The UN recently announced the recipients of the UN “Champions of the Earth Award”. The awards were given to five “visionary people and organisations [from] all over the world that exemplify leadership and advocate action on sustainable development, climate change and a life of dignity for all”.
The “Champions of the Earth” winners in each of the four categories are:
Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, for outstanding leadership on the frontline of climate change.
SCIENCE AND INNOVATION:
National Geographic Society, for over a century of life-changing science, exploration and storytelling.
ENTREPRENEURIAL VISION (Two winners):
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, for challenging business norms to show that sustainable, equitable and environmentally-conscious business is smart business.
Natura (Brazilian Cosmetics Firm), for unparalleled commitment to trailblazing sustainable business models.
INSPIRATION AND ACTION:
The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit (South Africa) for outstanding courage in fighting the illegal wildlife trade at community level.
It is encouraging to see Natura (a B Corporation) and Unilever (which owns Ben & Jerry’s, another B Corporation) recognised as world leaders. Natura was acknowledged for its’ “unparalleled commitment to trailblazing sustainable business models”, while Unilever was recognised for “championing equitable and sustainable business practices for a better world”.
According the UN’s assessment of Paul Polman’s achievements as head of Unilever, the company has “developed an ambitious vision to fully decouple its growth from environmental degradation and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan—entirely consistent with his [Paul’s] personal philosophy detailing the need for sustainable business models in a world of decreasing resources”.
Earlier this year, Paul Polman declared that a “purpose-driven business can be profitable. I don’t know where this notion that it can’t be comes from”. Indeed, when he took over the helm of Unilever, he scrapped short-term financial targets and frequently criticises the demands of the quarterly reporting cycle loved by the investment sector.
However, re-orienting a huge global corporation like Unilever to a more ‘conscious business’ way of working is a mammoth undertaking, and when this reorientation clashes with the existing capitalist structure, the criticism is quick to fire back. At this year’s annual results meeting, Unilever came under fire for appearing to care more about environmental and social concerns than the returns generated to shareholders.
In an article written by Paul for the Huffington Post this year, he noted that the “world faces enormous human development and environmental challenges, from poverty and disease to food security and climate change. Significant progress has been made in the last two decades — extreme poverty has halved, hunger has reduced and over two billion people have improved access to drinking water. But huge problems remain. Inequality has widened, one in eight people still go to bed hungry and climate change threatens everything we have achieved since the 1960s. Half a century of progress stands to be wiped out within a generation.”
He went on to berate business for sitting for too long on the sidelines, either “unable or unwilling to be part of the solution to these systemic challenges….By changing the way we do business, by seeing the transformation to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity to be seized, not a risk to be managed, by looking beyond our own impacts to systemic areas where we can make a transformational difference, and by working with others to achieve shared goals, business can play a much bigger role in helping to create a better future.”
Unilever reported global revenue of 48.4 billion euro in 2014. It is the third-largest consumer goods company in the world after Proctor & Gamble and Nestle. Also in the top ten global consumer goods companies are PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Modelez and Imperial Tobacco Group. According to one ranking, the top ten consumer goods companies represent over $US570 billion dollars in revenue.
The activities of these companies have huge influence and impact across the globe, from their sourcing and supply chain, to their manufacturing and distribution, and to the ways their products and marketing touch our daily lives. If more business leaders like Paul committed to re-orientating the businesses and refused, in Paul’s words, to sit on the sidelines and not act, we could begin to truly feel the power of business to create meaningful positive change.
Of course, it requires the global finance and investment sector to walk alongside these leaders and support them, and that (I believe) is probably the biggest challenge of all.