Interview: “CEOs have to step up to de-risk the political process.” That is the new CEO agenda for the next 1,000 days says Paul Polman, the most prominent leader on sustainable capitalism.

Paul Polman is calling on business leaders to become activists. The head of Unilever sets the new CEO agenda to be champions for sustainability in an interview with The Sustainian. Polman explains why the private sector has to step into the leadership void left by outdated post-war institutions. CEOs must take the lead again, just like they did during the Climate Change talks in Paris.

Leader of the Week,
Episode 03 – Paul Polman


Doing good is a deep personal conviction for Paul Polman. He runs marathons to raise money for Kenya’s visually impaired. The Unilever CEO also champions the less fortunate by running his company with social purpose. He is now in a race against time to get sustainability back on track by turning CEOs into activists.

Listen to the full podcast interview

CEOs must be activists

Paul Polman is making an urgent call for CEOs to step into a leadership void. The Unilever CEO argues post-war institutions built for an economy dominated by U.S and European wealth are losing the battle for the global agenda set 1000 days ago.Though many institutions are adapting by reaching out to the private sector, the world is seriously behind.

“We are 15% on the way in the first 1,000 days and frankly the plane hasn’t taken off the runway yet… We have to accelerate.” the Unilever CEO says.

Polman supports the work of international organizations like the UN Global Compact but insists that business must be in the driver’s seat to speed up the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). CEOs must take responsibility in the next 1,000 days and cash in on the great SDG business opportunity.

“The political system that has been designed to deal with global issues dates from the time of Bretton Woods…This was in 1944 when 80% of the global wealth economy was in Europe and the US… Now we can be cynical about politicians, we can be mad about them, we can laugh at them but that doesn’t serve anything, we have to fill that void.” says Unilever´s CEO.

Polman wants CEOs to step in and de-risk politics like they did in Paris. In 2015 the private sector helped deliver the landmark Paris agreement on Climate change. Now Polman wants business to do the same for the broader UN agenda.

“We’ve seen an enormous acceleration, once that signal was given, the green bond market started to move the vestiture market started to move, people started to call for a price in carbon. The disclosure of financially related risks is happening now, so we saw an acceleration because the financial market came on board.” he points out.

For Polman the hard-won climate battle showed people can transform the world by acting together. But key to Paris’ success was a new model of business leadership based on social purpose, not personal gain.

Not the whole SDG elephant at once

Polman offers a how-to for business leaders on the tough sustainability issues. It is impossible for anyone to tackle them all, so he suggests CEOs pick a goal which relates to their business and start there. Unilever makes each of its brands sustainable by tying them to a specific SDG. The consumer products giant also drives change in its value chain by fighting deforestation, upholding human rights and creating jobs in disadvantaged places.

“Your company must be here for a purpose other than shareholders – is that purpose education, is that purpose food security, is that purpose providing sustainable products for energy? Wherever you are as a business, try to see how you can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. Bring it into your business model and once you’ve brought it into your business model, bring it into your value chain.”

“Your company must be here for a purpose other than shareholders – is that purpose education, is that purpose food security, is that purpose providing sustainable products for energy?”

Polman says the implementation of the SDGs is not just good for people, it is an exciting business opportunity. The goals would unlock a minimum of 12 trillion dollars in the global economy and create 380 million jobs. And he points out that a growing number of businesses are investing in their potential. 20% of the companies are starting to adopt the SDGs in their sustainability reporting and corporate strategies but CEOs need to speed up the process.

Sustainable CEOs are respected

Business leaders also have to become activists because their customers expect it. Despite the low trust in executives, research shows that Millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand on social issues. A majority would pay more for ethical brands. Doing good benefits the bottom line as well. Unilever’s sustainable business model generated 300% shareholder return over the last 10 years, double the rate of the market. Last year the consumer products giant’s sustainable brands delivered 70% of its growth.

“While trust in companies is low and trust in CEO is sometimes lower, the citizens of this world still see the private sector as a solution provider to many of the problems. And the CEOs that have a point of view, that speak up, are actually well appreciated.” says Polman.

“We live in a world where unfortunately a lot of people have eyes but cannot see. We cannot live in long-term harmony if we dont give full respect and dignity for everybody.”

The Dutch executive believes that the lucky few like himself have a moral obligation to help others. Polman is running a marathon race to reach Unilever’s ambitious social agenda, recruit others to the Global Goals and raise money for the blind. He quotes renowned U.S educator Helen Keller who was blind and deaf but served others. “The worst thing is not being blind, the worst thing actually is having eyes and not being able to see.” and adds, “We live in a world where unfortunately a lot of people have eyes but cannot see. We cannot live in long-term harmony if we dont give full respect and dignity for everybody.”

Paul Polman (born 1956) is best known for turning around a once struggling Unilever with a social business model proving that ethics and profit go hand in hand. The head of Unilever is the ultimate activist CEO who uses his corporate success to build support for the 2030 UN Global Goals. He is the incoming chair of the Chamber for Commerce, a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum and Vice Chair of the Board of the UN Global Compact. Polman’s personal ambition is to grow Unilever without harming the environment and make a bigger difference in people’s lives.