Rio+20: Unilever CEO on the need to battle on to save the world

The Rio Earth Summit has been in progress this week – and with the political process at the summit paralysed, if not failed, Unilever’s Paul Polman has urged progressive business to show courage and leadership on the all-important issues of environmental and business sustainability. His words are chilling, inspiring, provocative and well worth heeding…

“The very essence of capitalism is under threat as business is now seen as a personal wealth accumulator. We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest. We need to fight very hard to create an environment out there that is more long term focussed and move away from short termism,” said Polman.

Polman, reports The Guardian, is clearly on a mission and says the lack of ambition shown by politicians at Rio +20 will lead to him redoubling his efforts to work with other business leaders and NGOs to seek change on a global level.

While he said the final negotiating text was a race to the bottom, the most interesting trend is the emergence of clusters of countries and companies who are prepared to just get on with creating change.

Polman does not countenance failure and shows relentless optimism even when the odds are stacked against him.

Here is what Polman has to say about the political outcomes of Rio: “We are in an inter-dependent world where unfortunately the governmental processes are very local and to internalise these global problems at the political level is proving difficult.

“Criticising never leads to anything. The final text has a lot of good elements and there is a declaration for the oceans and a starting process for the Sustainable Development Goals.

“It recognises an increasing role for business and paints a picture of green growth and a future for the world that we can relate to.”

But on the other side of the scales, Polman recognises that the text “lacks specificity, clear dates, funding and accountability.”

He says the very point of weakness within the political agreement, is where the corporate sector can step in.

“This is where business can excel,” he says. “Amongst business there is now a critical mass forming around deforestation and energy for all, as companies say we cannot continue like this.

“We are entering a very interesting period of history where the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians. The political climate is very difficult and to some extent paralysed.

“Over the next two to three years I believe there will be enough critical mass with groups of countries and companies starting tangible projects. As with many change programmes, when you create some success around some specific tangible projects, it will attract others. There are leaders and followers and laggards in everything.”

For those businesses that are not responding to the sustainability challenges of our age, Polman has a very simple message: “Short termism is very dangerous as it is five minutes to 12. You can delay but time will not, and lost time is never regained.”

For those companies who have begun to grapple with facing up to the reality that business models need to start changing, he offers encouragement: “Continue to be courageous and set the standards. Work with your consumers, because we have seen how Facebook and Twitter can bring down a regime in 17 days. Social networks are increasingly becoming more powerful. We need a critical mass of responsible leaders who are here to convert these markets.”

Polman is becoming increasingly frustrated with the role of media which itself seems to be stuck in an old paradign. He was recently interviewed by CNN and one of the questions was how could he justify any extra costs from his sustainability programme to shareholders.

“I answered how can companies who are not taking action, justify this to their shareholders and to their own families,” he says. “Just look at the figures. Unless we change direction, models show that the profit of the entire consumer goods sector could be wiped out by 2050. This is also a warning to many others.”

Polman says much more needs to be done to ensure sustainability is embedded into the financial community. While he points out that environment, social and governance criteria now account for 10% of assets held, many investments are being made by young men looking to build their careers rather than save the world.

“We need to do a better job to explain what we are doing to the investment community,” says Polman. “There is a lack of understanding and we ought to be concerned about that because these are the 25-year-olds who are investing your pension. You better start talking to them.”

Polman says the world is at a crossroads and that we can choose either to head for disaster or to work together to find common solutions: “Never have we been forewarned about what will happen and forearmed to do something about it and we must now rise to the challenge,” he says.

“The alternative? It is too late to be pessimistic. The alternative of not doing anything. I frankly cannot look my kids in the eyes and say we did not try. That is why we are here and will continue to give it our energy.”

Source: The Guardian

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