The Surprising and Sensible Remarks of Unilever CEO Paul Polman

February 18, 2014

Visit the Event page for more information.

“We’re the world’s biggest NGO,” Paul Polman, the chief executive officer of Unilever, told a roomful of well-wishers at the Center for Global Development conference center during last week’s presentation of the CGD/Foreign Policy Commitment to Development “Ideas in Action” Award.

Polman went on to explain: “We’re a non-government organization. The only difference is, we’re making money so we are sustainable.”

Lots of money, in fact. As one of the world’s biggest consumer products companies, with such brands as Dove, Hellman’s, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever generated about $67 billion in revenues and $7.2 billion in profits last year.

That’s the angle that business and sustainability expert Marc Gunther chose for his story on the CGD/FP award presentation, which he titled “Paul Polman: A Radical CEO.”

Indeed, much of what Polman had to say in his wide-ranging speech you are unlikely to hear from many other Fortune 500 CEOs.

Example: “We’re living in a very strange world right now where power is increasingly concentrated in fewer people,” Polman said. “You’ve undoubtedly seen this Oxfam study that states that 85 of the richest people in the world have the same net wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. A lot of people feel that that’s a system that’s not right anymore."

Tiffany Stecker, a reporter for Climate Wire whose story appeared in Scientific American, focused on an argument that is more likely to appeal to Unilever shareholders and other CEOs: doing well and doing good are not only compatible, Polman suggested, over the long haul they are inseparable.

"First and foremost I am a businessman; I cannot deny that," Polman said. "You take Unilever: We have 2 billion consumers using us every day; we are in seven out of 10 households globally," he said. "If you have that scale and reach, it's an enormous possibility to transform markets." 

“The main thing we’re trying to do is give every brand we sell—because ultimately we’re a branded goods producer—a social purpose. Now, if that purpose is big enough, that brand will be very successful. So, for example, our Knorr brand, which is a savory brand, helps fight food security.”

With Polman at the helm, Unilever launched a Sustainable Living Plan that aims to cut the environmental impact of Unilever products in half by 2020, lift half a million small holder farmers out of poverty, and help a billion people improve their health and wellbeing.

Polman said he developed the program in response to projections showing that world population is expected to reach 9 billion before the end of the century, up from 7 billion today.

“It’s very clear with the 2 billion people still coming, with the population growing, that we can double our business,” he said. “So I said why don’t we double it? But I said something else. We’ll double it in a way that will completely de-couple this from environmental impact and improve the social impact.”

The award was presented on behalf of CGD and the FP Group by CGD president Nancy Birdsall and Foreign Policy executive editor Benjamin Pauker.

“Paul Polman is making a real difference in both attitudes and practices of international businesses, especially those that rely on raw materials from tropical developing nations for the production of consumer products,” Birdsall said.

CGD senior fellow Frances Seymour, an expert on tropical forest policy and former executive director of the Center for International Forestry Research, praised Polman’s leadership in efforts to eliminate deforestation from the consumer goods supply chain.

“Paul Polman has given us hope that market transformation can be achieved, and that deforestation can be stopped,” Seymour said in a video tribute played at the event. 

“In what could be a game-changer, he and others recently succeeded in encouraging the world’s largest trader in palm oil—Wilmar International—to commit to ending deforestation in its supply chain, effective immediately,” she said.

“This commitment sets a new global standard for the industry, and creates constituencies in the private sector for strengthening land use policies and law enforcement in producer countries.” (Seymour previously explained the importance of the Wilmar announcement in A Big Deal for Tropical Forests.)

In addition to his efforts to end tropical deforestation, Polman was active in the UN High Level Panel ON Post-2015 Development Agenda bringing a business perspective to discussions otherwise dominated by government representatives, academics and NGO advocates. He is also active in the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, a consortium of governments, organizations, and individuals working to end hunger and malnutrition.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.