Five of Paul Polman’s tips for being an effective sustainability leader

Pictured: Paul Polman. Image copyright: Mark Lacey for edie

Polman, who headed up Unilever from 2009 to 2018, delivered the opening keynote speech to a packed auditorium on the second day of edie 23 this Thursday (2 March).

He was tasked with delivering a keynote speech on ‘why business-as-usual is a ticking time bomb’, taking stock of the gap between reality, ambition and action on the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. This speech was also a chance for Polman to impart some calls to action on how professionals can work to close these gaps, with practical and inspiring steps that can be taken even in – and especially in – the context of the multitude of global challenges in 2023.

Here, we summarise five key takeaways from Polman’s rousing speech.

  1. The problems are moving faster than the solutions, so think exponentially

Polman began his speech by stating that he prefers the term  “ticking time bomb for our planet” to either “permacrisis” (“a period of insecurity that goes on for a long time”) or “polycrisis” (“many depressing factors combining to create one big, alarming super-situation”).

This is because, he elaborated, we know that there are tipping points and planetary boundaries approaching faster than we have expected and which we cannot come back from.

Polman said: “In industry after industry, our continual appetite for a linear growth pattern – the way we continue to create wealth and define GDP – creates problems that are faster than the solutions we are implementing. I would argue that the gap is actually increasing.

“The reason behind that, I think, is very simple. It is that human beings, whether in the shorter-term or longer-term, apply linear thinking to problems that are exponential.”

Polman noted that exponential problems are social as well as environmental. A social example would be the fact that the wealth of the average billionaire increased by $7bn over the 12 months leading up to May 2021 – the most dramatic annual surge ever registered. At the same time, the pandemic pushed back progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relating to things like education, sanitation and healthcare for the world’s poorest.

The only way to adequately respond to exponential situations, Polman said, is to think and act exponentially to deliver solutions. This is similar to a point made by Nigel Topping at edie 23, who argued that too many leaders look at past linear trends and, in doing so, fail to predict future exponential trends – whether positive (huge growth in clean energy) or negative (ecosystem breakdown).

Polman said: “We definitely have to step up… my challenge is, with what you do today, and scale it up five or tenfold. Even if we have barriers today, we have to get ourselves into that different mindset.”

  1. Recognise how far the sustainable business movement has come, but do not get complacent

Polman went on to discuss how, because sustainability professionals see such an immense set of challenges to face as they look to the future, they can often gloss over how much progress has already been made.

He said that, when he took the helm at Unilever in 2009, it was hard to find a qualified sustainability professional. When businesses did have such professionals, he added, they were rarely given the agency, budget, training or teams needed to deliver anything beyond additional ‘nice-to-have’ projects. Now, he said, these professionals are “in the middle of the boardroom and the strategy”.

While Polman believes that the sustainable business conversation has “progressed more in the last two or three years than in the past 20”, he added: “There is progress, but herein lies the danger – probably the biggest danger that we have, that I sense. Every week, I talk to 10-15 CEOs. Every year, I work with hundreds of them. There is this false sense of ‘I am working much harder and faster than my predecessor. We are bending the curve faster than we’ve ever bent it before. So, the problem is not us any more.’”

This comes at a time when every organisation needs to be leveraging all its capabilities for exponential change.

  1. Ditch incrementalism

To deliver exponential solutions, Polman argued, businesses have to go beyond pledges not grounded in science regarding things like reducing pollution, emissions or deforestation.

He said: “Most companies now a sustainability report, and I read many of them. But all of them talk about doing less bad…. It does not work anymore. We need to move from CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to RSC (Responsible Social Corporation). The only thing that now works is to think regenerative, restorative, reparative.”

He posed two questions to audience members. Firstly, he asked how their businesses profit from solving the world’s problems, not creating them”. He then asked professionals to question “whether the world is better off because [their] company is in it”.

