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Guest Profile

Paul Polman

Co-Founder

Imagine

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About Paul Polman

Paul Polman is Co-founder & Chair of IMAGINE, a for-benefit company and foundation that mobilises business leaders around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He was CEO of Unilever from 2009 to 2018. 

Episode Overview

Paul Polman sheds light on his efforts to engage leading corporate CEOs and to bring key industries to a 'tipping point' whereby they start to embrace sustainable business. He speaks with great passion, insight and an unmistakable sense of urgency. 

We tackle a diverse range of topics, from climate change and inequality to his outlook on life and the observation that some people think greed is good but, longer term, generosity will always win.

This is a multifaceted and candid conversation. We hear how his potential to drive forward greater change in global development is actually stronger now than it was when he was still at Unilever. We also get a glimpse into his youth, where he notes without any hesitation that: "I wanted to be first a priest and then I wanted to be a doctor, I ended up with serendipity in business, I wouldn't do it again, today, I wouldn't go into business, necessarily, but I always felt more of an urge to help other people."

This is a fascinating conversation from beginning to end -- enjoy it and take plenty of notes!

Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast, and Paul Polman, Co-Founder of Imagine.

Alberto Lidji: Paul, it’s a real pleasure to welcome you on to “The Do One Better! Podcast” today.

 

Paul Polman: Thank you Alberto and likewise, I really appreciate what you are doing.

 

Alberto Lidji: Thank you very much and it’s great to see you again. I know it’s been almost two years since we first had a chat. Welcome on to the show and why don’t we start by finding out a little bit about ‘Imagine’ — this new venture of yours, or fairly new venture, and what it does and what it’s all about.

 

Paul Polman:  Well, we all know the famous sentence, “you may think I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one”. So what Imagine is all about is to really look at the Sustainable Development Goals. Most of the people in the world now know what needs to be done in terms of fighting climate change, inequality, etc. And we're moving in the right direction. But what is very clear is, we're not moving at the speed and scale that is needed. And the reason for that is multiple, one of the main reasons for that is that we're trying to make changes within a current system that pushes back. So we're playing not to lose versus playing to win. So imagine is really focused on the broader systems changes. And if you're a CEO, nowadays, you're being held to very high standards. But the reality is, you probably alone can only deliver 50% or 60% of that.  Some needs to be done in the value chain, some needs to be done at industry level. And some needs to be done with governments where you still have the wrong incentive systems. So we're very much about moving these boundaries, and then changing behaviour. And our theory of change is very simple. We obviously believe in the force of the private sector becoming more and more important in the future. You've seen the issues of globalisation and global cooperation, you've seen the struggles of governments at national level, the increased populism, nationalism, xenophobia, so we believe the private sector has to step up and fill that void. After all, they're about 60% of the global economy, 80% of the financial flow, 90% of the job creation result, the other things that come with that. So we think that if we can put by sector, enough CEOs together, about 20% to 25%, along the whole value chain, then we can actually create tipping points. And there are not many organisations that create that safe space. So we look at industries that have the biggest influence on the Sustainable Development Goals. The biggest one, obviously, is the fossil industry, as we work climate change, and there's enough effort there. So we decided not to focus on it. But then you have the fashion industry, a very polluting industry to some extent, then you have the food industry, which is a major driver for climate change, then finance. So we're looking at that, bringing CEOs together. In the fashion industry, we now have 64 CEOs together of the major companies.  In food, we work with the 30 biggest companies and CEOs. And then together, what we find is that when the CEOs come together, as a collective, they become more courageous. So we work on the human potential. And at the same time, we work on the joint strategies that we can put in place to drive to systems changes.  A simple example for each of them if you want to is on… on food, we're working on regenerative agriculture, food is causing about 25% of the climate change in the way we're doing it. And a lot of other mystery leaving people in poverty or hunger or deforestation, obesity on the other side, so the whole food chain is, is pretty broken. But we should make food actually carbon positive, it should be a solution to climate change. And it could be up to 20% to 30% solution. Right now, although it is a solution up to 20%, 30% it only gets two or 3% of the funding. So how can we make agriculture more carbon positive, what we call regenerative agriculture. How can we improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers. How can we work on changes of consumer habits in a collective way, and do that, so that would be a typical example of where we drive the step changes. And it's a three to five year process that we bring these CEOs together, obviously now on zoom, but hopefully soon also in person. And, move to system changes that are needed. And when you get a critical mass of CEOs together, civil society wants to join, governments start to listen. So you create these broader alliances or partnerships, Goals 17 in the SDGs, that are really needed to create these tipping points. And that's what we're focused on.

