19 Sep 2019 Story Climate change

Paul Polman: the Dutch trailblazer on a mission to redesign business to save the planet

Paul Polman’s words come in a rush and it’s little wonder. The former head of consumer goods giant Unilever believes the world needs to totally redesign the way growth and financial success are measured to unlock the potential of a sustainable future. And that’s a task that should have started yesterday.

“When an oil spill grows your gross domestic product while keeping your water clean doesn’t help your gross domestic product, there’s something fundamentally wrong,” said the Dutch businessman whose pioneering policies put sustainability and social good at the heart of Unilever’s corporate strategy.

“We need to redesign what well-being looks like and create other measures of success. It also means we have to look at different patterns of production, which would be patterns of growth and wealth creation that don’t use the same amount of resources,” he said.

During more than a decade as Chief Executive Officer of Unilever, Polman always dared to do things differently, working to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and increase Unilever’s positive social impact. He was recognized with a Champions of the Earth award, the United Nation’s top environmental honour, in 2015 for his entrepreneurial vision.

Polman officially stepped down as CEO at the beginning of the year but he is continuing his mission to put sustainability at the heart of global business models. He is Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce and The B Team, Vice-Chair of the UN Global Compact and Co-Chair of the Food and Land Use Coalition, among other roles.

If anything, his passion has intensified because he knows time is running short.

“The challenge we have is the speed and scale at which we are moving; we are not moving fast enough,” he said. “I’ve always called this a crisis of morality, and the real question we have to ask is: do we really care? I believe we have many of the answers to solve the issues of water shortage, climate change or food security and yet we are collectively unable to move at the speed and scale that we need.”

Polman says that although many businesses and citizens have grasped the need for urgent action, some governments are still dragging their feet.

“Very few countries are upping their national commitments (to cut emissions) to a scale that is sufficient, and very few countries of scale have put forward plans that are sufficient to stay at 1.5˚C or what we call net zero by 2050,” he said.

Polman hopes that global leaders will show more ambition at a pivotal United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged world leaders, businesses and civil society to come to the summit with concrete ideas of how they will cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next decade and achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We need to get higher ambitions and we need to understand the urgency of these ambitions,” Polman says. “Even staying below 2 ˚C requires us to cut absolute carbon emissions by 40 per cent over the next 20 years. And if you take into account a doubling of the global economy over that period, you actually need, per unit of output, about an 80 per cent reduction.”

Paul Polman

Given that some governments are reluctant to drive the necessary radical change, Polman says other sectors of society must step up and essentially de-risk the process by showing that voters, businesses and others are ready to embrace that transformation.

There are signs that this is happening: states and cities are working together to tackle climate change while some industries are reinventing their core businesses, for example car manufacturers seeking to phase out combustion engines.

“The private sector and civil society need to get together and create these tipping points of having 20 to 30 per cent of the market on board because they see the enormous economic potential of it… More initiative needs to come from outside governments to galvanize governments to change,” Polman said.

Financial markets also need to play their part and Polman says that is happening with, for example, initiatives such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures.

For this former business tycoon, the figures don’t lie. He cites last year’s report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, which he co-chairs; it calculated that the global economy could be boosted by about US$26 trillion by 2030 by transitioning to a cleaner, more sustainable world economy.

“With limited investment, estimated at 1 or 2 per cent of gross domestic product, we can not only avoid disaster but more importantly probably embark on the biggest economic and job growth opportunity we’ve ever seen,” he said.

To help firms seize these new opportunities, Polman is working directly with the business community through IMAGINE—his new foundation and for-benefit corporation. IMAGINE aims to create positive tipping points within industries to spur faster action on climate change and inequality to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Paul Polman

Polman set up IMAGINE in July alongside businesswoman Valerie Keller and Jeff Seabright, Unilever’s former chief sustainability officer, and the idea is to work with “leading CEOs” across the value chain to unite and develop specific targets for change.

Already, IMAGINE was involved in bringing together more than 30 global fashion companies, including Kering—the owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen—as well as H&M and Zara’s parent company to agree a global pact to fight climate change and do more to protect the planet’s vital ecosystems.

Polman says those involved represent over 30 per cent of the fashion industry, adding that at that level, governments start to take notice. IMAGINE’s role is to create a neutral space for these kinds of deals to be achieved, he said.

Polman counts environmental defenders, indigenous peoples and the motivated youth among his climate champions but he hopes to soon be able to add business leaders, who transform their industries to deliver sustainable development, to that list.

For Polman, the power of the individual to bring about change is paramount.

“The thing we need is willpower and that itself is a renewable resource. That’s why I always say we need more leaders and more trees if we want to solve the world’s issues.”