Paul Polman: Businesses must champion sustainability in era of ‘short-sighted’ politics

Unilever's chief executive Paul Polman has called on the business community to deliver the low-carbon transition during a period of "short-sighted" politics, while business leaders from McDonald's, SC Johnson and C&A have advised that consumer trust must be at the heart of action.

Speaking at the Responsible Business Summit in London via video-link today (7 June), Polman urged fellow business leaders to align strategies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to highlight the economic benefits of placing long-term value over short-term gains.

“We live in a fragile political environment, and actions around the world are threatening to change our course,” Polman said. “Politics is becoming increasingly short-term, or should I say short-sighted, and it’s more important than ever that we as businesses stand up and engage with society.

“We need to give politicians the confidence to reaffirm their commitments. Responsible business makes good economic sense, creates new environments and drives growth. We should use our influence and skill to highlight the urgency of the problems we face and convince investors of the economic case for long-term value creation and to give confidence to politicians to deliver a fairer and more sustainable world.”

The video message was pre-recorded before President Donald Trump revealed that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. However, Polman noted that political uncertainty shouldn’t deter businesses from pursuing the SDGs, which could unlock market opportunities of up to $12trn annually and create 380m new jobs by 2030.

Although Polman called for swift business actions, delegates at the event warned that “bold and fast” commitments could become susceptible to greenwashing and alienate consumers who aren’t convinced by brand purpose.

Ethically-alert consumers

Cleaning products manufacturer SC Johnson has involved its consumers with its sustainability initiatives to build trust. The company pledged to match donations made by consumers towards protecting 5,000 acres of the Amazon Rainforest.

The “acre-to-acre” pledge was launched in February 2017 and has already been met, with 10,000 acres now under protection. SC Johnson’s senior vice president of sustainability Kelly Semrau was speaking at the business summit, and claimed that “ethically-alert” consumers won’t believe in statements and intent unless action can be witnessed.

“Nowadays the goodwill of consumers is easier to lose,” Semrau said. “Mislead them even once and the company can count itself lucky if it gets a second chance. If customer trust is the goal, only a policy of complete transparency will get you there.

“Whenever any course of action seems plainly like the right thing to do, that settles the business question. What’s at stake is a loss of trust and in business that is the ultimate risk. When information is rationed or withheld, people tend to assume the worst, transparency is a great quality in people and it is a great quality in corporations.”

Semrau noted that greenwashing was a common occurrence in SC Johnson’s sector, and that it had “diluted” consumer trust. However, if brands can be seen to be actively doing the right thing, consumers will join them on that journey.

In the 1970s, SC Johnson was selling antiperspirants in the UK that had CFCs in them. A boardroom decision was made to remove the product, and even though losses were incurred in “short-term market shares”, Semrau claimed that “gains could be counted in long-term goodwill”.

Joining Semrau at the summit was McDonald’s vice president for corporate relations Julian Hilton-Johnson and fashion company C&A’s chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue.

Hilton-Johnson warned that a lot of companies wanted to act on the sustainability agenda quickly, but that they could often lose sight of what their customers want to see improvements on.

“Clearly, a lot of companies want to be bold and move fast, but there is a natural conflict and a tendency to for companies with the best intentions to move fast,” Hilton-Johnson said. “We’ve learnt that the process has to be very well thought through so that you have a clear understanding of what your key customer groups think about it.”

When McDonald’s first embarked on its sustainability journey, Hilton-Johnson claimed that energy-efficiency was the key focus area. However, the firm’s 70m daily customers wanted more action on litter and packaging.

In response, all European-sourced packaging is now sourced from chain-of-custody certified wood fibre, while McDonald’s paper cups are being recycled at scale into reclaimed fibre can then be used in everything from brochures and stationery to designer gift boxes.

Competition or collaboration

However, C&A’s chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue suggested that sustainability shouldn’t be viewed as a competition, and companies should instead focus on opening initiatives to be used by the wider market and rivals.

“I find it weird that we try to compete on sustainability,” Hogue said. “I can’t quite get my head around it, creating better communities for people is something we should all be doing. The trust equation for us is to catalyse the industry, put the risk on the table and hope that others come with us on this step.”

The C&A Foundation supports the cross-industry initiative, Cotton 2040, aimed at turning sustainable cotton into a mainstream commodity. The firm was also ranked alongside Ikea and H&M as one of the few companies delivering on pledges to sustainable source cotton.

C&A recently launched the first cradle-to-cradle certified t-shirt, but rather than promote it for a competitive edge, C&A has offered the blueprints of the product free of charge to rivals so that more consumers can benefit.

Matt Mace

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