 

Alberto Lidji: Fascinating. Ultimately, is it the private sector that you think needs to take the lead? You know, we've spoken a little bit about philanthropy, but philanthropy is relatively small. I guess it's a question of structuring the right incentives and facilitating the right environment for the private sector to make something happen?

 

Paul Polman: Well, it's in the end individuals who take the lead and they can come from all parts of life. We've seen in the COVID crisis, how many communities at the local level stepped up and I think that's where more of the global sanity has been saved if you want to, or cooperation happen. It can come from philanthropists that are doing wonderful things. You take stripes work right now in Africa to ensure that the developing markets get access to the vaccine. It can come from some governments that are responsible that have taken tremendous proactive steps like the European Green Deal, but broadly, you cannot get the global economy to function, the financial flow to work, the critical mass of innovations that you need and people and resources if you don't get the private sector behind them. So I always advocate this broader partnership. But I think the private sector has benefited for decades from this enormous wealth that we have created from governments that have globally cooperated, from systems that function. Now that it is a little bit more difficult, I think we have that responsibility to fill that void. And COVID has brought that to light even more, unfortunately, late and unfortunately very expensive, and very tragic what we have to go through. And it has been a pause button for many people who have suffered. Here again, it's the people that were already marginalised in society that suffer disproportionately, just like they do for climate change. So hopefully, we've used the pause button, not only sadly enough to stop the economies or stop lives for too many people, but also to pause and reflect and think about the new form of leadership and business models that are needed, and more moral forms of leadership so that we come out of this better than when we went in. Because we can't go through this every 10 years, the financial crisis was only 10 years ago. We didn't take the lessons then. So hopefully now we heed to lessons and build back a greener, more resilient, more inclusive, more sustainable economy. And we have all the possibilities to do that. If we decide to do so.

 

Alberto Lidji:  What are the hurdles that a chief executive of a major firm is facing? I mean, lack of time, lack of tools… you mentioned the safe space or lack there off… tell us a little bit about what an average CEO of a major firm is thinking and, in practice, what should they do about it to overcome these hurdles?

 

