How Paul Polman wants to change the world - Part 2

08 Oct 2019

How Paul Polman wants to change the world - Part 2

Paul Polman, former CEO Unilever CEO, talks to Odgers Berndtson’s OBSERVE about his new sustainability venture IMAGINE in the second part of this in-depth interview.

OBSERVE: Your new venture, IMAGINE, plans to work with companies to press ahead for greater sustainability. You also say that you will invest an unspecified amount of your own funds in the project. Do you not think that it is the role of government and business to fund these urgent programmes rather than leaving it to individuals?

PP: Given the scale of the challenges we face – climate change, plastics in our seas, deforestation, the extinction crisis and gross inequality – it’s evident that everyone must play their part, however big or small.

Private sector leaders have a key role to play. That’s where IMAGINE will focus its time and efforts.

We will work with leading companies in key sectors and help develop and leverage heroic CEOs that have the ability to drive lasting change, not only within their own companies, but also – and more importantly – as an ambitious group that can harness their cooperation for maximum impact. It’s up to us – the “courageous collective” – to make a real difference.

I believe this will also in turn encourage braver political leadership – which is desperately needed – and more ambitious public policy. We need to create a self-reinforcing “ambition-loop” between the private and public sectors, which drives deliverable, impactful solutions.

OBSERVE: In a recent interview you said: “We are carbon junkies, exceeding many planetary boundaries and using resources well beyond the capabilities of this planet to recover.” Do you despair about the future or do you still believe that we can overcome the perilous position we are in?

PP: I think we need to be realistic about the challenges. We’ve done untold damage to our planet and we are in a fight against the clock to alter our trajectory.

I am however optimistic that we can be successful, as we already have the means to realise the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, de-carbonise our economies and drive transformational change.

We know what we need to do and have the tools to do it. This includes

  • Driving greater energy efficiency and use of renewables
  • More sustainable food systems
  • Smarter infrastructure and city planning
  • Better use of technologies
  • Deployment of circular models of growth
  • Moving financial markets to the long-term

We now need to gather our collective willpower, so we can simultaneously achieve strong economic growth, rapid progress towards net zero emissions and greater social inclusion.

OBSERVE: You say that you regard the private sector as the “main engine for change.” What evidence can you provide to support this belief?

PP: The private sector has the expertise, creativity, innovation and talent to deliver positive change. It accounts for the biggest share of GDP globally and has the financial resources to reach the tipping points needed. In fact, we won’t get there without business leadership.

Take, for example, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (link). The cost of implementing the global goals has been estimated at $3-4 trillion a year. Governments are unable to provide all this funding – indeed all overseas development aid is collectively only around $160 billion – meaning business and the financial markets must embrace this agenda. Fortunately, it’s highly attractive and promises a great return, so it’s in our own self-interest.

There are plenty of examples of great companies walking the talk.

Courageous leaders like the ‘zeronauts’, who are committing their businesses to get to net zero emissions way ahead of their peers and current policies.

As well as the 870 global companies (with almost $17 trillion in market cap) that have made bold climate commitments via the ‘We Mean Business’ platform (link), the International Chamber of Commerce, The B Team and U.N. Global Compact are also very focused on this enormous opportunity. Groups like these are forming powerful alliances, shaping markets and sending a clear signal to politicians that they are ready for bolder policy to put our economy on track for net-zero by 2050.

OBSERVE: You have said that you “ended up in business and learned that I can help more people here to improve their lives”. Is this still your belief?

PP: It absolutely is my belief. Especially if you lead a large organisation that has global reach and touches many lives.

My ambitions remain the same – I want to make the world a better place for future generations. With IMAGINE, I will be re-doubling my efforts in promoting new economic and business models that have a positive impact on society and our planet.

Read the first part of this in-depth interview with Paul Polman reflecting on his achievements as CEO at Unilever.

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