Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, True Leader of the Green Business Movement

“We need corporate sustainability to be in the DNA of business culture and operations,” U.N. Secretary General told the participants of KPMG’s Global Summit, which took place last week in New York, addressing business sustainable challenges towards Rio+20. I’m sure many, if not all, in the audience agreed with him. And if they were looking for a role model that actually does it, they didn’t have to wait long, as he appeared just after the Secretary General has left the stage.

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever took part only in one discussion, which followed the Secretary General’s address. Yet, he left such an impression that no matter what discussion I attended in the next few days, I heard his name mentioned over and over. Polman’s name is anything but new to people in the green business space – Unilever’s sustainable living plan and Polman’s maverick style earned him the reputation of a distinctive voice in the business community when it comes to sustainability. Yet, only in the summit, getting to hear him together with many other business leaders and seeing his influence, it became clear to me that Polman is not just another CEO who embraces sustainability, he is the leader of the green business community.

Take for example his views on shareholders. Polman made, and not for the first time, two interesting comments about the relationship with shareholders. First, he’s not working for the shareholders, but for the consumers, or in his words, “we are not out there just to make money, but to satisfy consumer needs and doing it well, we will make money.” Second, he wants to have only shareholders that are interested in the long-term. As he told shareholders last year: “If you buy into this long-term value-creation model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don’t buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don’t put your money in our company.”

Polman’s view on the relationship with shareholders stems from his long-term approach, looking both backwards in an effort to reconnect with the values of Unilever’s founders and forward, looking to establish a long-term sustainable approach. “Unilever has been around for 100-plus years. We want to be around for several hundred more,” he wrote last year.

Polman also wasn’t shy about addressing the issue of companies’ responsibility, quoting Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust, who wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” The point he tried to make was that if businesses don’t act responsibly, they will be ‘thrown out of office’ by the consumers. Polman made the connection to the Arab Spring, saying that if consumers can bring down a regime in Egypt in 17 days, they can probably bring down a company like Unilever in nanoseconds if it doesn’t participate and find solutions.

He also had no problem admitting that something is wrong with the way we do business, whether it’s the fact that we still have about 1 billion people who go to bed hungry every night, or the unsustainable use of scarce resources like water. What is his solution? Polman offered a different vision in the spirit on Michael Porter’s shared value model – most businesses, he explained, think how I can use society and the environment to be successful, while we think about how we can contribute to society and be successful.

The sustainability way is not necessarily the easier way. Polman explained that it would be very easy for him to move the share price of Unilever up without doing anything substantial for the benefit of society and he’ll personally benefit from it – get a bigger bonus, enabling him to buy a sailboat and go to the Bahamas. He won’t even need to worry about the outcome, letting his successor clean up the mess after him. But, he said, that’s not how you have to run your business. “This is where leadership comes in and that is what badly needed,” he added.

He is definitely right. Leadership is badly needed when it comes to sustainability, especially in large corporations. It’s true that we had visionary CEOs like Jeff Immelt (GE), Lee Scott (Wal-Mart) or Richard Branson (Virgin), but at the same time none of them have the same comprehensive sustainability philosophy as Polman has. And even more important – he walks the talk, whether it’s the way Unilever’s sustainable living plan addresses all the dimensions of sustainability, the commitment to a long-term thinking or putting consumers before shareholders.

Polman is not perfect, but he certainly tries to push the sustainability envelope much further than anyone else, providing an example of the way companies should embed sustainability into their DNA. “We need to be more courageous,” he told the audience, and with the example he sets, there’s actually a chance that they will listen and follow suit.

[Image credit: Nestle, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.