Paul Polman:  Well, it's all of the above, obviously. And it's slightly different for each of the CEOs depending on the sectors they're in or the positions that they face themselves. But first of all, the tenure is relatively short, the average tenure of a CEO and how it's four and a half years, the incentive systems are often misaligned, in terms of building shareholder value, but not societal value. Boards, often put pressure on CEOs, at least the feedback that you get. And there’s a competitive space, you know, if Company A does something Company B doesn't want to join. There’s a lack of knowledge or time. And then obviously, the most important currency is trust. Whilst in the latest Edelman survey, the business community came out better than governments or the media, it was basically driven by these latter to going down in trust, not the business significantly building trust. So and our systems around us are not really designed to provide the answers. If you look at many of the top shows, or industry associations or consultancies, they're all well meant, and they have a role to play, but they don't provide that safe space to really move faster and move higher. So we help CEOs. When I was at Unilever for 10 years, the first five years, my prime focus was putting Unilever on track and launching this Unilever sustainable living plan, which has sort of become a standard.  People were very critical at that time. But now overwhelming evidence that that is a good way to run the business also for your shareholders, longer term. I mean, we had a 300% return over those 10 years. But the last five years of my tenure, I really started to think of how can I use the size and scale of Unilever being in 190 countries to drive for more transformative change. So we got into sustainable sourcing, into human rights and livelihoods, fair wages, all these things into the broader partnerships that needed to be developed. And I saw that you could achieve quite a lot and we got a lot of recognition for that… became the most admired company, so to speak, two million people applying to us every year… the desired employer in most of the countries that we operate in — very high engagement scores. But I also saw that with my shackles on still I could only achieve so much. And creating this neutral platform now moves you from, perhaps, formal authority to moral authority. But I can tell you, it not only feels better, but the impact you can have is also infinitely bigger, even compared to running one of these major companies like Unilever. So I feel very fortunate to be able to do that. I'm very fortunate to be able to work with people who feel the same and that's very important to achieve progress. There's something about purposeful play, that we have as one of our values in Imagine. And, what you now see is that there are more and more CEOs who understand that we cannot go like this and beyond this destructive path of have devastating effects of climate change or inequality, you know, any system where too many people feel that they're not participating or are excluded will ultimately rebel against itself. And finally, people are starting to see that. And to some extent COVID has been a blessing despite the tragedies, I don't want to miss-represent it, but we've discovered because of COVID, the interrelationships between biodiversity, human health, climate, the economy, racial dimensions, with the tragic death of George Floyd. And, people have discovered that so many things are broken. So to one extent, it's confusing, it's overwhelming, where do I start, but I rather rebuild something when more things are broken than not, so we can rebuild it properly. And what you now see is that we're taking these lessons, I think… we're starting to take these lessons, the last six months of 2020 saw enormous actions on climate change. Many of the major countries making commitments to be net zero by 2050, or 2060, in terms of emissions, absolutely needed to stay below the one and a half degrees, we have 65 countries now doing that about 50% of the global economy. So you're close to a tipping point there. But more importantly, we also have better and deeper discussions on the social contract, and what the role of companies are. And increasingly you see financial markets, starting to understand this not only from a risk point of view, but increasingly from an opportunity point of view. And companies that make these bolder commitments, see actually a positive reflection in their share price now, as well. So we might be on the, on the verge of something… it's the end of the beginning, I would argue more than the beginning of the end. But we can definitely now accelerate, and turn this tragedy into a positive where people say, this was an inflection point for humanity. And we finally understood why we were here… to work for the greater good, to put ourselves to the service of others and to irreversibly eradicate poverty in a more sustainable and equitable way. And it happened then and there, and that would be a great legacy for us to leave.

 

Alberto Lidji: So I sense some optimism there, in you.

 

Paul Polman: I would say hope more than optimism. You know, Desmond Tutu said it well, when he was on a panel with me once a few years ago. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? And he says, I'm a prisoner of hope. I think it's too late to be a pessimist. And I would also say, that prisoner of hope thing was appealing to me. And that comes from the increased collaboration that we see, the increased sense of purpose, especially amongst the younger people who have a great sense of hope, if you want to, and and the enormous future possibilities that we have. It's a great world, it's nothing wrong, in that sense, provided we behave like adults increasingly. But for the last few years, we've discovered it's the kids who behave like adults, and the adults who behave like kids. So if we wake up now and see this as a defining moment for all of us, then yeah, then I will stay a prisoner of hope.

 

Alberto Lidji:  I was going to ask you, and maybe you touched on a little bit earlier, I was going to ask you whether the world changed radically for you when you left Unilever, because you mentioned before at Unilever you had this this platform, you're in 190 countries, you know how you can move things forward. But I think I picked up on something you said a bit earlier, that actually the potential for you to drive forward even greater change, perhaps is actually stronger now than it was when you were at Unilever.

 

