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Where does business end and society begin?

People voting with their wallets, the reinvention of capitalism and a new generation of leaders bringing their true selves to work. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, explores the future of business.

Paul Polman
Paul Polman

CEO, Unilever

Paul Polman has been CEO of Unilever since January 2009. Under his leadership, Unilever has an ambitious vision to decouple its growth from overall environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Dear 2030,

I dedicate this letter to my first grandchild, born in 2015 – a year that I hope comes to be seen as a turning point in history.

In 2030, our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan will be 20 years old. What will it look like? Quite different, potentially, as the pace of change continues to grow exponentially. The term ‘sustainable’ may even be redundant in a world where the only acceptable economic growth model is a sustainable and responsible one.

I have long held a personal conviction that business can’t be a bystander in a world that gives it life in the first place. It must be part of the solution not problem. It’s not just a moral obligation. Sustainability will drive our business at Unilever, through life-improving innovations and continuing to connect people’s everyday needs with the issues and challenges the world faces.

We will use smart technologies to manage water efficiently, improve crop yields and source ingredients responsibly, while enhancing the lives of the smallholder farmers we work with. We will continue to empower women by providing equal opportunities, driving economic growth. And we will have transformed our energy system with widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power. It’s the only way to ensure our business will be around to serve society in generations to come.

It won’t be easy. I hope that business will be the vanguard of this movement, but to reach our goals it will be vital that we redefine how we work with one another. We will continue to lend our weight to take action on the biggest challenges, such as poor sanitation, extreme poverty and deforestation. 

Governments cannot do this on their own, nor can they do it fast enough. And so by 2030, my hope is that we will no longer see children around the world dying before their fifth birthday, from diseases that are easily preventable. That 1 billion people don’t have to go to bed hungry every night, unsure if they will wake up in the morning. That we stop destroying the livelihoods of communities dependent on forests, when we know there is a better way.

But I predict that the greatest contribution to a successful 2030 will be made by individuals and society. By people who insisted on holding governments and businesses to account for delivering on their promises. By people who refused to accept a world in which any child does not have a fair chance in life. By people who voted with their wallets, rewarding those businesses who were bold and did the right thing.

I expect their energy and creativity will humble and inspire me. They always have.

Of course there will always be new challenges. But these will be met by a new generation of leaders. In the business and investment worlds they will reinvent capitalism, and their most prized skills will include the ability to think systemically and work in complex partnerships. And they will bring their true selves to work – employing moral courage alongside business acumen.

Because, after all, where does business end and society begin?

As the Scottish conservationist John Muir said over a century ago, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. In 2030, I believe we will have finally grasped that we are all connected. No longer will success for one be gained through the poverty of another. If we flourish, and I believe we will, we will flourish together.

Above all, I hope that we live in a world that is more equitable, safe and peaceful. Where we have made great strides to eradicate poverty and dangerous climate change. My granddaughter born this year will be 15 years old, and we will have passed a better world on to her generation. This is a world in which business thrives, working within our planetary boundaries, not against.

Global Goals - become a global citizen

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