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Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman wants business leaders to accelerate corporate responsibility efforts

June 23, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC
Unilever CEO Paul Polman Leadership Next podcast
Unilever CEO Paul Polman
Jason Alden—Bloomberg/Getty Image

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Paul Polman—former CEO of Unilever and founder of Imagine, a collective of chief executives committed to speeding and scaling up corporate social responsibility efforts—joins Fortune CEO Alan Murray on the latest episode of Leadership Next. One of the pioneers of stakeholder capitalism, Polman has spent many years thinking about the changing role of business leadership. 

The past three months, Murray notes, have shed light on Polman’s argument that capitalism as-is is not working for America—or the world. The coronavirus pandemic and the recession that has accompanied it have laid bare the glaring inequalities in society, in areas from health care to climate change.

Polman said he believes that this will help to accelerate the shift to a model of capitalism that focuses on addressing the pressing issues at hand today, regardless of the financial strain put on many companies. 

“More and more companies understand that things need to change, and they want to be part of it,” he said. 

When he became Unilever’s chief executive at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, he was charged with turning things around for the struggling company. And as he planned to do that, he included a pivot to stakeholder capitalism and baked social responsibility and action into the strategy. 

“Businesses can not survive in societies that fail,” he said. “So we have a responsibility to be sure that these societies function.”

With that belief in mind, Polman founded Imagine. “Global governance is broken,” he said, and many of the global issues facing humanity today—the coronavirus, the climate crisis, cybersecurity—need global responses. He believes that the private sector must step up to the plate. Around the five-minute mark, he goes into the initiative’s specifics.

Polman says the issues that first must be addressed by Imagine and the private sector at large are finding a way to live sustainably on earth without heating up the planet, shifting financial markets to a more long-term outlook, and making our economic systems more inclusive. 

To hear the rest of this episode, including specifics from Polman’s time at Unilever and insights from his longtime friend and collaborator Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, listen to the episode below. 

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