Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman explains why climate is ‘no longer a peripheral issue’ for business leaders

November 28, 2022, 11:14 AM UTC
Updated November 28, 2022, 11:19 PM UTC
Then–Unilever CEO Paul Polman in 2018.
Riccardo Savi—Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Good morning, Peter Vanham here, filling in for Alan.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll meet in Georgia for Fortune’s first ever Impact Initiative. On the agenda: how companies can improve their ESG performance, or even have their purpose—beyond profits—drive performance.

Ahead of the meeting, we asked Paul Polman, longtime CEO of Unilever and a firm believer in the expanded role of business in society, to pen a piece on what he considers business’s most important priority today: climate action.

According to Polman, post-COP27 business needs to kick into action because politics won’t—and because it can do what politics can’t. “Business literally can’t afford to sit back and wait for politics to get its act together,” he wrote, pointing to the economic cost of extreme weather. But he also noted: “There are tremendous gains waiting for those who move quickly.”

Asked to elaborate for the CEO Daily audience, he added: “Climate is no longer a peripheral issue—it’s at the absolute core of sharp business strategy. The most resilient, innovative, attractive companies are moving from a risk to reward mentality.”

For Polman, the best way for companies to get ahead is by shifting from a classic “corporate social responsibility” or “do less harm” mindset, to embracing regenerative and restorative business models.

“Becoming carbon negative or actively creating more nature and biodiversity, what we call having a net positive impact,” are examples, he said. “This is how leading CEOs will ensure their companies’ resilience, dynamism, and appeal in the volatile years ahead.”

Polman, who is returning from the B20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, won’t be in Atlanta. But Peter Bakker, CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and for years Polman’s confidant, will. Among others attending: Occidental CEO Vicki Hollub, Ares Management’s Tony Ressler, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, and top sustainability officers from Walmart, Coca-Cola, GM, UPS, Target, Siemens, Pfizer, Delta, and more.

You can find the full agenda here, and follow the keynote events on 

Peter Vanham


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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