Unilever’s Polman Exhorts Industry to Redouble Action on Sustainability

Unilever CEO Paul Polman
Companies need to spur new partnerships to get to the “tipping point” on sustainability, said the 2018 recipient of USCIB’s International Leadership Award.
Hundreds of attendees gathered at the Delegates Dining Room at the United Nations for the annual USCIB award gala.

Business leaders must increase their commitment to sustainability, partnering with governments, international organizations and NGOs, if humanity is to avoid serious crises resulting from environment degradation and persistent poverty, according to Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and the 2018 recipient of USCIB’s International Leadership Award. Polman was honored at a gala dinner last night at the Delegates Dining Room at the United Nations in New York.

“We need to create broader partnerships to get to the tipping point” of tackling climate change and other global challenges, according to Polman. “It doesn’t take much to move the global agenda. It just takes a few people. It takes the right leaders, leaders with a high awareness of what is going on, but also a high ability to engage. Leaders with a certain sense of humanity and humility, purpose-driven, longer-term, willing to work in partnerships. Not necessarily the skills that we’ve all been taught.”

L-R: USCIB Chairman Terry McGraw, ICC Secretary General John Denton, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, USCIB President & CEO Peter Robinson

USCIB’s annual award dinner attracted hundreds of top business executives, policy makers and members of the diplomatic community to the UN headquarters on a crisp, starry night, with speakers extolling the importance of a strong business role in confronting global challenges. UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed applauded the private sector’s participation in realizing the ambitious 2030 Development Agenda, and she, like Polman, encouraged companies to do more.

As global leaders confront new, populist challenges on trade, USCIB Chairman Terry McGraw, CEO emeritus of S&P Global, said that governments and international organizations also must do more to ensure the 2030 goals are met. “Without expanded cross-border trade, smart regulation and support for innovation, there is not a chance in the world that we can hit the mark of the UN’s 2030 Agenda,” he stated.

USCIB President and CEO Peter Robinson took the opportunity of the 2018 award gala to note the 70th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he called “a fundamental recognition of our shared humanity and the equality of every person in the eyes of God and in the eyes of their fellow men and women.” He told gala attendees that “USCIB members stand united in support of human rights, and we pledge to do all we can in the ongoing struggle to defend human dignity.”

Robinson also introduced a new USCIB video highlighting the organization’s policy expertise, close working relationship with decision makers and links to key international business organizations. (See video link below.)

But the evening belonged to Polman, who recently announced plans to retire from the helm of Unilever following a long career with the company. “There’s no reason for 840 million people to go to bed hungry every night, not even knowing if they [will] wake up the next day. There’s no reason for us to waste 30 to 40 percent of the food that we produce. There’s no reason to value a dead tree more than a tree that’s alive, taking the lungs out of the world.”

John Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, which Polman chairs, praised the Unilever CEO’s generosity, grace and openness as a person.

The Unilever chief used his experience transforming his company’s social and environmental footprint as an indication of what could be done if corporate leaders put their minds to it. “Unilever’s model is indeed decoupling our growth from environmental impact, but also to maximize our overall social impact. At a time when trust is low, we think the only way to regain that is with transparency. Transparency builds trust, which is the basis for prosperity.”

He continued: “By having that simple focus, you will soon discover that you’re better off as well, We are getting two million people [applying for jobs at Unilever] every year, in fact the third-most on LinkedIn, after Google and Apple.”

Established in 1980, USCIB’s International Leadership Award is presented annually to a leading CEO, international figure or institution, recognizing outstanding contributions to global trade, finance and investment, and to improving the global competitive framework in which American business operates. Recent recipients have included Ajay Banga of Mastercard and Randall Stephenson of AT&T. More on the annual event is available at www.uscibgala.com and photos from the event are here.

Staff Contact:   Kira Yevtukhova

Deputy Director, Marketing and Communications
Tel: 202.617.3160

Kira Yevtukhova manages USCIB’s print and online publications, including the website, e-newsletter and quarterly magazine, and serves as the organization’s digital media strategist. Prior to this role, Kira worked for over five years within USCIB’s Policy Department, focusing on climate change, environment, nutrition, health, and chemicals related policy issues. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and has an MBA from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
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