During the years that Paul Polman has been CEO of Unilever and one of the major conscious capitalist leaders of Europe, he has passionately laid out a higher purpose in his work stating, “[M]y personal mission is to galvanize our company to be an effective force for good.” During his tenure, Polman has proved that it is possible to both earn profits and grow sustainably, putting his organization at the forefront of the drive for sustainable capitalism and earning a multitude of awards in the process.
When Polman took the helm of Unilever in 2009, he inherited a company with a longstanding tradition of working to make life better for its customers and workers. The company’s first product was a bar of soap in 1880s England designed to improve national hygiene and save the lives of children. Polman himself believes firmly in expanding the number of actors to whom businesses bear responsibility, speaking often of a need for a new “inclusive capitalism” that involves a multitude of stakeholders to drive longer-term value creation.
Towards these ends, in the spirit of and philosophy of conscious capitalist, Polman led Unilever in a wide variety of efforts, including setting out the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), growing the company while halving its environmental impact. Other sustainability efforts undertaken aim to improve the health and wellbeing of more than one billion people and enhance the livelihoods of millions of people in the communities where it operates. Unilever does this through providing access to skills and training for smallholder famers, for example, protecting and promoting human rights across its value chain, or rolling out handwashing behaviour change programmes to help more children reach the age of 5. All of these initiatives have earned Polman the Rainforest Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (2014), the Oslo Business For Peace Award (2015), the UN Champions of the Earth Award (2015) and the Concordia Leadership Award (2016).
Recently, when Polman’s vision was questioned and an aggressive takeover bid by Heinz-Kraft was defeated, Polman firmly defended his company and the importance of a conscious culture of long-term growth. Holding his ground, Polman warned against short-term thinking vs a more inclusive approach. He doubled down on efforts to protect the values, principles, and practices of his company’s culture, putting out a report on how Unilever and its many subsidiaries and suppliers were complying long-term thinking in sustainability and working conditions.
As leader of a company that makes and sells products from 400 brands that are used by a remarkable one in every three people on the planet, Polman knows that his company has a responsibility and an opportunity to drive systemic change through partnerships with other businesses, NGOs and governments. It is no wonder then that Polman is the only business leader who was asked by former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to help craft the UN Sustainable Development Goals or that Unilever has been named for six consecutive years as the top company in the prestigious Globescan survey of 1000 sustainability experts around the world.