He also shared a personal anecdote on making bold commitments, stating: “If I regret anything from my ten years at Unilever – and there are always many things, when you think back, that you could have done differently – it is that we were not ambitious enough. People already said we were crazy in what we were promising.”

Under Polman’s leadership, Unilever developed its first strategy linking environmental performance and social impact with the business’s financials – the Sustainable Living Plan. The Plan was implemented in 2010 and, four years later, Unilever reported that brands contributing most significantly to its ambitions had grown two times faster than its portfolio average.

  1. Start with mindsets

Polman said that “we have the tools, we have the technologies, and we frankly have the money to implement” all 17 SDGs. What he believes we are missing is the right mindset.

He said: “I’ve talked about climate change, deforestation, food insecurity… but these are symptoms. I think the real problems we need to address are of greed, of apathy, of selfishness.”

It will take time to change these mindsets in political circles, Polman argued – especially in a situation where lobbying still has such a sway over policy, particularly in the US. And, as noted above, especially when political leaders look at past linear activity to discount emerging solutions on an exponential growth curve.

He said: “We always have to be mindful… that there will be pushback. There will be vested interests that do not want us to succeed. And, the more we move forward, the more we see these tipping points getting closer with things like solar, electric vehicles, wind, regenerative agriculture, the more the voices of vested interests are going to speak up.”

But Polman urged everyone listening to begin with their own mindset: “The bigger risk, in my opinion, is our own fatigue, our own beliefs about whether we can get there or not.

“I always like to quote my good friend Christiana Figueres… she always says that impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude, and our attitudes are fully under our own control. Giving up, frankly, is giving in.”

Even if the SDGs are met late, Polman argued, it is still worth meeting them. Likewise, if we fail to cap the global temperature increase at 1.5C, every fraction of a degree still matters.

There was an important note about managing one’s own wellbeing before digging more deeply to work harder. Polman said: “You can’t be a sustainable or purposeful company if you are not sustainable or purposeful yourself… the personal and leadership transformation underpins the transformation of your company and then your industry and, ultimately, society.”

  1. Accept and embrace our interconnected nature

Should professionals wish to change their own mindset and care for their own wellbeing, Polman emphasised, they should not try to do so in isolation as a means of improving their own skillsets and lifestyles. He explained that, due to the pandemic, there is now a higher awareness of the intersections between social, environmental and public health problems and solutions.

Polman urged those listening to not simply intellectualize about these intersections, and instead to “rise to a higher level of consciousness and realise, once more, that we begin to humanity”, adding: “Self-sufficiency is an abolsute illusion. Until we embrace the realities of our connectedness, I believe we will continue to bear the worse consequences.”

Polman did have a book recommendation here: Values for a Life Economy, which was co-authored by his wife Kim and by Anthony Bennett. These values, such as compassion, Polman said, are “not normally talked about in business” for fear that the speaker will “look soft”.

A practical way of appreciating human connection is to think about the impact of decisions – personal, business-level and political – in terms of the legacy they will leave for future generations. Unborn generations, Polman said, are the “stakeholders who are never in the room”, but whom key decisions will impact the most.

We have already seen some businesses giving nature a seat at the board. Perhaps, in years to come, future generations will be, too. For now, a handful of pioneering businesses are taking steps such as appointing youth or shadow boards, or consulting with youth activists.

Comments (3)

  1. ian Calvert says:

    Well said Paul, you are spot on. Humans can deal with any issue as long as they believe and make the effort.

  2. Fred Moraillon says:

    The solutions to all the sustainable development goals already exist. Sometimes they exist in one part of the world and not the other, so communication is crucial. Sometimes they need money, so businesses are crucial. Sometimes they’re local so we, the people, are crucial. And if the politician eventually find the political will to join in, most probably when they realise that this change is serving them, then they can become useful, but not crucial. The change is happening with or without them.

  3. Richard Phillips says:

    And there must be valid science behind all solutions,
    Every one.
    Business solutions are not sufficient on their own.
    Richard Phillips

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