Paul Polman, CEO Of Unilever, says it is “too late to be cynical” about the world’s future. Responding to a question from journalist Joel Makower at the 2014 Net Impact conference in Minneapolis on November 7, Polman explained that climate change, global income inequality, and other problems have become so acute that inaction is no longer fiscally responsible. “The cost of not doing something is now higher than the cost of doing something,” he said. “We have to look for ways to create tipping points. For example, Ben & Jerry’s is finding ways to make its product carbon-neutral. And if you can eliminate the carbon footprint of ice cream, you can do that for anything.”
In a 20-minute speech followed by a conversation with Makower, Polman, the CEO of the global multinational corporation that owns Ben & Jerry’s, told a crowd of 2,000 Net Impact guests that he would like to be re-incarnated as a Ben & Jerry’s cow: “The cows in their Caring Dairy program get better treatment than I do.”
Polman called himself and his audience “incredibly lucky” to have received good health care and education and to live in democratic countries. “Those of us who are so lucky have a moral obligation to serve the 98 percent of people on Earth who are not as lucky as we are,” he said.
At times Polman sounded more like a United Nations official than the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. He serves on the UN committee that is working on a new set of Millennium Development Goals, and said that the goals should serve as a “moral framework” for governments and businesses. He hopes that the UN will set a goal to irreversibly eradicate world poverty by 2030 — and, he added, given the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty in the last 15 years, he feels the goal is achievable.
Over the last few years, Polman has become increasingly outspoken about the social obligations of business. As his stature grows, he is sounding more and more like a proponent of the three-part mission statement Ben & Jerry’s has followed since 1988. The mission statement says that product quality, profit, and social impact are equally important goals. “I stopped the practice of releasing quarterly financial targets because I believe that businesses have to get away from the idea that their only purpose is maximizing profits for shareholders,” he said. “Businesses have gotten away from their original and best purpose, which is solving problems.”
Watch his speech here.