More “courageous interventions” are needed from industry and government to enact real change in the area of sustainability, according to Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Polman said co-operation between companies and with government is vital to alleviate the impact of business on the environment and to change consumer habits.
“Frameworks with governments is a good example. If you have clear goals on CO2 emissions and carbon trading globally, if you have governments saying no to illegal deforestation, things would move a lot faster,” he said.
This week, Unilever published the first results of its ten-year Sustainable Living Plan, a program of initiatives designed to reduce its impact on the environment while the company grows. Unilever has made progress, notably on sourcing more of its agricultural raw materials more sustainably and reducing the amount of energy used throughout its operations. However, the report also lists areas where the company is “off plan” (including the sustainable sourcing of sunflower oil) and where it missed its target (on improving heart health).
Polman insisted the Sustainable Living Plan had, for Unilever, become “the way we do business” and he claimed the company’s strategy had “galvanized” others into action. He acknowledged that getting others to act “is not always easy” but said he had seen signs that industry had been able to “transform markets”.
And, although the Unilever chief believes government intervention is needed in some areas to encourage more sustainable behavior from industry and consumers, he believes business can go further. At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Polman arranged a meeting of CEOs on sustainability, which he says will lead to a range of businesses making commitments at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June. “At Rio, you will see business pushing much harder and faster than governments as they will be tied up in election cycles,” he says.