“We Could Be the First Generation to Wipe out Poverty”

Unilever CEO gives passionate speech at IESE


“There’s never been a better time to build a better world for all. We need to create a world in which we can come home and look our children in the eye,” Unilever CEO Paul Polman told a packed Continuous Education session, organized by the IESE Alumni Association, in Barcelona last night. The session, titled "Leadership in a Turbulent and Global World," was introduced by IESE Dean Jordi Canals, who said Polman had “turned a great company into one that wants to change the world with sustainability and innovation."

“The rich are richer and the poor poorer,” Polman observed. “The middle class have not benefited at all from growth in the past decade. Capitalism has served us well and pulled people out of poverty, but the crisis of 2008 is the best thing that happened to us. It was a crisis of morality, it made us realise that what we were doing was not sustainable. We had too much debt and we were leaving too many people behind.”

“Any Friedman follower who believes the market will take care of this is wrong. If our system is so wonderful, why do a billion people go to bed hungry every night? And if we’re so smart, how can it be that a billion people are starving while another billion are obese?” And yet, he added, “we could be the first generation to wipe out poverty in the world.”

He pointed out that, while public trust in business and government is very low, people do expect business to be part of the solution. “Business needs to lead and not wait for government. And CSR isn’t good enough anymore—it’s just about 'less bad', not actual improvement.”

On his first day after taking over at Unilever, he said they were going to double its business but at the same time source all its material responsibly and take responsibility for the total value chain for all the brands. “I stopped quarterly reporting the day I started as CEO, and the share price went down because the market thought I had something to hide. It’s easy to get the share price up on the quarter, but we don’t make 90-day decisions,” he said. “Only transparency builds trust, which is the basis of prosperity.”

Before he gave his talk, Polman was presented with the 2013 IESE Food & Beverage Global Award, which is presented to a businessman or woman with a distinguished international career in the industry. IESE’s María Puig said that Polman had been chosen because he had “guided Unilever’s expansion to emerging countries while pursuing sustainable policies.” The award was presented by Prof. Jaume Llopis. Polman accepted the award on behalf of the 75,000 Unilever employees.