CEOs play a key role for tackling climate change and the entire sustainability agenda. This is the clear message from former Unilever CEO, Paul Polman.

“CEOs have to step up to de-risk the political process.” That is the new CEO agenda for the next 1,000 days, says Paul Polman. He has just retired as CEO for Unilever and has in recent years been one of the most prominent leaders and speakers on sustainable capitalism.

Paul Polman is calling on business leaders to step into a leadership void and take lead in the climate change battle and the sustainable transformation. Polman argues that post-war institutions built for an economy dominated by US and European wealth are losing the battle for the global agenda, set a little more than 1,000 days ago. Though many institutions are adapting by reaching out to the private sector, the world is seriously behind.

“We are 15% on the way in the first 1,000 days since the adoption and frankly the plane hasn’t taken off the runway yet… We have to accelerate,” Polman says.

He still supports the work of international organisations like the UN Global Compact that he is currently Vice Chair of, but insists that business must be in the driver’s seat to speed up the climate change and sustainability agenda. CEOs must take responsibility.

“The political system that has been designed to deal with global issues dates from the time of Bretton Woods…This was in 1944 when 80% of the global wealth was in Europe and the US… Now we can be cynical about politicians, we can be mad about them, we can laugh at them but that doesn’t serve anything, we have to fill that void,” says Polman.

De-risking the political process is the new CEO agenda” says Paul Polman. 

De-risking politics

Polman wants CEOs to step in and de-risk politics like they managed to do in Paris in 2015, when the private sector played a very important role in delivering the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change: “We’ve seen an enormous acceleration, once that signal was given, the green bond market started to move, the vestiture market started to move, people started to call for a price on carbon. The disclosure of financially-related risks is happening now, so we saw an acceleration because the financial market came on board,” he points out.

For Polman, the Paris Agreement showed that we can succeed in transforming the world by acting together.

Sustainable CEOs are respected

An important part of Paris’ success was a new model of business leadership based on a wider purpose than just economic gain: “Your company must be here for a purpose other than shareholders,” says Paul Polman.

According to the former Unilever CEO, business leaders also have to become activists because their customers expect it. This is supported by research that shows that despite the low trust in executives, millennials believe CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand on sustainability issues. A majority would pay more for ethical brands. Doing good benefits the bottom line as well.

With Polman as CEO, Unilever’s sustainable business model generated a 300% shareholder return over the last 10 years, double the rate of the market. In 2017 the consumer products giant’s sustainable brands delivered 70% of its growth.

“While trust in companies is low and trust in CEO is sometimes lower, the citizens of this world still see the private sector as a solution provider to many of the problems. And the CEOs that have a point of view, that speak up, are actually well appreciated” says Paul Polman.

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