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Our Insights 27 Jun 2012

The World Needs more Paul Polmans

By Geoff Lye

Copyright (c) Unilever

It looks as though Unilever’s Paul Polman decided to take Rio very seriously and has been an active participant in many events here. If anyone doubts his sincerity, they would just need to hear him talk about how the current market system has failed so many on this planet. He spoke at Rio+20 at an event organised by Avoided Deforestation Partners. APD’s founder, Jeff Horowitz is an amazingly self-deprecating man who has had a major influence on the movement to have forests valued as natural capital and thereby avoid deforestation. He pulled together an array of celebrities and business leaders including Paul Polman, Bianca Jagger, Edward Norton, Lisa Jackson (the first woman to head the EPA) and Richard Branson. But the star was Jane Goodall who flew in from Istanbul just four hours before the event and stole the show.

Three protestors leapt up to interrupt Richard Branson who was invited to talk about his own interests and activities in the deforestation space. They spent three minutes essentially denouncing the Green Economy developments in Rio as selling out nature to the markets and specifically criticising Branson’s Carbon War Room. Bianca Jagger also leapt up, not to protest (though her speech suggested sympathy with their basic sentiments) but to take photographs of the protesters. Eventually, they left quietly and Branson kicked off with word to the effect that he actually agreed with most of their points.

But back to Paul Polman. He talked with a few notes, but made many asides which showed his true feelings on the state of the planet and society. In neither of the speeches I heard did he push the Unilever story. He made more of the challenges we all face and the need for fundamental change. His style is far more personal than corporate and he wears his values on his sleeve.
An interesting point Polman made as an aside was that putting the word ‘illegal’ in front of something to describe an environmental issue like logging or deforestation appears to make consumers more concerned and likely to change their purchasing behaviour. ‘Maybe it is time’ he said ’to talk about climate change as illegal climate change’ in order to stir public interest.

His asides were actually the most interesting aspects of his contributions. For example, at one point he noted that disruptions can be created by 10-15 people. He cited the Arab Spring which began with less than 10 people – overturning a 40 year old regime in just 17 days. ‘I say to irresponsible companies…if you can bring down an irresponsible regime in 17 days, you can bring down an irresponsible company in a nano-second.’

Most telling, perhaps, was his reflection on our current form of capitalism. He said with real conviction: ‘it is impossible that we live in a world where this form of capitalism has brought us enormous wealth…but also enormous ills. It is absolutely unacceptable that 950 million go to bed hungry every night; it is unacceptable that every six seconds a child dies; it is unacceptable that 2.5 billion have no access to hygiene and water; and it is unacceptable that we already use one and a half times the world’s resources.’

He talked too of the cost of climate change to Unilever. His estimate is that it has cost the company at least €250 million already.

I have often said that if the top 1,000 corporations’ CEOs emulated Polman, we would not need UN interventions and that we could really shift the needle in terms of positive economic, social and environmental outcomes. My experience of him in Rio – allied to the abject failure of world leaders to deliver any advance on the 1992 agenda – reaffirms SustainAbility’s commitment to pushing for transformative change through the corporate sector.

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