Paul Polman:  Absolutely, because you, you don't have people that move for you because they are bonded to you in one way or another with an employment contract, or a bonus, or the formal authority that you have in the spending power that is behind the conglomerate like this. And ability to you know, manage it in a way that probably gets you some of the results but are not embedded. I've always believed more in the moral authority, even when I was in Unilever, and have a principles-driven organisation versus a rules-driven organisation. So I believe that is not better for the longer term, it might get you a little bit later where you want to be. But interestingly, Unilever, never incentivized our people financially for sustainability, or for diversity. I always felt that if you didn't believe in it, you shouldn't work there. But if you want to have it embedded in the culture, it shouldn't be bought something that's difficult to understand for many people still today. So having the moral authority which you probably also need to a certain extent, with your formal authority, is a much more powerful weapon to drive lasting change. You'll also see where people genuinely then want to work with you. You also work and with people that are incredibly purpose driven, and if you don't put the right alliances around you, you can actually achieve more. I find now that, you know, with the neutral platform that we've created was Imagine, which we are financing ourselves as a foundation structure, that's a very safe space for people where actually more trust is created. And transparency and accountability are absolutely the foundations that are needed to build that longer term inclusive prosperity that we’re after. Well, it's, it's the right I wouldn't say better or worse, because I never I enjoy every moment of my life, it's too short not to enjoy it. But it's a it's the right platform right now for what the world needs. And where I can add value. And if you have that possibility, to make a difference or add value, I think it's even more so now our obligation to do

 

Alberto Lidji:  And by your take, in any given industry, or the average industry, if there is such a thing, you grab 20 of the leading CEOs and you're well poised to tip that industry, to make a difference?

 

Paul Polman:  If you have about… depends on the industry a little bit. But if you have about 20%, 25% of the industry together, and you know, as you can imagine, Alberto, those are the responsible companies that you gather first. Then it starts attracting orders, they don't want to miss the boat, it starts attracting other players that you need to drive that system change. But that's about what is needed for systems change. We always make the mistake that we preach to everybody and we want everybody to be comforted. And then we get frustrated that some people don't do it. But it's not needed, actually. You need to focus on the levers of change that you have. And that requires, in our experience… you know, I put once Pepsi, Coke, Unilever and Nestle together, all great people, because they had these cabinets — beverage cabinets, ice cream cabinets — and others… 3% of global warming was CFC and HCFC. Those four companies went together and created natural refrigerants and a different engine, you know, and that's pre-competitive space to me. Nobody buys an ice cream based on the engine that's in the ice cream cabinet. But if you work together and create a natural refrigerant, get some governments there, might have to change some laws, make clear what you're doing, you know, you're talking really about protecting the future of humanity, then even with those four companies, you can drive change.  One of the key things we need to do is move the financial markets to the longer term. I'm convinced that if we could get the key responsibles for Vanguard, Fidelity, State Street, BlackRock, and one or two others in a room and say, guys, this is so important, what can we collectively do, then even there was a few people, you can make an enormous wave. And it goes beyond declarations, you know, there are many declarations out there, and even from some of those companies, that have been very quick to tell others what to do. But if you can really translate that into concrete action, and accountability and transparency, the world is ready for it now more than ever. And the good thing I believe, is that we also have increasingly the evidence that it's just a better way to run your business… you attract better people, you lower your costs, you become more resilient for the future. The financial markets actually appreciate it more, and we are increasingly seeing that these ESG funds or companies that are run, longer term multi-stakeholder tend to perform better. So we're in that sweet spot now, where Milton Friedman is dead I think and where you know, where responsible business is, is again showing the way, you know, we forgot that Adam Smith wrote his book, the Wealth of Nations, but 17 years before that, he wrote a book, which was called the Theory of Moral Sentiments. And I think we're back in the periods of moral sentiments, not anymore as a theory, but hopefully in practice.

 

Alberto Lidji:  And tell me so Imagine is a foundation?

 

Paul Polman:  It's a foundation and then at the same time we have for benefit part of it.  And we are in the process of the B Corp status, because we then look in each of the categories for the more heroic companies that are there that want to be the leaders and that pull the others up. So it's about moving the ceiling up and moving the floor up at an accelerated pace. So we do work with some individual companies to change the face of private equity for example, now, we're working with one company developing a major impact fund, but with criteria that are different than the 10 year holding ,the 20% carry, and you know the ‘I win, you might’ lose type equation that is out there now. So how do you move it to not only risk and return but risk return an impact could create critical mass. Then we would bring other private equity companies around that and create a critical mass and hopefully change an industry. So we're all at the end of the day, not into changing companies, but changing industries. That's really… my life is too short. But sometimes you have to have some individual companies that are the engines of that change.

