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A True Green CEO: Unilever’s Paul Polman

October 20, 2014
Planet Money talks and bullshit walks.

I use this expression, and so do countless others, except that it’s useful to understand its origin. Attributed to Congressman Michael “Ozzie” Myers in 1980, resulting from his expulsion from the House of Representatives for accepting bribes and his subsequent 1981 imprisonment, the former longshoreman was referring to putting money down to make things happen; in other words, putting your money where your mouth is.

So if that puts me in the company of a foul mouthed ex-longshoreman, ex-Congressman who went to prison, so be it. I like the expression because it relates well to the corporate world when it comes to CEOs, presidents and chairmen espousing how committed their companies are to environmental and social business practices.

However, the informed public knows it just ain’t so. And as consumers educate themselves on the growing stresses our planet is facing, with the resulting increased expectations on companies, there’s a huge disconnect. But there’s some good news. Some corporate leaders are following Michael Myers maxim.

ray-anderson 1 I’ve written in the past about Ray Anderson, former CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Inc., a flooring company which continues to push the envelope of trying to get to zero emissions. Anderson, who died of cancer in in August 2011, was referred to as the world’s greenest CEO because of his total commitment to reducing Interface’s environmental footprint. He was succeeded by Daniel Hendrix, who wears the fancy title of Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. Nevertheless, Hendrix is continuing Anderson’s battle to make Interface Inc. as green a company as possible.

Toronto-based Globescan’s sustainability survey in 2014 showed some interesting and surprising results on where various companies (heavily American) are at when it comes to leadership in sustainable business practices. Interface, according to the analysts polled, earned 7% of their votes. Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, received 9%. Down the list came other well-known firms:

-Marks & Spencer: 6%
-Nestle: 4%
-Nike: 4%
-GE: 4%
-Walmart: 3%
-IKEA: 3%
-Coca-Cola: 3%

But at the top was Anglo-Dutch-owned Unilever at a whopping 33%!

A huge conglomerate which makes everything conceivable, from the Red Rose and Lipton green teas that I drink, to laundry soap, to food products, to mops and cleaning products, Unilever is a huge company that is taking very seriously the footprint it is leaving on planet Earth.

So who’s behind this monumental leadership charge, because to initiate and maintain the needed momentum requires an exceptional leader and human being.

paul-polman Meet Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever since January 2009 (recruited from Swiss rival Nestlé).

Not content with Unilever’s approach to corporate social responsibility, Polman launched his Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 aimed at making the company the premier example of how to integrate capitalism with social and environmental needs. Akin to the Triple Bottom Line (informally people, profits, planet), Polman doesn’t see his philosophy and Unilever’s business practices as charity but rather as making smart business sense, all the while contributing to the world’s social needs and reducing the company’s environmental footprint.

This type of sustained effort requires not just leadership from the executive suites but from employees as well, for without an engaged workforce Unilever would not have achieved its success in just a few years. And with an engaged workforce has come a high level of employee satisfaction.

By 2020, Unilever intends to have, in addition to a smaller environmental footprint (e.g., waste reduction and lower greenhouse gas emissions) and sourcing its raw materials respecting sustainable practices, assisted one billion people improve their health and overall well-being. Not too shabby an empowering vision, one that will likely be realized.

Of course, taking a longer term approach to corporate business practices, including financial returns, demands a leader who is able to convince investors of the benefits to Unilever. Polman has worked diligently at changing the mental model of investors and stakeholders from a quarterly results mindset to one that has a much longer time horizon. So far he’s accomplished a great deal; but the best is yet to come.

Paul Polman isn’t from the BS school. He’s putting Unilever’s money and resources exactly where he believes it needs to go. Take a moment to check out this May 2014 interview with Polman on his vision and plan to make Unilever the most sustainable company on the planet.





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