WATCH: Paul Polman’s inspiring Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech

EXCLUSIVE: edie's Lifetime Achievement Award-winner and former Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has issued a rallying cry for businesses to take corporate responsibility onto the next level by collaboratively ramping up climate action and championing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Polman, who stepped down from Unilever at the end of 2018, was the official Guest of Honour and winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards in London on Wednesday evening (6 February).

Delivering an opening address to an Awards audience of more than 600 sustainability, energy and environment professionals, Polman implored all business to move the dial on corporate social responsibility and begin to focus on developing entirely responsible and social entities.

“The work that we’re doing has never been more important,” Polman said. “We’re at a crucial moment in the history of humankind, with runaway climate change probably being the most important issue we need to tackle.

“Business should be a force for good, there should be no other option… Purpose-driven brands that focus on [sustainable] development are doing better… Long-term is the best model – it is the only model that works. Business thrives when it serves all the stakeholders, whether its citizens, employees, partners or the extended value chain.

“It is time to move from ‘CSR’ to ‘RSC’ – responsible, social corporations. The citizens of this world are demanding it. ‘Less bad’, which is still in the CSR camp, is no longer good enough.”

‘Will power’

As Unilever chief executive, Polman certainly walked the walk; demonstrating that a long-term, multi-stakeholder model – as captured in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – can indeed go hand-in-hand with good financial performance. During his tenure, Unilever became one of the best-performing companies in its sector, delivering 10 years of consistent top and bottom-line growth.

However, Polman used his speech to attendees and fellow Award-winners to urge businesses to move beyond decoupling economic growth from emissions, noting the need for corporates to become “regenerative”.

“With some public policy, international collaboration and enlightened leadership, we can simultaneously achieve strong economic growth as well as greater inclusion and rapid progress towards a zero-emission society,” he added. “We have the means to realise these objectives. What is missing is human will power, which is itself a renewable resource.”

As the current chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and The B Team, and vice-chair of the UN Global Compact, Polman remains a leading proponent that business can – and should – be a force for good. 

On the night, Polman said he was “honoured” to receive the Sustainability Leaders Lifetime Achievement Award, before concluding that the SDGs are now the “most exciting agenda in the world”, not only for the economic opportunities that are possible, but for a focus on humanity and ensuring that “no one is left behind”.

Paul Polman’s four CRITICAL messages for all businesses:

Polman ended his acceptance speech with four “critical points” that he believes all business should champion now and in the future:

1) Do things differently – “We need to redefine what critical boundaries look like and work in a much higher degree of partnership to reach these tipping points. It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

2) Turn the volume up – Polman called on business to get vocal in demanding new policies are introduced that enable an accelerated transition to a green economy.

3) Put people first – Polman said that behind every stat was an individual and that people were suffering because of a collective “ineptitude to take action”. He called on attendees to be courageous when putting people at the heart to everything a business does.

4) Take individual responsibilities – Alluding to the old proverb No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, Polman said that individual actions can change the world and kickstart new agendas. It is the role of the sustainability professional to step up, he said.

… And, for any sustainability professional that feels the task at hand is too daunting, Polman did have one final message: “If any of us think that they are too small to make a difference, I encourage you to go to bed with a mosquito in the room and you’ll see the difference! I can only ask you to ramp up your ambitions, set your goals high and hopefully we can create a world one day where we leave no one behind.”


Matt Mace

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