New models must evolve: Unilever CEO

30 August 2011

LONDON: Brand owners must pursue corporate social responsibility programmes and actively engage young consumers to fuel sustainable growth, according to Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Polman argued a fundamental shift, which began with the recession, was threatening to escalate, as shown by the recent riots in the UK.

"We are moving now increasingly to a political crisis, and if we don't find solutions to the elements of youth unemployment and social cohesion, we are looking at things that might continue along the lines we have seen," he said.

"What we have to watch is that - as Europe and the US go from a serious meltdown to a period of slow or no growth as old-world economies - how can we still ensure that there is social cohesion? Otherwise the issues are even greater."

Polman suggested big business should be more involved in dealing with major social and ecological issues, for the benefit of the public and also to build a setting favourable for long term revenue growth.

"It is a challenge for society, not just business. But business has co-responsibility for some of the issues in society and for helping find solutions. The time is over to say: 'This is for the Government' or 'This is for international institutions'. Nobody is served by that," said Polman.

"If social cohesion and the glue of society become less, I think it would be an environment that would be very difficult for business to be successful. So we have to find solutions."

Among the central matters facing corporations and governmental institutions are sustainability and facilitating economic expansion across the globe.

"The world has become so interdependent that we cannot solve anything individually any more," said Polman. "The US has become dependent on other parts of the world for growth and so has Europe."

Working with youth is another important goal for companies, and Polman is appearing at the One Young World conference this week, to be attended by 1,700 people under 25 years old, and discussing core international problems.

Polman said: "If we want to have this world function, we will need their involvement and we also need to encourage them to help us make some of the tougher calls and see some of the things that we perhaps haven't seen before."

"If you look at the summits on climate change or at the G20, the consumer and youth are absent. Young people are often unbiased and open to new ideas. I think there are skill sets there on which we probably want to draw."

Data sourced from Sunday Telegraph; additional content by Warc staff