This article analyses Brazilian involvement in private labour and environmental governance. It does so by mapping the local actors participating in three recent international initiatives—the UN Global Compact, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the ISO 26000 Working Group—and exploring the activities of a central group around the Ethos Institute for Business and Social Responsibility. The article argues that the privileged position of this group of actors is supported by the lasting association between a sector of Brazilian business and influential political players, in particular the ruling Workers' Party. On this basis, the article discusses the model of institutional complementarity, suggesting that both the local network and the global initiatives benefited from the narrow state–society relations pervading Brazilian politics. The article contests the claim that emerging economies are necessarily disadvantaged newcomers to private governance, and calls for greater attention to the interface between international initiatives and local political institutions.