The institutional design of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) has been recognised as an important determinant of compliance with VSS rules. However, the current understanding of how VSS institutional design generates compliance is scattered and lacks systematic operationalization. This paper brings together different strands of literature and identifies three main mechanisms through which VSS institutional design can generate compliance: enforcement, market incentives, and capacity-building. The authors propose an integrated analytic framework that operationalizes these mechanisms into specific, identifiable design attributes. It is applied in an empirical analysis of 13 agri-food and forestry VSS to assess the extent to which these mechanisms are used in VSS institutional design. The paper finds that, while enforcement appears necessary for VSS to operate, we find heterogeneity in how these mechanisms are used and combine, which is partly explained by contextual factors. This provides avenues for analysing their respective effectiveness in generating compliance.