Unilever CEO Paul Polman advocated for responsible capitalism in the international business community during a speech Monday for MBA students at the Wisconsin School of Business. Polman’s talk on leadership and sustainability was part of the M. Keith Weikel Speaker Series.
Much of Polman’s message focused on need for responsible capitalism, though he also discussed how addressing social and environmental challenges would lead companies to financial success.
“We need to bring more morality into business and society,” Polman said. “We need to work in the interest of the common good, not just your own good.”
Polman used the example of the 2008 global financial crisis as a situation in which Wall Street did nothing illegal, but the unethical behavior caused much of society to turn against the financial sector.
Although Polman spent time reminding the audience of the challenges the world faces—including the millions of people in poverty without access to sanitation, healthcare, or education—he argued that businesses have an opportunity to be a positive force for good. He said businesses that create solutions to problems, rather than focusing on making money alone, will develop sustainable solutions that ultimately lead to growth.
“You don’t use society and the environment to run your business. You run your business by giving to society and the environment,” Polman said.
Since taking over as CEO in 2009, Polman has brought his worldview to Unilever. In 2012, the company set ambitious goals to achieve by 2020. The goals include improving the health and well-being of 2 billion people, halving the environmental footprint of its products, and sourcing all agricultural raw materials sustainably.
Given Polman’s audience, he emphasized the role young people play in sustainability.
“The most important thing in any company is arguably the people who work there. You have to be sure you always have a close finger on the pulse of the new blood coming into the company, and I firmly believe that young people are often an unheard voice in terms of some of the challenges that society has,” he said.
Polman made time to meet with Wisconsin MBA students before his speech, and said he thought the discussions he had with the students were refined and mature.
“I’m very encouraged by what I heard them all say and do. The [Wisconsin MBA] students are highly motivated and want to make a difference,” Polman said. “That’s a great energy.”
He added that young people are well positioned to be the leaders in the changing world.
“We have to make sure young people are included,” Polman said. “They make up 50% of the current world population and 100% of tomorrow’s population.”
Unilever is a global company with more than $50 billion in revenue that owns more than 500 brands, including many familiar household names such as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Ragu, Lipton, TRESemme, and Hellmann’s. It’s the third largest consumer goods company in the world, after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé.