Paul Polman to step down as Unilever chief executive

Unilever's chief executive Paul Polman, who has been synonymous with corporate sustainability leadership over the last decade, will retire from the consumer goods giant at the end of 2018.

Polman, who has worked as Unilever’s chief executive for more than 10 years, will be replaced by the firm’s Beauty & Personal Care division president Alan Jope on 1 January 2019. Polman will support the transition process for the first six months of the year.

“It has been an honour to lead Unilever over the last 10 years,” Polman said. “Throughout this time, I have been humbled by the commitment and hard work of our people, and their passion for creating a truly purpose-driven company. I am very grateful to them, as I am to Unilever’s many other stakeholders, with whom we have worked to build our long-term, sustainable business.

“I look forward to engaging with many of these partners – in a different capacity – to help address the many environmental and social challenges facing the world.”

Polman is revered within the sustainability sphere for transforming Unilever into a CSR behemoth that is constantly viewed as the exemplar for corporate sustainability. He notably championed Unilever’s Sustainable Living strategy.

The Dutch-Anglo firm has consistently proved the business case through this strategy, with the firm’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounting for a record 70% of turnover growth last year, and growing 46% faster than the rest of the business.

Polman spent his tenure as chief executive advocating for climate action and was a firm believer that business could accelerate the global decarbonisation process to help nations hit national climate targets. He has welcomed the appointment of Jope.

“I congratulate Alan on his appointment and look forward to working with him on the transition. Having worked closely with Alan for many years, I am highly confident that under his leadership, Unilever will prosper long into the future,” Polman added. “His appointment demonstrates the strength of Unilever’s succession planning and talent pipeline.”

Transitional period

The announcement will likely spark a period of transition for Unilever. Polman and Unilever’s chairman Marijn Dekkers recently had to scrap plans to move the company’s headquarters to the Netherlands due to shareholder pressure.

Elsewhere, goals related to water consumption and manufacturing waste and carbon levels are also approaching a 2020 deadline, with new goals expected to be announced in the coming years.

The company is currently working on a new set of targets and has engaged with more than 40,000 of its employees to prioritise action areas that are important to them. The results will be used to co-create Unilever’s future agenda.

Commenting on the announcement, Jope added: “It will be a huge privilege to lead Unilever – a truly global company full of talented people, and brilliant brands. Over the 30 years, I have worked at Unilever, I have seen the many ways in which our brands improve people’s lives, positively impacting more than two billion citizens every day.

“Our global footprint includes strong positions in many important markets for the future and our focus will remain on serving our consumers, and our other multiple stakeholders, to deliver long-term growth and value creation.”

Unilever at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 

Unilever’s global vice president of sustainable business Katren Hamilton will be appearing at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum next year to discuss brand purpose and giving business growth a new meaning.

The two-day event, taking place 5 & 6 February 2019 at the Building Design Centre, London, will also include debates on how to solve the plastics crisis and the state of corporate action on sustainable packaging. 

For more information and to register for the Forum, click here.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie