Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, is widely recognized for his advocacy and efforts in promoting sustainable business practices and during his tenure at the Company was able to prove that companies can be profitable, whilst dealing with the environmental and social dimensions of Sustainability. Today this is becoming more and more clear but, back in 2010, when he announced Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan (an ambitious initiative aimed at reducing the company's environmental footprint and enhancing its social impact) that move was anything but obvious. The plan included goals such as reducing the environmental impact of Unilever's products, improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, and promoting fair labour practices throughout the supply chain. 

Under Paul Polman's leadership, Unilever became a prominent advocate for the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, and he always emphasized the importance of businesses playing a role in addressing global challenges, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change. 

On the top of that, Paul Polman has been a strong advocate for climate action and has urged businesses to take a leading role in addressing climate change. He has also been keen on stressing the need for businesses to move beyond short-term profit considerations and focus on long-term sustainability. We have also quite often seen him advocating for ethical business practices, transparency, and responsible corporate governance. 

With this background, Paul has inspired many leaders to become more aware of the need to act responsibly. 

Bearing all of this in mind, it is easily understandable how privileged we felt at the Center to interview him recently in a Zoom setting. You can find here an extract of the conversation. It will now be our pleasure to take most of these learnings to the classroom and share them with students and executives. 

Here are some of the statements he made during the conversation: 

On the context  

  • We have now crossed several planetary boundaries for safe living, and we are heading for the extinction of the human species 
  • In the past, Mother Nature was able to compensate for our shortfalls. That is no longer possible. 
  • Businesses can not succeed in societies that fail 

On Businesses 

  • A key barrier is short-termism, too much focus on the here and now. Next 6 to 7 years we will see a big shift from tactical to strategic. 
  • Still, space to create a competitive advantage. The “floor” and sustainability standards have gone up and most big companies have their basic hygiene done.  But, yes, there is still a lot of space to compete above that floor. Those who move fast, transparently, and build trust will lead the way. 
  • Rather make the dust than eat the dust 
  • Need to develop partnerships. Compete is important but when it is the future of Humanity that is at stake we do need to collaborate 

On leadership

  • Selfishness and greed are the sources of all problems. We need better leadership. We need courageous leaders, those who embrace science and take responsibility for the total impact, setting clear targets. 
  • We are short, not only of trees but also of great leaders 
  • CEOs need to focus on the governance model and make sure it focuses on the long term. Start by developing the right long-term incentives and metrics. 
  • Actively seek the right shareholders! In Unilever, I abolish quarterly reviews and move compensation to long-term incentives. By doing so we were able to attract a different type of shareholders: those who really think strategically and focus in the long term. 


In my mind, Paul Polman stands as a shining example of visionary leadership. Listening to Paul makes one truly believe that Profit, Planet, and People can and must live in perfect harmony.

Have a great and impactful week!

Nuno Moreira da Cruz
Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Business & Leadership