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

| Friday February 24th, 2012 | 12 Comments

“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.


▼▼▼      12 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Gaskellwellness

    I wonder how many other people were greenwashed by Paul Polman’s speech into believing he and Unilever are the leader in the green business community?  Come on really…Unilever the Leader in Green?  With unhealthy foods, chemical laden & cancer-causing ingredients in their personal care products, child labor concerns, polluting the planet with mercury dumps, and more….where’s the green?…let alone the leadership?  Paul Polman talks the talk but Unilever does not walk it. 

    • BigDog

      You don’t know sh– about Unilever….It’s obvious from your idiotic rant.

      What Polman’s vision is and the ability to implement it takes time, effort and accountability. Unilever factories strive for efficiency, cleanliness, and quality.  All the while reducing waste, minimizing environmental impact and assuring safety and health of their workers.

      Your ignorance is understandable.  But don’t let your ignorance get in the way of the facts.

      All companies should copy Unilever’s business model.  

      • Gaskellwellness

        My ignorance?  The facts? You must be drinking the Slim-Fast (recalled how many times?),  Showering with Dove and Axe (many ingredients proven to harm human health), Eating the Knorr products (filled with sulfates, monosodium glutamate, etc), or maybe you live in an area where your thinking and beliefs are being clouded by chemicals dumped by Unilever into the air you are breathing and the water you are drinking.  While I respect their efforts, I personally don’t agree that Unilever is the “True Leader of the Green Business Movement’ or that all companies should copy Unilever’s business model.  There are many other companies using safe ingredients, doing good for the planet, people and making a profit.

    • Nicholas Palmer

       Gaskellwellness: If you make accusations like that, you really ought to give links to credible sources that back you up.

      • Gaskellwellness

         It honestly doesn’t take much research to find many articles/complaints on the Unilever company and their products to prove my comments above.  Buyer Beware.  Read your products labels, learn ingredients…you might be surprised what you are consuming or putting on your skin. 

  • Paul Polman

    Thanks for the comment below. You are right to be sceptical. It forces us all to set the bar even higher. Yet being sceptical without trying to be part of the solution is abdicating responsibility we all have. The proof is indeed in the actual delivery. I know we are not the only ones with such a bold plan and certainly not leaders in all areas. Nor do we pretend to .M&S in the UK , Nike in the US , Patagonia ,Ben & Jerry ,DSM in the Netherlands are all examples in their specific areas with leaders that have shown foresight and courage. This benchmarking is key .That allows us to drive best practices faster but more importantly create the critical mass needed to change markets , habits etc. To drive the changes this world needs we need to indeed work at a different level than the issues are created. This means transparency , cooperation and courage. Not a comfortable thing for many on all sides of the equation. Yet badly needed. Our goals are bold and at time uncomfortable. We don’t have all the answers yet either. That’s why we are keen to work with the many others that offer constructive solutions or are at least willing to try. Paul Polman ( real name).

    • Big Dog

      I have been fortunate enough to get to know Unilever and how they do business, especially manufacturing, over the last 12 years.  I never saw a company so committed to ideals that you mentioned in your article.  Personally, I have been able to watch how these things are implemented, how difficult they can be and how much time and dedication it takes.  
      Your leadership is inspiring…..keep it going!!

  • Amol

    It’z all about CSR 2.0, and company’s view towards the society and shareholder simultaneously keeping eye on Long term Profit and Presence. Indeed insightful speech!

  • jandek

    Mr Polman,
    Lets assume that we can make a major step forward for humanity the environment (less transport, less waste, less water consumption,less packaging) the health of all your customers and at the same time your customers spend less dollars. This detailed concept is available and will harm part of your and many other businesses on the short term but it will shift to another part so that also Unilever will benefit from this change as frontrunner.
    What will be your reaction on such proposal ?.
    Jan de Koning

    • Paul Polman

      There is indeed a clear advantage in leading but we need others to follow as well . It simply is the right thing to do. If it truly becomes a corporate strategy , then compromise is limited . Why do we always need to think in trade-offs . For example 30% of food gets wasted , we can design sustainable agriculture and be as efficient , get people to wash their clothes at lower temperatures , stop buying products from illegal deforestation which accounts for 16% of global warming , turn off the tap when we brush our teeth etc. Many things we can do without a trade off if we take responsibility and make it part of the business plan. Other parts are more challenging and require different forms of cooperation. In a world where many aspire to higher living standards and two billion people still will be added , we don’t have to worry about opportunities to growth. We need to think sustainable and equitable growth. Companies that don’t understand or participate risk to be dinosaurs .

  • Khaled

    Dear Mr.Polman, It was interesting to find what your plans are. However, my concern stand stills that like past, whether you will be taking care of the developed countries “green” concerns only and will developing countries never find what they also deserve as the major consumers?
    I sincerely do not doubt your intentions and efforts and that is why i am drawing your attention that neglected may please not be negelected again. I myself trying to  develop a good chain of stakeholders in my country through and probably Univer would be the first company which will find its core stakeholders without much pain and efforts. However, since plans of Paul are challenging so shall be the mode or actions also and for the plans, a new route other than routine professionals will be more effective.
    I still applaud and appreciate your intention and pray that you may please get your endeavors fulfilled. Khalid ( kkanwar2@hotmail.com

  • william_verde

    One of the most sustainable things a “consumer” could do is to NOT buy Unilever products. For those of you who are boosters and cheerleaders for “corporate sustainability” I will grant you one point – corporations doing less damage is a step in the right direction.  But putting a green veneer on business models that are inherently unsustainable maintains the status quo, business as usual regime we have now.  Mr. Polman good for you for trying to do less damage with your company and its products.  Do it quickly.  But do not delude yourself or try to delude others – the Unilever business model is inherently part of the problem and until that changes, your efforts and the marketing hype promoting them are a greenwash.