Sustainability isn't a mere buzzword to Paul Polman. It is his ethos. From the get-go as CEO in 2009, he has made it a top priority—implementing a plan that has reduced the company's product waste by 29 percent and cut the weight of packaging by 13 percent. Last year, he pledged that 100 percent of Unilever's plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025—not only in its U.S. products (such as Hellman's, Breyers, Knorr and Lipton), but across all of its 400-plus brands worldwide. It's a bold commitment that will have a big impact: packaging is the single largest use of plastic—accounting for nearly a third of all the plastic made globally. Yet by current estimates, only 14 percent of it is recycled, while 40 percent gets dumped in landfills and still more winds up in our oceans and other vulnerable ecosystems. "As a consumer-goods industry, we need to go much further, much faster, in addressing the challenge of single-use plastics by leading a transition away from the linear take-make-dispose model of consumption to one which is truly circular by design," Polman has said. (No wonder the United Nations bestowed its highest environmental accolade—the Champion of the Earth Award—on him in 2015.)
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Yet Polman is keenly aware that one company—while certainly a behemoth—can only do so much, and has called on other industry giants to follow Unilever's lead. At the World Economic Forum in January, he told the roomful of business and political leaders, "If you don't bring purpose to business—if you can't explain as a business what you are doing to make this a better world, then the citizens of this world will very quickly ask the question, 'Then why are you around in the first place?'" Before the conference was over, 11 companies, including McDonald's, Mars, Danone and Coca-Cola, had signed on to join Unilever's 2025 goal.
In addition to reimagining the packaging and other environmental impacts of Unilever's existing brands, Polman continues to expand its portfolio of green-minded companies, including Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry's and Fruttare. Last year, those "sustainable living" brands, as they're called, grew twice as fast as the rest of the company and were responsible for 60 percent of Unilever's total growth—proving that sustainability isn't just about doing good for the planet, it also makes good business sense.
What motivates his work: "If you are lucky enough to be born into a country that has enough food, and there is no conflict, you already have the greatest head start in life. I believe it is the responsibility of those who have the choice of what education to pursue, or which career they would like, for example, to help those that are not in the same situation. To me it is quite simple really."
Surprising fact: "When I was finishing high school, I wanted to go to medical school. But in the Netherlands, where I grew up, places were allocated by lottery and I missed out. But this just goes to show that no matter what path we take, or journey we end up on, you will always have the chance to do good for those around you."
Favorite dish: "I am fortunate enough to travel a lot with my work, and I always enjoy trying new local cuisines. But if I had to name one dish, it would be the classic Dutch meal Stamppot with an Unox rookworst. It reminds me of my childhood and times with my family."