discuss how lawyers hold the businesses they work for accountable and whether EU sustainability laws could have a negative impact on the Global South.

The power and responsibility of lawyers as “coders” of social and environmental justice was in the spotlight this week at a major international legal summit in London, UK.

The annual summit hosted by GAIL (the Global Alliance of Impact Lawyers), held at the London School of Economics & Political Science on 23 April, brought together more than 250 lawyers from around the world to explore how they could use their legal expertise to create positive impact.

Setting the tone of the day with a straight-talking morning keynote speech, Indy Johar, executive director of not-for-profit think-tank Dark Matter Labs, said: “Climate change is not the problem. It is merely a symptom of the problem. The problem is how we are relating to the world around us.”

He said lawyers had a key role to play in this, describing them as “the coders of capital”. To prevent humans from “self-terminating” through environmental destruction, he said that they must “make the distinction between law and justice”, as the law is sometimes “not sufficient to construct” the kind of radical environmental justice needed in the world today.


Lawyers should enforce transparency and accountability in corporations

In a plenary discussion about the role of lawyers in purpose-driven organisations, Navine Karim, general counsel and head of impact at Guayakí Yerba Mate, a B Corp that sells herbal tea and sparkling drinks made from the South American yerba mate plant, said “people should think about lawyers as business partners”. 

He emphasised that social enterprise leaders should seek lawyers’ advice as a proactive measure to remain committed to shaping social impact, “rather than just when they’re trying to get out of trouble”.

Karim said his priority as a lawyer when he first joined Guayakí Yerba Mate was “claims substantiation” 一 to ensure that what the company was saying about the benefits of consuming their product was actually true.

He cited another example of how he had helped to resolve a class-action lawsuit not just by achieving the lowest settlement possible for the company, but also by encouraging the “CEO’s acknowledgement of past wrongs”.

Is there a governance lens or mindset you can instil into the organisation that isn’t purely about driving costs as low as possible?

He said: “Companies are going to make mistakes along the way. What’s most important is: is there a governance lens or mindset you can instil into the organisation [that isn’t] purely about driving costs as low as possible?”

Katharina Bottenberg, legal counsel for Tony’s Chocolonely, which has built a successful business around the production of “slave free chocolate”, described how the company aimed to future-proof its mission when it changed its legal structure in 2023. She said that the company had three independent “mission guardians” whose job was to ensure that the company abided by its social mission. 

She added: “If the company ignores their advice, they must publish their state of affairs in a national newspaper of the guardians’ choice, with wording of the guardians’ choice.”

GAIL summit's opening plenary

Katharina Bottenberg explains Tony’s Chocolonely’s mission guardians structure. Speakers (left to right): Navine Karim, Katharina Bottenberg, Jonathan Hutchins of MedAccess Guarantee and Rutherford Hubbard of Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank


Calls to consider the effects of EU sustainability legislation on the Global South

The summit also featured extensive discussions on how lawyers should navigate EU sustainability legislation such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which requires large companies to publish regular reports on how their activities have an impact on people and the environment, and the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), which aims to ensure that large businesses manage the negative social and environmental impacts of their value chains inside and outside Europe.

Chiara Del Prete, chair of the EFRAG Sustainability Reporting Technical Expert Group, said: “There is a global development that is going on right now. Europe has been the first in terms of setting ambitions that the others may not be ready to follow.”

Speaking on the extraterritorial impacts of imposing Global North ESG legislation on supply chains in the Global South, Bruno Camargo, partner and head of Latin America at Liance Legal, said that people in the two parts of the world “are in the same ocean, but not in the same boat”, therefore, development standards that are imposed as “global” actually “need to be translated” to accommodate the needs of local communities.

He said: “It should not be disregarded the amount of indigenous people that are involved in the supply chain. They’re often unheard. For example, the Amazon is the largest carbon sink in the world, so everybody [thinks], ‘It’s going to  save the world’. But they are the people who have been living there for over 3,000 years. They know how to steward that land.”

He added: “Instead of asking them: ‘How would you proceed with the preservation?’, people go there with a standard of carbon credits and say, ‘Hey, you have to preserve that area because we did a bad job in the Global North.’”

Emiliano Giovine, senior associate at RPLT RP Legalitax, said: “Both [directives] are generating questions about how this will be implemented and how the costs will be shared, so as not to become a cascade effect, which will simply [place] the burden on the supply chain.” 

He added that the changes may risk “cutting off” the suppliers, if “they’re unable to comply with certain reporting standards”, an effect which would not serve to improve business or the environment, as intended.


All photos courtesy of GAIL


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