Companies and brands urgently need to become more responsible in the way they behave and adopt a longer-term outlook if they are to prosper in the difficult times that lie ahead, according to the ex-CEO of Unilever.

Paul Polman stepped down at the end of 2018 after ten years at the helm of the FMCG giant where his personal mission was “to galvanise the company to be an effective force for good”. Now he’s playing on an even bigger stage as vice-chairman of the UN Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Speaking at the IAA Word Congress in India recently, Polman brought his FMCG experience to bear on the problems facing the world, from climate change to plastic waste, and urged brands and companies to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“The issue is that corporates have become inhumane; shareholder primacy is the order of the day; profits for the quarter have taken precedence over long-term interests of the organisation,” he argued.

“We have to be responsible social corporations,” Polman stated. (For more, read WARC’s report: Ex-Unilever CEO Paul Polman urges sustainable, ethical business.)

He reported that at Unilever, a sustainable development growth model for the last 10 years delivered a shareholder return of 300%.

“It’s a damn good business strategy to implement for any company,” he declared. “And consumers are asking for this: 64% people around the world will now only buy products based on their beliefs.”

The experience at Unilever has been that those brands with a “strong purpose” are growing faster and are more profitable – “so it’s a good business plan”.

As to what constitutes purpose, Polman’s definition is simple: “do we put the interests of our children and their children over our personal greed or not?”

Assuming the former, then brands have to start listening to consumers' concerns around issues such as climate change and plastic waste.

“The cost of not acting has become significantly higher than the cost of acting”, he warned.

Sourced from WARC