 

Alberto Lidji:  Changing industries into instead of companies. So tell me, in terms of the industries that you that you have changed and you feel okay, those are on good track. And now you're mentioning sort of like a work in progress with private equity. Which ones are the ones on the other side that haven't quite caught on yet that you have your sights set on?

 

Paul Polman:  Well, we still have a job to do you take climate change, for example, which is our most burning issue. It is true that we have about $25 trillion in companies making commitments for climate change. But if you look at really the ScienceBase commitments, which is really what is needed, which specifically laid out plans to stay below one and a half degrees between now and 2050. And then even more specifically, what do you do in the next 10 years, which are going to be defining, you still find a very low percentage. And obviously, the challenges are the high abatement industries, like airlines, steel, aluminium, cement, and shipping. And whilst we see leaders emerge in each of these industries, where some of the companies are making incredible commitments, you know, the Maersks and the KLMs, just to name a few, we still missed that critical mass. And so we need to concentrate on that. That's also where the, the bulk of the emission is. If you look at food, as I mentioned before, the food companies are doing incredible things, and each of them have pages to fill in their sustainability reports. But collectively, the demand for food, the population growth, the changing eating habits are very, still a very destructive force on climate change. And deforestation, for example, is up year after year, sadly enough, we again, see the tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes, where two soccer fields disappear every minute in Brazil with a government that is grossly irresponsible, or where did Cerrado you know, gets gets unfortunately, abused. So even though we do a lot of good things, we still have our jobs cut out in most of the industries, you know, fashion, most of the fashion companies we work with, are moving to alternatives to leather, or, you know, make commitments to not have, you know, anorexia models or move to regenerative cotton. But the demand for fashion, the fast fashion, we now have 52 seasons, if not more, the growth again of the population makes that even these good efforts that we do, that the overall trend is still not our friend. So what we are focused on is creating that awareness and then bending that curve. And at the end of the day, it has to go to less resource use, we have to figure out another way to measure our success. And those are the tougher discussions and the tougher decisions. But last year Earth Overshoot Day was August 26. And that means that after that day, we use more resources than the planet can replenish, I would say after that day, it means that we are stealing from future generations. So if we don't start thinking of businesses as becoming net positive, actually repairing, restoring, it's not even any more circular, it has to go a step further. And businesses have to show increasingly what positive impact they have in society, be an environmental, but also increasingly social. And if you cannot show that, frankly, you don't have any reason for being. And we as citizens of this world should have those businesses out of existence. That's why you also see the lifetime of publicly traded companies going down quite rapidly over the last four decades, in the US alone, where data are more readily available, but they've gone down from 8,500 to about 4,000. That's a tragedy. It's a tragedy for sharing wealth. It's a tragedy for the resilience of our economies. And it's a tragedy for putting plans in place that have longer term impacts but but need that leadership and continuity. So that's where we need to go back to and I think we would all be better off, including the private sector itself. And there's increasing evidence that that is the case.

 

Alberto Lidji:  Now that we're looking to build back better and then a lot of boardrooms are really focused on what you know what the post pandemic, hopefully post pandemic world will look like. What words of wisdom would you have for policymakers and governments who set the playing field for the private sector? What is it that they can do to incentivize and to facilitate and really to help the private sector improve, playing a positive role?

 

