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Two Steps Forward

Paul Polman on his new book and 'courageous companies'

An icon of sustainable business says that most companies, including the one he led, aren't thinking holistically about what it means to be "net-positive."

Courageous CEO


An icon of sustainable business has a new book. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, has co-authored — along with sustainability consultant Andrew Winston — "Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take." Given that intriguing title, I thought it would be time to check back in with Paul Pullman, who I interviewed for last week’s GreenBiz 350 podcast. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: So, Paul, this is your first book. What inspired you to write a book?

Paul Polman: It is my first book and I'm very fortunate to do it with the great Andrew Winston, who you probably know from "The Big Pivot" and "Green to Gold." And that probably softened the blow of writing it. At one of the WEF meetings that we had, so many companies wanted to hear the Unilever story. And so many companies are struggling with driving to a more responsible business model. I can't reach them all individually, so this book is really the start of a movement that I hope sets a benchmark of what good corporate responsible companies look like.

Makower: A lot of companies would say that they already give more than they take. "We make products, we put them out there, we create value for our customers and for society through economic development." How is this different?

Net Positive

Polman: What we're referring to is that you can actually show that you derive profits in your business not from creating the world's problems, but from solving the world's problems. If you truly look at the externalities of most companies out there, there are significant negative externalities. And what is interesting is that the higher these externalities are, the less these companies are valued, I think the financial markets are starting to look at this from a risk point of view, which they've always done, but increasingly from an opportunity point of view. So, for us, net-positive companies are companies that take responsibility for their total handprint in society. We call it in the book, "If you break it, you own it."

What we've seen during COVID is that the leaders that probably were more courageous in our definition — they just did better.

Makower: It's become a cliche to say that business as usual isn't going to solve the many social and environmental challenges we face. But business is pretty much "as usual" and has been throughout the entire sustainability push of the past 20 or 30 years. How do we change that dynamic? How do we transform the business models? The economic systems? Isn't that what's needed here? Does net positive help get us there?

Polman: Absolutely. In order to get systems transformation or organizational transformation, you need leadership transformation. And the book spends quite a lot of time on your own journey. Do you care how to get your own purpose before you build that into your business? You cannot be a sustainable business if you're not sustainable yourself. You cannot be purposeful in business if you're not purposeful yourself.

The reason that we don't see the progress that we need, unfortunately, is that many leaders don't have the courage to set the targets of what is needed. This book, I think, will give you enough ideas. And then it gets to the tougher calls that I think many people have been avoiding. Has your trade association said something different than yourself? How do you deal with issues of tax, or corruption or money in politics, or human rights standards in your value chain? Frankly, areas that business for too long has been silent about.

Makower: You mentioned courage, and "courageous companies" is in the subtitle of the book. How do we engender courage? Is it even possible with the current generation of business leaders? Or do we need to bring in a whole new generation before that "courageous companies" idea really gets lift?

Polman: We don't have the time, Joel, and so we cannot just wait for the next generation to come in, although they would probably be a more purpose-driven generation than many of us were, or are. But we cannot wait for that. So, we have to transform, as fast as we can, ourselves as current leaders and stewards, but then also let in the younger generation at the same time.

What we've seen during COVID is that the leaders that probably were more courageous in our definition — that showed more humanity, humility, compassion, empathy, that had a stronger purpose — they just did better.

We're talking about a holistic change that is needed.

And it takes courage, as you know, to set the targets that are needed versus the minimum you can get away with. It takes courage to work together with other people in partnership, because you're not totally in charge yourself. It takes courage to say that you don't have all the answers for the challenges that you need to solve. So that's why we talk about courageous leaders in this book, as a good descriptor of what the type of leadership is that we need in the 21st century.

Makower: So, the book is called “Net Positive,” but there's a related term, "net zero," that's been on a lot of CEOs' lips these days. And it's receiving more than a little pushback, because of its vagueness and squishiness. Are you at all concerned that "net positive" will become another one of those widely used, and maybe overused, terms that becomes all the rage until it comes under attack from critics?

Polman: You're referring more to net zero on climate change when you then have offsets or promises of things that we do or don't know if we can deliver on. So net positive would really say that you move in the direction of Microsoft — that you not only become carbon neutral, but you take the carbon out since you started in 1975. Or that you go the direction of Walmart, where we say, "We have so many acres of regenerative agriculture." So we're really talking here about a different dimension of being reparative, restorative. We're not talking about offsets in this model.

And obviously, it goes well beyond climate change to encompass all the elements of environmental, social and governance. So, it's a broader concept. And I think we have an opportunity to make it come alive. We want to not just sell the books but to create a movement so that people say, "I want to work for a net-positive company." "I want to go to a net-positive university." It is up to us to set these standards. And I expect that the standards will go up a year after year, not only because the needs will be higher if we don't move, but also because of changing societal expectations.

Makower: You mentioned a movement and a lot of people would put Unilever at the front of that movement. Of course, you're no longer CEO, but a lot of that has to do with the work you did there. And Unilever comes up on rankings and just off the cuff — "Name a company that's a leader in sustainability." Who do you look to these days as shining examples of net-positive companies? Oh, who do you see as leading the pack?

Polman: I think increasingly what you've seen are CEOs coming forward with bigger and bolder commitments. You see it now for COP26 in Glasgow, the Race to Zero, the Race to Zero breakthroughs. You also see bigger initiatives that have partnerships, where the fashion industry comes together and attacks issues of biodiversity. Where you have the 1 trillion trees, or where you have the financial industry coming together on decarbonization movements. 

But where this book is adding value is that it requires you to be holistic. We cannot just pick one thing and choose to not do the other things. This book talks about how important trust is and how you build trust. And how you embed it in all parts of your operations, from the way you run your pension plans to the way you do your marketing, from the way you have your value chain transparent, to how you participate with governments at the national or subnational level to drive these changes.

So, we're talking about a holistic change that is needed. And I think there are very few companies at this moment in time — including Unilever, by the way — that would really hit all marks of where we think we should be going.

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