INTERVIEW: Raconteur/ The Times – Compassionate CEO: Paul Polman on repaying business’s debt to society

Unilever’s former boss wants to transform the private sector by persuading all corporate leaders to create purpose-driven enterprises. He shares his vision of a ‘net positive’ commercial world

Paul Polman is on a mission. The core message he wants to spread is that business needs to be a force for good. It should nurture nature and give back to society. Why? Because doing so is not only morally incumbent but also better for the bottom line. 

“Covid has highlighted the relationships between biodiversity and human health, inequality and the economy. The pandemic’s enormous costs have demonstrated clearly that inaction is more expensive than action,” he says, adding that Earth Overshoot Day – the date each year on which we’ve consumed more resources than the planet can replenish – was 29 July in 2021. “Every day after that point, we’re stealing from future generations.”

Polman is surely the right person to rally the corporate community around the sustainability banner. For one thing, he has credibility. Having held senior roles at consumer giants Nestlé and Procter & Gamble, he became CEO of Unilever in 2009. During his 10-year tenure, it became a purpose-driven company. Its achievements ranged from cutting the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by its manufacturing processes by 65% to attaining a gender-balanced workplace in which women occupied 51% of management roles. 

Since stepping down from Unilever in 2019, Polman has sought to share his experience and spread his ethos. First, he founded Imagine, a social enterprise that works with CEOs and leadership teams to “put purpose at the heart of their strategy”. Then he worked with sustainability guru Andrew Winston to write a book entitled Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take, which has just been published.

Net Positive is a manifesto of sorts that outlines how businesses can “thrive by giving more than they take”.

Polman explains: “At Unilever, it wasn’t enough to say: ‘Oh, we’re feeding people.’ We also needed to tackle problems such as obesity and deforestation. We believe that the business community should take ownership of its negative effects on society. This requires a mindset shift and strong leadership.” 

Such a mentality is starting to permeate the private sector, he notes. Walmart has pledged to become a “regenerative” company, for instance, while cosmetics firm Natura has set targetsto protect biodiversity in the Amazon and defend human rights in its supply chain. Clothes retailer H&M is working to recycle the water it uses. 

But these early adopters are too few, says Polman. “It needs all of us.” 

As his book explains, a company needs to plan for the long term if it’s to go beyond CSR box-ticking and actually reverse its negative impact on the planet. This entails setting genuine goals, preferably based on scientifically backed targets; establishing a programme of giving back (Unilever has donated millions of its hygiene products to Unicef, for instance); and measuring not only financial performance, but also aspects such as employee wellbeing or, indeed, “anything the company values and wants to change”. 

But most companies are still hampered by short-termism and a myopic focus on shareholder value, which often contributes to their decline, according to Polman, who points out that the average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P500 has fallen to a mere 17 years.