The world is changing at a fast pace. The population is growing explosively and consumption is growing with it. We cannot remain bystanders while we eat the planet. These words come from Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, one of the world’s largest producers of nutrition, hygiene and personal care. Companies play a role in the world of tomorrow, but how?
National and international laws are often the decisive factor for the behaviour of companies: as long as the laws are respected, it is good. But is that enough for a sustainable future? Polman does not think so: "CEOs need to understand that they cannot be bystanders anymore. They need to move from a license to operate to a license to lead and take on an active role."
At Unilever they put their money where their mouth is: in the Sustainable Living Plan Unilever expresses their ambition: by 2020 halve the impact while doubling turnover. Unilever does not yet know how to achieve this, because this requires many innovations throughout the supply chain. However this does not result in Unilever playing the waiting game. On the contrary: they publicly announced this ambition making clear it is optional any longer. Moreover they are completely transparent about where they are now. By publishing a 'wish list' with innovation areas they invite stakeholders throughout the value chain to support them in finding better solutions. This creates a proactive focus on society making it a fixed part of the strategy of the business.
Of course there are risks: there is relatively little attention for the real problems in the world, globally confidence is low and the powerful internet can make or break a company. At company level there are problems with managing the value chain: we know little about where our raw materials and semi-finished products come from and under which conditions these have been created. So we need transparency and cooperation: we really cannot do it alone.
The powerful product brands are perfectly capable to fulfil an exemplary role. Think of the soap brand Dove where Unilever in their campaigns emphasized the importance of washing your hands, or using a food brand to support educational programs around eating healthy. The possibilities are endless and are sometimes simply obvious. Mostly it is a matter of wanting to do it and then making it happen. Or, as Polman puts it: Shape, share and stimulate.
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