Paul Polman: Why partnerships and purpose are critical to business survival

EXCLUSIVE: Businesses that are built on longer-term, multi-stakeholder models and have a strong purpose at their core will be much better placed to recover from the coronavirus crisis, Unilever's former chief executive Paul Polman has told edie.

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Capping off a week of high-level #SustyTalk interviews recorded during edie’s Net-Zero Week (18-22 May), Polman – who now works as co-founder of the sustainability foundation IMAGINE – also said he believes there is a “lack of leadership” at a political level when it comes to driving a green recovery from the pandemic.

Speaking to edie from his home in Geneva, Polman said: “The sustainable recovery that we need doesn't only lead to a better world but it is the best way to get out of this – studies are showing that it creates more jobs, better jobs, and more secure jobs.

“The companies that are going to survive will be those that can work in partnership, where the leaders take more responsibility than what would be defined by their own self-interests... What I learnt in my 10 years in Unilever is that multi-stakeholder, longer-term business models are ultimately good for the shareholders as well. I also think that putting the SDGs at the centre of a purpose-driven business model is very profitable.”

Business leaders also have a key role to play in engaging with policymakers around the benefits of green growth, Polman said, if they want to seize the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to rewire our economies and our societies for the better.

'Moment to redesign'

“It is very clear in fighting this crisis that the government's bandwidth is very narrow and there's not much long-term thinking or global co-operation,” he said. “It's easier to go back to where we came from – people are talking about 'restarting' the economy again. But that would be a tragedy. We need to ensure government leaders are being given the right information and that they hear loudly and clearly from civil society and the private sector, that this is a moment to redesign.

“With the challenge that we have, it would be too simplistic to only put that burden on the politicians alone... We all have a responsibility to play to help move this political process forward.”

In the wide-ranging, 30-minute interview, Polman went on to discuss the ‘green recovery’ opportunities that lie ahead for Britain’s smaller and medium-sized businesses. SMEs have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, with experts estimating that up to 30% of them could disappear from our economy entirely due to financial difficulties.

“There are many things SMEs can be actively doing in their industries, alone and together,” Polman said. “The companies that will do best are those that adapt very quickly, are innovative and agile – and they’re often the smaller companies that can jump on the opportunities that are being presented. 

“[SMEs] need to be ready to operate in a way that consumers accept – 90% of consumers don't want to go back to where we came from and increasingly they want to buy from companies that are responsible, both socially and environmentally.”

Gathering evidence

Speaking directly to edie’s audience of in-house sustainability and CSR professionals, Polman advised them to “bear with your management and understand their pressures for the time being”, but also to be ready to engage with them around the benefits of the green recovery.

“The first step for sustainability officers is to engage with HR departments and management around purpose,” Polman said. “The second thing is to bring the data... If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that it is time for ESG [environmental and social governance]; it is time for more responsible, sustainable, long-term business models.

“You would be well-served to gather that evidence and inject it into the company so that the thinking gets to the board level.”

Polman stressed that CEOs alone “can only do so much” when it comes to achieving a sustainable future for the planet, and it was for this reason that he founded IMAGINE upon leaving Unilever last year. Polman explained that he and his fellow IMAGINE co-founder Jeff Seabright – Unilever’s former chief sustainability officer – are now "working to bring CEOs together to help them become more courageous and achieve the sustainable change we need at pace and at scale".

After delivering 10 years of consistent top and bottom-line growth with Unilever, Polman was announced as the Lifetime Achievement Award at edie’s 2019 Sustainability Leaders Awards. You can watch his inspiring acceptance speech from that awards ceremony here. In addition to his work with IMAGINE, Polman is chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and The B Team, and vice-chair of the UN Global Compact.

Watch more #SustyTalk video interviews here.


edie's Net-Zero Week 2020

This #SustyTalk interview with Paul Polman was hosted during off edie's Net-Zero Week 2020 (18-22 May) – a themed week of online content and events dedicated to supporting sustainability, energy and resource efficiency professionals on their journey to net-zero, and beyond. 

As well as exclusive interviews, features, reports and blogs, the Week includes three online events on the themes of business leadership (19 May), energy management (20 May) and resource efficiency (21 May).

View all of our Net-Zero Week content here.


edie staff



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