Paul Polman: We've spent about $13 trillion during COVID just to stabilise economies and saving lives and livelihoods. Most of that money actually was wasted. Some of that was well spent but uncoordinated, a panic attempt, and a tremendous cost to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, which have as an objective to irreversibly eradicate poverty in a more sustainable and equitable way, to not leave anybody behind, we really can achieve that over the next 10 to 15 years, would only cost two to thee trillion dollars of incremental spend. So we're at a moment in history, where the cost of not acting is becoming significantly higher than the cost of acting. When we had the financial crisis 10 years ago, we spent a boatload of money to save the financial institutions. But we didn't take care of the two most important things, climate change and inequality. People felt that banks were too big to fail, but people were too small to matter. We saw populism gowing up, we saw Brexit, we saw the the Trump election, we paid a high price for that. Now, we need to be sure that we build back better in a way that is more resilient, that is greener, where we create better jobs where we have a more inclusive economic growth. And study after study points out if we invest in restoring our biodiversity, greening our cities, electrifying our mobility systems, retrofitting buildings,  education, that they have significantly higher multipliers on the benefits versus investments. And also obviously, that they generate more jobs, more resilient jobs and better jobs. So the idea is really to build back greener and not build back brown again.  The European Green Deal does that to a certain extent, with the biodiversity package, with the farm to fork package. But in the US, we have seen under the emphasis of heavy lobbying and money in politics, that twice as much money went to the fossil fuel industry than the green industry in the US, which is absolutely absurd.  I just wrote an article for Harvard Business Review that came out last weekend that you're welcome to look at. It talks about that dysfunctional relationship there that has emerged over the years between business and politics where you know, where democracy gets undermined, where the power of money is more powerful than the power of people. And that never works longer term. So now we need to be sure that these politicians, because they have tough jobs, get the support of responsible business, to do the right things, even if it requires some investment. But you know, the biggest tragedy of COVID, and there are many of them, is that, you know, about 500 million equivalent jobs have been lost, 275 million people are in acute food insecurity issues, this really has been a great reverser on the Sustainable Development Goals. And as we come out of this, we need to be sure that we make that more of an inclusive growth that we create jobs, especially again, for young people and women who have been disproportionately affected. If we don't do that. Our social cohesion will be at risk. It's a much more important thing. I think we talk climate change, but at the end of the day, it always comes back to people and social cohesion. So creating the right jobs, creating them being more resilient, more inclusive, better paying, new social contracts are going to be an incredibly important part moving forward and again once more companies that understand that will do very well — we’re starting to see that already.

 

Alberto Lidji:  What… what triggered… what happened with you, way back when that made you think okay, actually, yes, I'm doing very well the corporate world but you know what, we need to start doing something differently. Let's let's take a leadership role and start thinking about sustainability and stakeholders and… what happened? At what point in your life did something click — if there is some clear defining moment — and started getting you thinking differently than I think most of your contemporaries?

 

