20. 12. 2018

Paul Polman: Role Model for Today and Tomorrow

There are few positions in society more rarified than that of a FTSE 100 CEO. The financial rewards are staggering, and out of all proportion to the task in hand, however successfully that task may be prosecuted. The power they have is not limitless, but it is so far-reaching as to seduce far too many of them into self-aggrandising behaviours. Given the state of the world as it is today, most of them know how important it is to prioritise long-term value creation over short-term profit maximisation, but most of them seem to find a regular excuse to shirk that challenge.

And the opportunities to use their position to ‘do the right thing’, to make that company’s employees feel good about, and properly rewarded for, the work they do, to treat suppliers and partners responsibly and ethically, and to resist externalising that company’s costs onto the environment and future generations, are legion. Yet those opportunities are rarely seized with the kind of full-on commitment that is now so urgently required.

Historians of this 40-year period of neo-liberal, kleptocratic capitalism, will therefore be harsh in their criticism of the vast majority of CEOs who did little if anything to mitigate its worst excesses, let alone to start changing course much more fundamentally.

Paul Polman, outgoing CEO of Unilever, will attract less criticism than any of his peers. For ten years, he’s been ‘out there’ testing the boundaries, challenging the received ‘wisdom’ of today’s capital markets, unequivocally acknowledging the existential challenge of accelerating climate change, reaching out to countless NGOs and civil society organisations to help Unilever grapple with these enormous challenges, and powerfully legitimising the role of the UN through his unstinting commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s an impressive record, giving real meaning to the notion of purpose-driven ‘corporate sustainability’, as something so much more substantive than the platitudinous delusions of corporate social responsibility.

Forum for the Future is fortunate in that we have many Partners who share that commitment to corporate sustainability, but no other individual business leader has so eloquently articulated the need for a different kind of capitalism. Indeed, his advocacy at the time of the hostile takeover bid for Unilever from Kraft Heinz (who he memorably described as ‘the barbarians at the gate’) was critically important, pointing indirectly to the asset-stripping, profiteering venality of so many of today’s so-called ‘business leaders’. That advocacy was made all the more convincing by Unilever’s financial performance over the last ten years, comfortably outstripping the FTSE 100 and other measures in terms of Total Shareholder Return.

Paul was appointed in 2008; in 2010, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) was launched, decoupling Unilever’s future growth from its environmental footprint. By almost universal recognition, the USLP has become the most significant and impactful sustainability strategy of any multinational company today. There’s a huge amount still to do, of course, and many gaps still to be filled in terms of the USLP’s 2020 targets, but as a long-serving member of the Unilever Advisory Council, it’s been so encouraging to see how the Plan has continued to evolve throughout those years, with more and more emphasis on today’s most pressing socio-economic challenges.

His message to Unilever’s brands has become clearer and clearer throughout that time: if you want to thrive in today’s world, find a compelling, socially-relevant purpose beyond the product itself, and drive that purpose as hard and as creatively as you possibly can. And the proof can certainly be found in this particular pudding: last year, Unilever’s ‘sustainable living brands’ grew 46% faster than the rest of the business, and delivered 70% of its overall revenue growth.

Paul has been a commanding presence in the world of corporate sustainability. He’s inspired so many to raise their game, and will be much missed. At a personal level, it’s been a privilege to share a small part of that leadership story through Forum for the Future’s deep and continuing partnership with Unilever. It’s more than a little comforting to know that his successor, Alan Jope, shares Paul’s passion and determination to help rescue contemporary capitalism from its own worst tendencies.

And that’s the nub of it: Unilever’s relative success in reconciling commercial competitiveness with genuinely sustainable wealth creation still falls far short of what will be required of all multinational companies over the next decade. It’s the overall financial and economic system that has to change, and no company on its own will be able to make a big enough impact in that regard without seeking to transform the sectors of which they are a part on a much more collaborative and radical basis.

So, a quick message to all those in the business world who found it difficult, on news of Paul’s retirement, to acknowledge this track record, let alone to recognise his massive contribution in pointing out the importance of developing a smarter, more inclusive and sustainable model of capitalism: just suck it up! You’ve not seen anything yet.
 

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