Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Unilever CEO Paul Polman and President Martha Pollack speak at "The Case for Sustainable Capitalism" lecture.

October 13, 2017

Unilever CEO Challenges Private Sector to ‘Step Up’ Toward Sustainable Capitalism

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The Cornell business program’s mission of “Our business is a better world,” the Unilever CEO said on Thursday night, aligns with the mission of the food and detergent conglomerate that is currently pursuing a 50 percent reduction of its environmental footprint by 2030.

Unilever has been a University partner for over 40 years and currently employs over 100 Cornelians, President Martha Pollack said at the event.

The CEO, Paul Polman, praised Cornell’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035 and adding solar panels to its campus. Polman said there is a crucial need for business leaders to “step up” to reduce poverty and continue to progress toward a sustainable and equitable future.

Polman, the 35th Robert S. Hatfield fellow in economic education, argued that corporations should focus on the lack of “global governance” and “planetary governance,” as well as the consequences of technological development. This will be more difficult, he said, because of the current low trust the public has in both corporations and governments.

Speaking in Alice Statler Auditorium — as part of “The Case for Sustainable Capitalism” lecture — Polman said that 50 percent of the population has “lost trust in business and government, and these numbers are getting worse.”

“We won’t build prosperity if we don’t create an environment that is more trustworthy that can attack these challenges,” he said.

“We have a system where the top 1.2 billion people in this world consume about 75 percent of the world’s resources,” he continued. “The top eight people in world have the same wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the world population.”

Polman argued that technology has polarized people and narrowed their understanding of global problems, and that job losses in the United States’ manufacturing industry have resulted from technological development.

“Information is increasingly narrowing our perspectives on the issues,” he said. “Discussions are summarized in 140 characters now. That’s unfortunately the world we live in.”

Polman also highlighted the urgency of the Sustainable Development Goals, an agreement adopted by the United Nations and signed by over 93 countries. The goals include eliminating poverty and inequality and making significant progress against climate change by 2030.

Polman helped create a commission to reach 1,000 CEOs to implement these sustainable, long-term strategies into the companies’ agendas.

“Businesses cannot be bystanders, because they need the world to function in order for themselves to function,” he said. “Businesses have to step up to the plate.”

Polman argued that investment in SDGs has a significant payout for businesses looking to grow their models, and the cost of businesses not acting on issues such as climate change is becoming higher than the cost of taking a stand.

CEOs should run businesses “not for shareholders, but for the people you need to serve,” Polman said, “who give you a reason to be there in the first place.”

Executives must publicly acknowledge that there are no easy solutions to food insecurity or climate change, Polman said, and then must work in partnership to create and follow through on a sustainable development agenda.

“Many companies think that when they outsource their supply chain, they can also outsource their responsibility,” he said. “But the citizens of the world don’t accept this anymore.”

The private sector is about 60 percent of global economy, 80 percent of global financing and 90 percent of global job creation, Polman said, adding that these statistics reinforce the importance of businesses’ commitment toward sustainable development goals.

“The best thing we can do to move it forward is to get companies to report or integrate the sustainable development goals,” he said. “We have to move some boundaries that drive behavior.

“At the end of the day, we need leaders that actually put interests of others ahead of their own.”