A call to action

We operate in a volatile business environment, characterised by growing social inequality, low trust in business and institutions, and the increasing effects of climate change.

Paul Polman speech

2015 was a remarkable year for humanity and the planet. Two historic moments at the end of the year have given us the opportunity to pursue a more sustainable and equitable future.

The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which I had the honour of contributing, provided for the first time in history a clear global framework to resolve the world’s biggest challenges. Indeed they are ambitious, but if we achieve the Goals we could end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change once and for all.

The first test of the Goals came at COP21, when 190 nations agreed the historic Paris Agreement on climate, setting the world firmly on the path towards a decarbonised economy.

Unilever played its part in both agreements, alongside many other companies, announcing our new goal to become ‘carbon positive’ in our own operations by 2030. The unprecedented level of support from the business community demonstrated that it will no longer stand on the sidelines. This in turn helped to de-risk the political process, giving governments the confidence to be bold in their commitments.

These two significant turning points set out a positive vision for the future. At the same time, these developments illustrated more than ever the importance of sustainable business models. They certainly reaffirmed our own belief in the relevance of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), acting as a further catalyst to our own action. Indeed, many of our own goals mirror those of the SDGs. 

Now entering its sixth year, the USLP is proving that there is no trade-off between sustainability and profitable growth. It is also helping us to save costs, fuel innovation and recruit and retain the best talent. Let me share some of our successes.

Continued climate-related challenges, uncertainty in markets and fluctuating commodity prices have made securing our own supply more important than ever before. That’s why we are delighted that 60% of our agricultural raw materials are now sourced sustainably. Water, waste and energy efficiencies across our global factory network have avoided costs of more than €600 million since 2008. And our ‘Sustainable Living’ brands, such as Dove and Knorr, continued to grow. 

We have continued our efforts to enhance livelihoods in our extended value chain by advancing human rights, focusing on women’s empowerment and developing inclusive business models. In 2015, we were the first company to produce a stand-alone human rights report using the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework.

Other areas, however, are proving more difficult. While we continue to make good progress with reducing water use, waste and greenhouse gas emissions in our factories, reducing the environmental impact of consumers using our products remains a challenge. Despite this, we are committed to a full value chain approach to reducing environmental impact – as this most meaningfully reflects the true impact of our business.

Our targets, and indeed those built into the SDGs, will only be achieved by tackling global issues in a systemic way. But systemic change cannot be realised without collective action. It is in the interest of business, government and civil society alike to accelerate progress towards this vision. In fact, enormous opportunities exist for those who commit to taking action. After all, there is no business case for enduring poverty and runaway climate change.

It will take much more than one company, government or community to solve the challenges that face us. We need entirely new types of collaboration, innovation and partnership between these bodies if we are to drive collective action for a brighter and more sustainable future for all.

Paul Polman

Paul Polman signature

Chief Executive Officer, Unilever

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