Paul Polman boyhood’s plans didn’t quite work out as he hoped. Growing up in The Netherlands, he wanted to be a doctor. But Dutch medical-school openings were determined by a lottery system and he wasn’t picked. “I still wonder what my life would have been like as a doctor,” he told Management Today in a 2011 interview.
Instead Polman studied for the priesthood in a Carmelite seminary before earning an undergraduate degree in The Netherlands and then coming to the United States for graduate work. He received an MBA in Finance and International Marketing from the University of Cincinnati. Cincinnati, Ohio, happens to be the home of the Proctor & Gamble Company, a multinational consumer goods company. Polman would work for P&G for twenty-seven years before moving to Nestlé in 2006.
in 2009, he was named CEO of Unilever, the multinational Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company. He is also chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a board member of the United Nations Global Compact, and co-founder of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition.
Polman set out to make some changes at Unilever. Shaking up the business world by abandoning Unilever’s earnings forecasts and championing the customer over the investor hasn’t been easy. But, as Polman said, “If we are in synch with consumer needs and the environment in which we operate, and take responsibility for society as well as for our employees, then the shareholder will also be rewarded.”
And Polman has gone further. Under his leadership, Unilever has enacted the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, with the intention of improving health and well-being, reducing environmental impact, and enhancing livelihoods world-wide. The company’s goals for 2020 include helping a billion people improve health and hygiene; cutting the greenhouse gas, water usage, and associated waste impact of its products; and sustainably sourcing 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials.
Within the three large goals are nine separate areas of concentration, with their own individual targets. The company’s website includes a page, where viewers can explore an interactive performance summary. In January, Unilever announced that it has achieved a key sustainability goal of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from its global factory network.
But what will happen, the Management Today interviewer asked, if the sustainable living plan turns out to be unsustainable?
‘I’m uncomfortable about it myself, “ Polman replied. “You have to be if you are going to achieve audacious goals. But what is the alternative? … There will always be cynics who ask: ‘If you miss one target, will you still be the CEO?’ But these people are spectators. We say: ‘We can’t do this on our own, so be part of it.’ In that spirit, I think we can do well and move the world to a better place.”
2015 is a critical year for human development and climate change, as Polman pointed out in a January essay for Huffington Post.com. In September, world leaders will meet in New York to determine the Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals. Hopes are high that at the December COP 21 Climate Change Conference in Paris, the very real prospect of a global agreement on curbing carbon emissions and the promise of a more stable and sustainable future will be achieved.
“I am optimistic,” he wrote. “Momentum is building. Progress is being made. By changing the way we do business, by seeing the transformation to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity to be seized, not a risk to be managed, by looking beyond our own impacts to systemic areas where we can make a transformational difference, and by working with others to achieve shared goals, business can play a much bigger role in helping to create a better future.
“But there’s no time to lose. The time to act is now.”