In an interview with Tax Insights, Polman stressed that Unilever’s strategy will need to evolve further in the future. How can Unilever marry profitability with sustainability? How can the company identify and implement innovative solutions to respond to weak global economic growth?
“The biggest overarching challenge we face — governments and business alike — is to move to more inclusive and equitable forms of growth,” says Polman, current chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, who has sat on climate change panels and the high-level panel developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations. “Any system where too many people get left behind is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.”
“This means, for instance, facing up to the consequences of climate change,” Polman says. “It is key now that governments and business work together in new forms of partnerships to implement these agreements and deliver this new model of sustainable and equitable growth.”
The big rethink
The Dutch businessman, who rose through the ranks at Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, was named Unilever CEO in 2009. He believes there needs to be a shift in focus to achieve a practical and equitable approach to sustainable growth.
“There is no business case for enduring poverty and runaway climate change,” Polman says on Unilever’s website.
Polman introduced the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010, aimed at improving well-being (with its food and hygiene products), reducing the corporation’s environmental footprint and enhancing livelihoods (through increased incomes for farmers and small retailers, for example).
In 2016, Polman created the Global Commission on Business and Sustainable Development with former UN Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch-Brown with the goal of articulating the economic case for the 17 key SDGs identified by the UN.
Finding solutions to these challenges, which range from good health and gender equality to climate change and decent work, is vital to unlocking new future sources of economic growth, Polman says. He points to a report from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission that identifies at least US$12 trillion of commercial opportunities for firms investing in sectors closely associated with hitting each of the UN’s 17 goals.
“Doing business well and sustainably means end-to-end thinking, including the whole supply chain,” Polman says. “It means rethinking the purpose of business, its role and impact in society. We need to create more jobs and use fewer materials — and we have to rethink our tax system, which currently often encourages the opposite.”