BT Seminar with Paul Polman

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, visited Princeton University to give a speech hosted by Business Today on Sustainable Development and the role of businesses in combatting climate change. As CEO of Unilever, Polman has dedicated his efforts to growing the company in a sustainable manner, drastically shrinking its carbon footprint while developing brands such as Dove, Degree, Ben & Jerry's, and Klondike. Polman currently serves as Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and won the UN’s highest environmental accolade, the 2015 Champion of the Earth Award.

Polman began his speech with a reflection upon the current state of the world, commenting upon the successes and failures of international development since 2000. Under the Millennium Development Goals, world poverty was halved, while drastically increasing access to clean water, nutrition, and education. However, according to Polman, “The flip side is that such enormous demand in consumption pushes the limits on planetary boundaries. We are currently living off 1.5 Earths worth of resources, through a chain of digging up resources, consuming them, and dumping the remains in landfills.” In addressing these issues, Polman presents three key trends in world business that have caused severe damage to the environment and the direction we need to take to avoid going down this unsustainable path.

The first issue he discussed was the short-term nature of investment, resulting in a disregard for long term sustainability. Driven by the quarterly earnings reporting system propagated by Wall St., companies have been pressured by shareholders to prioritize immediate earnings over long term growth. This in turn causes the lifespan of companies to become incredibly short, with the average publicly traded company lasting a mere 17 years. In such a short time, most companies are unable to address longer term problems, abandoning proper long term development in favor of short term profits.

This problem is compounded by the second problem: a man vs nature approach to the world. Due to this mindset, individuals do not intrinsically place a value upon the environment and its wellbeing. Companies and countries care little about factors outside of GDP, which has become an obsolete measurement of national growth. To Polman, the solution is simple: GDP must be replaced with a more effective system that can better quantify what is important to quality of life. By placing a price on clean air, water, forests, and biodiversity, people can learn to value nature and prioritize goals beyond monetary profits.

Looking to the future, we come to the final trend of the few vs. the many. To Polman, the current economic model of “pumping oil from the Middle East, refining it in China, and consuming it in America” is not a sustainable one. If everyone lived an American lifestyle fueled by high levels of government debt and overconsumption, even 5 Earths would not be enough. Instead, what results from such stratification of wealth and consumption is mass discontent by those who have been left behind in development, resulting in mass movements of individuals, such as the exodus of refugees from the Middle East into Europe. At the same time, income inequality has only continued going up, with the 62 richest individuals holding a net worth equivalent to the bottom 3.5 billion individuals. In order to reduce this trend, labor must be made more productive, while materials are taxed to cut down on environmental strain.

Having presented these issues, Polman then shifts the discussion towards potential solutions to these problems, and current trends that may seek to reverse this damage. To Polman, the biggest demographic in leading this environmental shift will be the young millennials. “By 2020, there will be more millennials than baby boomers. They are the generation that cares more about climate change than any previous generation, and it will come down to the leadership and networks of young people to solve these problems,” said Polman.

Addressing the audience, Polman closes his speech with these inspirational words, “No Ph.D. is needed to protect this world. Most of the things that we want to achieve can be done alone by human willpower. What this world needs are systemic thinkers that have a multidisciplinary approach to solving real problems. In the next 15-20 years, you, the millennials, will be the ones that can end poverty and take action to solve climate change. This is the best time to be a millennial.”