Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Business Leader Preaches Sustainability, Responsibility

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Tuesday, November 13 / 18

Zack Gross

I had the great opportunity the other day to hear
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, one of the world’s biggest companies, speak about his view of today’s world.  Polman, originally from the Netherlands, took on his position in 2009 after working with Proctor & Gamble and other consumer goods companies.  His goal as a leading global business person has been to reduce the ecological footprint of his company while creating more products with a social purpose. 

While his company has continued to grow, the recognition he is receiving is not just for profit-making, but for his leadership with the United Nations, the International Chamber of Commerce and other bodies in championing the fight against climate change and the fulfillment of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a list of 17 key areas that need our attention in order to change the direction of poverty and climate disaster, including gender equality, the state of the world’s land and water, and responsible consumption.

The occasion of his speaking was a national conference held in Edmonton but livestreamed to computers and other communications devices across the country.  Polman starts off by saying, as in the classic book, A Tale of Two Cities:  It is the best of times and the worst of times.  Not only do we in the rich world live on average better than ever, but around the world people’s health, nutrition, earning, the position of women and more have improved.  So, times are good. 

But, he says, we also live with a changing climate that is already impacting weather, property and livelihoods around the world, and where plastic in our oceans is so prevalent that some areas would have an estimated 5 recycling bags of plastic garbage per foot of coast line.  He says that we live with high debt, we over-consume and we leave people behind in our world (reminding us that Canada has not fulfilled its promised reduction of greenhouse gases).  What some people have called a financial crisis in the world since the 2008 crash, he calls a moral crisis.

While some of his critics would say that the cost of dealing with problems in our world such as gender inequality, conflict and disappearing species is too expensive, he says it is cheaper now to deal with these problems than it is to let them fester.  We are myopic he says (several times!), spending more money on cosmetics, junk foods, tobacco and military armaments than on global health, jobs and aid.  In fact, for Canada, we spend five times as much manufacturing arms than we do on our Official Development Assistance program.

Polman has harsh words for America, too.  He says that along with the Statue of Liberty, they now need to build a Statue of Responsibility and get their own house in order, as we all must.  As the SDGs were set up to do, Polman says we must all take responsibility – the rich and the poor – for the state of the world.  All countries must contribute to a better world – and a better environment.  He says that we have all the tools to bring about positive change, but need the willpower. 

We need purpose-driven leadership that not only talks, but acts.  Polman says, in our world today, we need more trees – and we also need more leaders.  There is no question that he is an excellent and charismatic orator.  I’m told that some of his talks can easily be found on the Internet.

In response to a question from the audience after his talk, about advertising, Polman points out that his company is changing its ads to not uphold traditional stereotypes.  For instance, in promoting some of the foods they sell, they will have a man in the kitchen cooking.  He says that companies have that opportunity to display new ways of thinking and doing, and modeling change. 

He also sees his soap products as a way of ensuring a healthy lifestyle.  In global society, where water is at a premium, a person needs to wash their hands quickly to the best effect. Thus, he looks for improvement in his soaps in fighting bacteria.  Finally, to another question about companies and their responsibility to society, he says that the private sector needs to pay its fair share of taxes and thereby contribute to social good.

Paul Polman is definitely a leader in pulling the private sector toward greater social and environmental responsibility.  On a global level, given the power of multinational corporations, it helps when a very successful one of their own takes such a strong stand.  Hopefully, his peers are taking notice and taking action!


Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project and now co-ordinates outreach for Fair Trade Manitoba.

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