Paul Polman:  Well, I don't know if it's more than our contemporaries. You know, Rutger Bregman, in the Netherlands wrote a book called Humankind that came out last year, which basically talks about the goodness of human beings. I think we all have a diamond in ourselves ready to shine. But sometimes we leave it unpolished. But if you don't believe in the goodness of human beings, and the essence of being here, is being challenged. So I always have believed that. But I don't think it's one thing or another, we all have our life journeys. That gives you some crucibles that form you and that will go on until the last day you're here and before you start again, something else. So you know, I grew up in 1956, ten years after World War Two, I always thought it was a long time after the war. But you know, the older I get, the more I realise how close it was. And     education was deprived from my parents. My father was 15 when the War started and 20 it was finished, then he didn't have high school as a result of it. And he had to work two jobs to be sure that his six kids went to school. And education was important. He wanted us to have peace. They always worked on their communities from day one with their church, Boy Scouts and all the things, they understood that they had to invest in others, and by doing so they would be better off themselves as well. So that's how we grew up. And that's a very important thing that we need to remind ourselves of, you know, one of the key things my father always said is never forget your house number. Never forget where you came from, and, and to keep your feet on the ground. That's very much what we do in the part of the Netherlands that I come from. And during your life, you then have your life journey. So I wanted to be first a priest and then I wanted to be a doctor, I ended up with serendipity in business, I wouldn't do it again, today, I wouldn't go into business, necessarily, but I always felt more of an urge to help other people. But as I progressed in business, with a little bit of luck, I found that the impact that you can have as a company and the way you do business, that could be different. And these issues became more transparent. You can’t blame people when these issues when really there, but we've been so successful lifting people out of poverty, we've had such a population explosion. And if you add these two up, you know, it puts enormous pressure on the planetary boundaries. And then, you know, I've been fortunate enough to work with companies where their values are aligned with mine. The P&Gs, the Nestles, the Unilevers, which have been around for 100, 150 years, for that same reason… these companies are built to last. And then during your journey, you discover different things, you know, these companies are very much working in the developing markets with poor people on the ground and helping with them to improve their lives. And I've been exposed to that throughout my years, we have our own charities that are important, you know, I climbed Kilimanjaro with eight blind people, that changed my life. And six of us made it to the top, the first blind African and others from all parts of the world. And we started a foundation, my wife and myself, now that has 26,000 blind kids in Africa in school and, and I was in Mumbai, you know, in the terrible storming of the Taj Mahal, we were stuck there. And I saw the value of life a little bit clearer, and how many last tragically that night, but also the goodness of people shone through when we came out. And you know, I worked in New Castle, where I saw for the first time in my life, second generation, unemployment went steal, coal, and shipbuilding had all gone belly up. And, you know, you just realise increasingly… so that we've just been lucky that we won the lottery ticket of life. You know. When I was born in the Netherlands, I had a toilet and a home, I didn't have an issue of open defecation, we had food, then have to worry about sanitation or stunting. We had free education from the government, which gave me an incredible opportunity. But what did I do for it? Nothing. I was just born in the Netherlands. So if you win the lottery ticket of life, then and you will become financially independent and can do what you want and work where you like, and all that you only belong to 5% of the world population. And, frankly, if you only belong to that 5% and you start realising that, then you know, it's your duty, or I would say your obligation to put yourself to the service of the other 95% and it's very selfish, it's very selfish. Anytime I feel down or depressed or a little bit demotivated or things don't go the way I wanted it to go, you know, I think of all the people that we help, that are blind or deaf blind, that want to become ministers of education, want to become doctors, want to have families, and then you know, put yourself straight. You know, some people think greed is good, but longer term generosity will always win.  If you can get to that in life, and it's the sweet spot to be in and we're fortunate to be there. Then it's also a good thing if you can make the changes or help influence the changes that need to be made.

 

Alberto Lidji:  So what would you have gone into if it if not business? In hindsight, had you to do it again, maybe business…

 

Paul Polman:  I'd still often think of becoming a doctor, but in Holland they had a lottery system… because the government pays for everything. So there's a numerous clauses are numerous fixes, as they call it. So I couldn't at that time, but I don't know if I would start today as a young person, I might still go that direction. Or now there's so many more possibilities… I’d start a B Corp and social enterprise you know, we have started some but I would do that with… and to share some, and you know, I'm involved in many of them and admire them, and there's so much need for it. And you can create multiplier effects that are much bigger than, you know, than we realise. So, redesigning how business could be and should be, to the benefit of society, is a very important thing. So the good thing is there are many more opportunities now.

 

Alberto Lidji:  What do you see a success for the next 10 years as we dovetail nicely with the SDGs for 2030?

 

