Corporate Criminal ESG

56 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2022 Last revised: 23 Mar 2023

See all articles by J.S. Nelson

J.S. Nelson

Harvard Law School; Harvard Business School; Villanova Law School (on leave 2021-23); Villanova School of Business; Institute for Corruption Studies

Date Written: October 6, 2022


As social norms around climate change shift rapidly, and the U.S. Supreme Court requires federal regulation to retreat, regulations at the state and local levels fracture into increasingly aggressive, and often diametrically opposed, enforcement. Meanwhile, business representations regarding environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives are being policed by traditional charges of fraud that are civil, and, increasingly, criminal. These tensions create massive uncertainties for business. On a global issue like climate change, U.S. businesses, and the people who run them, need political and regulatory stability.

Most scholarship has focused on whether the proposed U.S. disclosure standards will survive Supreme Court review. This Article describes why they will not work, and why additional ESG liability is coming if we do not adopt protective international standards.

The Article makes three important contributions. First, it demonstrates how out-of-step with the rest of the world U.S. federal courts are, and how the country’s failure to adopt ESG standards in line with international developments hurts U.S. businesses. Second, it highlights for the first time the growing potential within the U.S., due to its lack of such standards, for corporate criminal ESG liability based on fraud. Third, it flags potential similar individual civil and criminal liability for businesses’ agents and directors.

The Article concludes with the important, timely, and novel argument that U.S. businesses, their directors, and agents, especially counsel, should see it as in their best interests for the U.S. to adopt protective international ESG standards.

Keywords: ESG, fraud, business, international standards, white collar crime, business regulation, corporate criminal ESG

JEL Classification: K14, K2, K22, K20, K42, K00, K19, K41, M21, Z18, L51, Q00, Q01, Q20, Q28, Q42, Q5, Q50, Q58

Suggested Citation

Nelson, J.S. (Josephine Sandler), Corporate Criminal ESG (October 6, 2022). Iowa Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

J.S. (Josephine Sandler) Nelson (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard Business School ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States

Villanova Law School (on leave 2021-23) ( email )

299 N. Spring Mill Road
Villanova, PA 19085
United States

Villanova School of Business ( email )

800 Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085-1678
United States

Institute for Corruption Studies

Stevenson Hall 425
Normal, IL 61790-4200
United States

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