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As Governments Bicker, CEOs Could Be Our Best Hope for Fighting Climate Change and Income Inequality

November 19, 2019, 11:01 AM UTC

When Paul Polman took over as CEO of Unilever in 2009, at the depths of the Great Recession, he set forth a goal that was as ambitious as it was anachronistic: double the company’s top line while halving its environmental impact.

It wasn’t all hot air. Throughout his 10-year tenure running the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, he spent as much time talking to journalists about malnutrition, inequality and the ravages of climate change as he did about market share gains for the company’s Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brands.

But what he might be best known for is his role in fending off, in 2017, Kraft Heinz’s $143 billion takeover bid for Unilever.

Much has been written on the subject, but Polman still feels compelled to lay out the flaws of the Kraft Heinz takeover attempt, seeing it as an example of where capitalism gets it all wrong. For the very few at the top pushing the deal, he says, it was little more than an opportunity to make a quick buck.

“Greed takes over, and a lot of fund managers don’t want to miss that opportunity,” he said Tuesday at the Fortune Global Forum in Paris. He even told Warren Buffett, one of Kraft Heinz’s biggest backers at the time, that the deal might make a few people wealthy, but it was ultimately bad for the public.

Polman left Unilever a year ago and is now co-founder of Imagine, which rallies business leaders to make social change a core part of their business imperative. These CEOs, many of whom are business rivals—what Imagine calls “the courageous collective”—have begun to tackle inefficiencies in their business models and supply chains with an eye to using the power of big business to address climate change and income inequality.

“Our theory of change is very simple: when it’s difficult for governments to function, which is what we see right now… we focus on the CEOs,” he said. “What many CEOs discover is that many of the issues that really need to be addressed simply cannot be done alone.”

One industry they’ve focused on is fashion, one of the bigger polluters, and also a big contributor of the plastics—micro-fibers, actually—found in landfills and oceans. They’ve recruited roughly one-third of the industry’s top CEOs, he said, to tackle not just emissions in their operations and in their supply chain, but also excessive water consumption in manufacturing and the rapid adoption of regenerative cotton.

Earlier in the morning, Polman addressed more than two dozen chief executives and board members who comprise the Fortune CEO Initiative, a forum for corporate leaders committed to tackling major social problems as part of their core business strategies.

He laid out a series of strategy points for them to elevate to the tops of their business agenda. They include: de-carbonizing, more inclusive business practices—not just wage equality, but gender- and minority-equality in leadership positions—and a more equitable taxation system.

“Most CEOs get the importance of this,” he said. “Companies stepping to the plate can de-risk” many of the big societal issues—starting with climate change and income inequality—that the planet is facing.

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