Paul Polman: So this is important, in fact, 2021 is an important year because we had a pause in 2020. And a lot of the events that we had organised globally also came to a pause. So this year, you have the food summit and nutrition summit, the biodiversity summit, the COP-15 in Kunming, China, you have the COP-26 in Glasgow, UK. So this is a year of delivery, and where we need to get people into higher ambition, and then putting that into action. And this is going to be a very important defining 10 years. People talk about where do you want to be 30 years from now, 40 years from now, what should the world look like in 2050… is all what we decide today. You know, the International Energy Agency in 2014, not that long ago, said it will take till 2050 until we have green energy at five cents per kilowatt hour, we actually have achieved that in 2020. The same estimates were made for electric vehicles, they said it will take to 2050. And many of the fossil fuel companies said yeah, we want all that but people need energy, you can keep them poor, we still need fossil fuel, we are proving that all these curves, and the technology etc, is this going exponential. And if we put a little bit more energy behind that, and not fight it, but collectively embrace it, we would have hydrogen at a lower cost than fossil fuel in the next three to five years as we wanted to. And these are major tipping points that need to happen now, also major opportunities to invest. In fact, the funds that are going now… the venture funds that are going now into green energy, are bigger than any other area. So there is something happening there that people need to be aware of. And all too often, I see still people taking the easier wrong than the harder, right. ‘Oh, I can't do it, my shareholders won't allow me, it will cost us more, my employees will not be’… you know, these are all little cop outs where you want to stay in a safety zone. And what we need increasingly more is leaders that, you know, moral leaders that feel uncomfortable, that are bold and brave, that make commitments beyond really… that they know right now can be delivered, perhaps, but that they no need to be done. And this is what needs to happen in the next five to 10 years. And with that we have to embrace the young generation and make it a more inclusive recovery…  50% of the population is below 30 years old, and they're going to be 100% tomorrow. So I've always been saying don't give them a seat at the table actually give them the table. They’re creative, they will know how to work in partnerships, they understand technology, they're purpose driven, more multi-generational in their thinking. And, lots of the solutions to the challenges that we have are already there. And they're positive about it, we don't have to be apologetic, we can do this with positive energy, which always is more effective than the alternatives. And so the 10 years is going to be decisive. And this year 2021 is going to be a proof of the pudding. And the stars are aligned a little bit. We’ve got China now making a commitment to be net zero by 2060. The EU is the Green Deal, etc. and the EU 55% reduction of reactors by 2030. Japan has come in with the new government, South Korea, the UK, now Biden has made as of day one he's entered the Paris agreements again. So you know, I think there is a certain momentum that we need to realise first, understand a little bit more, and then work together in these partnerships to achieve the objectives as were laid down in the Sustainable Development Goals… probably the best business plan we have in humanity. When I looked at it, I asked Mark Malloch Brown once, how do you get it into business? You know, 17 goals, 169 targets… an average CEO, if they can remember three things, it's already a miracle. How can you do it with the Sustainable Development Goals? So we created the Commission for Business and Sustainable Development, and we found an opportunity just by looking at four areas, you know, mobility, cities, energy transition, and food and land use. We found an opportunity of $12 trillion and creating 380 million jobs. Now that was four years ago… that has only gone up. So this is the business plan of the century. It's manna from heaven. It's the only opportunity, I think that we will get in the history of mankind, where we can say that this is the generation that irreversibly eradicated poverty and dealt with the burning issues of climate change. So, there are not many opportunities, I think, that we have as humans to have such a defining moment. It was Ghandhi who said that our ability to reach unity and diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilisation. So, this can only be done in that partnership and that embracing that makes life interesting, but that also makes us solve the most amazing things that we are facing.

 

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. What’s that key takeaway you’d love for the audience to keep in mind? And, maybe you’ve answered it because there’s so much wisdom and insight in everything you’ve been saying here. Is there one key thing, if people have limited bandwidth and memories, what’s that key thing you’d love them to keep in mind after the listen to today’s show?

 

Paul Polman:  Well, we’ve talked about a lot of things, Alberto, but I think the notion that we are all connected, that we are all here for a bigger thing than ourselves, that true leaders are first and foremost human beings that understand that they have to put themselves to the service of others and by doing so they will be better off themselves as well, I think, is the key thing. The moment life really starts is when you realise that it’s not about yourself. If we can muster that energy that you unlock, that freedom that is given to you to really work individually or collectively on these burning issues — climate change and inequality being the most important ones — then, you know, your life will be fun, will be more meaningful, will be far more satisfying — you’ll probably have a longer life, next to a happier life as well. But you’ve left… you made a lasting difference. You can say you left this world in a better chance than you found it and that’s ultimately what life is all about. 

 

Alberto Lidji: I love it, I absolutely love it. You’ve been listening to Paul Polman, Co-Founder of Imagine, former Chief Executive of Unilever, and someone who speaks from the heart and has abundant passion for the Sustainable Development Goals, our global humanity and the future wellbeing of our planet. Paul, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on The Do One Better! Podcast today and thank you so much for everything that you’re doing to improve our world.

 

Paul Polman: Thanks, Alberto, for the opportunity and for your podcast, The Do One Better! — I hope after today we do two better and accelerate it a little bit but it has been a pleasure and I look forward to the next one. 

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Additional Resources

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