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Sustainable business


Being less bad is simply not good enough anymore

Published 14 July 2022 in Sustainability • 8 min read

Why Paul Polman believes that companies whose leaders bring humanity back into business will help us all achieve net zero.


For many people, Paul Polman needs little introduction. The 65-year-old Dutchman has been one of the world’s leading voices arguing for sustainable business, a cause he championed in his decade running consumer goods company Unilever.

There, he demonstrated that a long-term, multi-stakeholder model is not incompatible with superior financial performance. Polman was also a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel that developed the Sustainable Development Goals and which he continues to champion.

Yet at a recent World Economic Forum he was persuaded by the editor of the Harvard Business Review to turn his experience at Unilever into a book, to “get more people exposed to the story of what you started to do there”, as he remembers the editor telling him.

Thus was born “Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take”, published last year and co-authored by sustainability consultant Andrew Winston. The book takes companies to task for failing to take adequate steps truly to pursue a net zero agenda, and also calls out the phenomenon of companies making claims to be climate-friendly but then hiding behind the trade associations of which they are members and which lobby for the status quo.

Ultimately, Polman and Winston argue, companies must take responsibility for their place in the world and, as a headline in a recent Financial Times interview with Polman put it, “put grandchildren ahead of greed”.

In a conversation with the IMD Alumni Club UK, Polman laid out in cautious terms where we are post-COP26, the global climate summit in Glasgow last November, and what net zero should really mean for businesses.

What he saw coming out of COP26 were plenty of well-intentioned statements in sustainability reports by companies committing to fewer emissions, policies leading to less plastic heading to the oceans, a reduction in deforestation, and so forth.

Yet in a world that has overshot its planetary boundaries, Polman said, such commitments to be “less bad” are simply not good enough. As he put it: “I used to murder 10 people. Now I murder only five. I’m not a ‘better murderer’ as a result.” 

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