Business Leadership & Social Good

First published January, 2016

Business has the capacity to resolve many of the global challenges that we face in our planetary ecosystem today. For example, “money” will decide, one day, to do something about climate change. At some point, the cost of inaction will be too great.

In the meantime, it is a few true thought leaders from business and civil society that are making the case for meaningful, measurable reform.

One person that I admire in particular is Paul Polman the CEO of Unilever and a One Young World Counsellor. He has reformed his business integrating sustainability into the company’s corporate strategy, rather than running a separate CSR initiative on the side, which is still the norm.

UNILEVER CEO AND ONE YOUNG WORLD COUNSELLOR PAUL POLMAN CALLS ON WORLD LEADERS TO COME TO A BINDING AGREEMENT ON CLIMATE CHANGE AT COP21, THE PARIS CLIMATE TALKS. WWW.ONEYOUNGWORLD.COM/CALLONCOP

The only reason he has been able to do this and resist the tide of opinion that has questioned and tried to undermine his approach — a narrative retold frequently by the mainstream business press, is twofold.

First, he is a true leader, that has the capacity to look beyond the end of his boardroom table. He realises the scale of his business means he can greatly impact society in the way they do things — in either a positive or a negative sense.

Second, he is clearly good at his job. He’s done so well in a commercial sense that he’s been given the space to run things his own way. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, now four years old, accounted for 50% of the company’s growth in 2014; and the brands at the heart of it (Dove, Comfort, Ben & Jerry’s and Life Buoy) grew at twice the rate as the rest of the business. He’s also a strong advocate of annual rather than quarterly reporting.

Wouldn’t it be better for businesses to find a way to bring sustainability into their corporate strategy, rather than essentially making a donation to a worthy cause?

By comparison, if you look at the CSR activity of many others Fortune 500 companies — they donate a fraction of their revenue to charitable or social causes, often around 1%. If you make $1bn in revenue and donate only $10m it’s not very impressive is it? It doesn’t sound like the positive commitment that we as consumers expect in the modern world.

The opportunity to lead for large multinationals is there. In Unilever’s case, 2bn people use one of their products every day; and their products are sold in 190 countries around the world. Plenty of other companies have scale and reach on a similar scale. For example, Facebook has 1.55bn active users around the world. Apple has sold over 1bn iOS devices and accounts for 92% of profit in the smartphone industry! And, 260m customers visit one of Walmart’s 11,500 stores across 28 countries every week. (As I say, these are just examples of scale, I’m not challenging these companies directly here.)

Leadership from large businesses such as these would have a huge impact, as they’d require their supply chain partners to change their ways of doing things too. Further, they actually have the brand and leverage to influence consumers attitudes; and the behaviour of competitors. If super-brands like Apple make a move, competitors will follow — this is true of product development (Touch ID — finger print unlock anyone?) and would be in sustainability.

There are plenty of business “leaders” in the world, many of whom speak at glamorous conferences and use their CSR initiatives for reputational benefit, but how many of them have the drive and capacity not to settle and to realise the impact they could have on society, while still running their business successfully?

Not many.

Leading a business is a great opportunity with greater responsibility. I think we’ve always known that in a sense of being responsible for your employees, but being a business leader also entails a responsibility towards ones customers and community.

Thanks Paul for helping us to realise that.