Paul Polman: individual courage and leadership are missing pieces in shaping new economy
From an interview in Pioneers Post
Paul Polman, who was CEO of Unilever from 2009 until 2019, said the “stars were aligned” more than ever now, with citizens, investors and governments all ready to back a better, greener economy. What was now missing, “above anything else”, he said, was leadership. The world was “forewarned and forearmed” like never before – and it was now down to “individuals and individual courage”.
“Purpose and a strong sense of serving, a strong sense of leadership – putting the interests of others ahead of your own, knowing that by doing so you’re better off, a strong sense of partnership, thinking multigenerational – are the most important skills right now that we need.”
Paul implemented Unilever’s 10-year Sustainable Living Plan, which saw the company reach 1.3bn people through its health and hygiene programmes, among others, according to the firm. He was appointed to the UN panel that developed the Sustainable Development Goals, and has been vocal in highlighting the business case for the 2030 development agenda, including as a founder member of the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, and as co-founder of Imagine, a benefit corporation and foundation that works with CEOs to help achieve the SDGs.
"Business has for a long time benefited from good governance. Now we’re going through a little bit of a difficult period. Business realises also that they can’t succeed in failing societies, they also realise they cannot be a bystander in a system that gives them life in the first place. So they need to step up to the plate and, I would argue, help to de-risk the political process.”
This could be done, he explained, through “transformative partnerships” with civil society, governments and others. Representing 60% of global GDP, 80% of job creation, and 90% of financial flows, businesses had the scale, expertise, resources and innovation to “make an outsized contribution” to addressing global problems.
This did not just apply to multinationals. Most of the 12,700 companies signed up to the UN Global Compact – a voluntary initiative, of which Paul is a vice-chair, based on CEO commitments to support the SDGs – were SMEs, he added, with many “taking enormous action” on climate change.
“I think the smart ones – which are very close and often much closer to society than these big companies that become very internally focused – the smart ones are really making use of the situation, which I think actually has more possibilities for SMEs, rather than less.”
As well as putting long-term purpose “at the heart” of their business model, Paul argued that business leaders should aim to create “net-positive companies”: in other words, ensuring that all activity aimed to “restore our relationship with people and planet”. That included taking responsibility for so-called ‘scope 3’ greenhouse gas emissions – those caused by a company indirectly through their value chain.
“Too many companies still today think they can outsource their value chain and also outsource their responsibilities. That doesn't happen anymore, that’s not allowed anymore.”
If we’re to ‘build back better’ or work towards a fairer, greener and more equitable society post-COVID, it’s time we recognise the crucial role that business must play. It’s not enough for companies to wait for government legislation that forces change. We have the capacity to lead that change ourselves today.
Business and society, like humans and nature, are not separate from each other, they are one and the same - interlinked and interdependent. The decisions we take in our businesses have a direct impact on the wellbeing of our people and planet. We must now challenge all our assumptions and ask - is what we did yesterday fit for today?
Read the full interview here.
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