A leading industrialist, Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever, Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and a UN SDG Advocate. In 2015 he received the UN’s highest environmental honour, the Champions of the Earth award, for his leadership in driving sustainable growth.
If you had one hour in a room with all the world’s leaders this year – what would you ask them?
Today we face huge challenges that we cannot look at in isolation. From income disparity, unemployment and social exclusion, to climate change and the impact on our planetary boundaries. Trust in all institutions, including business, is at an all-time low. We need to majorly change our economic system: decarbonizing the global economy, moving to a circular model of consumption, moving financial markets to the longer term and driving more inclusive growth. So I would ask: what actions can we all take collectively to transform the way we live, operate and work – towards the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals? And how can we move to a higher level of moral leadership that puts the Golden Rule – to treat others as you would like to be treated – back in the middle of all we do? It was once said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation. So, we must all think about how we can be statesmen and stateswomen.
All the environmental crises we face have a huge toll on humanity. How can we best harness human power and creativity to come up with solutions for all of our sakes?
Everybody can make a difference irrespective of the size of their company, but ultimately it all comes down to purpose-driven leadership and willpower. And the good thing about willpower is that it’s a renewable resource, that’s why I like it. There’s no shortage of it around. Younger generations, for example, are increasingly driven by a deep sense of purpose. 84% of millennials consider it their duty to make the world a better place. Many of them already are. Just look at the rise of young entrepreneurs developing innovative solutions to the world’s most burning issues, whilst driving a profit. So if we harness this human power and creativity in the right way, and in partnerships with others, there are unlimited opportunities.
At Unilever you are collaborating with many social start-ups through the Unilever Foundry. Why?
To help them scale up their ideas for greater impact, but also to enable our brands to collaborate and experiment with original ideas and evolving technologies. After all, no one organisation working in isolation can hope to move the needle to build a better world. That’s why working in partnerships with others is so crucial – between businesses and entrepreneurs, customers, suppliers, governments, academia and NGOs – all key to driving the more sustainable form of capitalism that the SDGs demand. It requires true leaders who put the interest of others ahead of their own. Who know it’s not about themselves. We have to find, nurture and empower those leaders – especially millennials and women – and make them an integral part of this change agenda.
There are examples of the negative environmental and social impact of corporate greed all around us. How would you galvanise more companies to act responsibly?
At a time when we have enormous pressures on planetary boundaries and where too many people are left behind, there is huge opportunity for business leaders to step up and address some of the most urgent challenges we face. And there is a clear economic case for it. The Business & Sustainable Development Commission has identified a $12 trillion market opportunity for businesses that align with the Sustainable Development Goals. It will require business to adopt a model not just based on CSR and being “less bad”, but one that truly puts itself to the service of society and takes responsibility for its value chain. At Unilever we have our own Sustainable Living Plan, to do exactly that.
Some companies are starting to realise that addressing sustainability issues can actively spur economic activity and growth. Would you agree?
Yes, fortunately business leaders are beginning to realise that the cost of inaction on addressing global challenges is actually higher than the cost of action. Climate change is a great example of this, where we are seeing great progress since the Paris Agreement where countries across the world made a clear commitment to decarbonise the economy. Actively tackling these issues will be a key determinant of future economic growth and development. This underpins how we do business at Unilever – most of our brands now have a social mission, and these brands account for 60% of our growth and are growing at twice the rate of the rest of our portfolio. Indeed, by ruthlessly focusing on making a better world for all and doing that in a more sustainable and equitable way, all stakeholders benefit long-term.
Do you think it’s important for ‘eco’ companies to prove they are sustainable, rather than just say they are?
Absolutely. In this age of transparency there is nowhere to hide. Every day we’re seeing companies paying the price for inaction or irresponsibility. Just open any newspaper. The industrial revolution empowered companies, but the social and digital revolution empowers people. They don’t expect perfection, but they do expect honesty and humility. Reputations are built by what we do, not by what we say.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
Increasingly we see citizens of this world care, and I don’t believe they leave their beliefs and values at home when they travel. Interest in sustainable tourism has been growing over the last few decades, but in recent years it has been gaining more traction, especially with millennials. In an increasingly connected world, millennials certainly have more awareness of planetary constraints and are also more vocal about issues such as climate change, inequality and poverty. No surprise then that they’re far more likely than any other demographic to be interested and take action to help address sustainability issues where they travel – or indeed in their purchasing decisions. We know there are enormous opportunities for companies willing to do the right thing and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals for a more inclusive world, and this extends to the tourism industry.