Paul Polman : "I am a prisoner of hope"

On November 22nd, the 15th edition of the World Forum for a Responsible Economy held its opening ceremony at the Lille Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Paul Polman, author of Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take (2021) and former CEO of Unilever, honored us with his speech at the opening plenary. Here is a glimpse of what he had to say.

" Now is the best time to do it "

211123 PolmanThe plenary begins with the entrance of singer-songwriter Suzane, pouring all her energy into performing her hit song: "La planète à la tête en surchauffe", whose lyrics encourage energy transition and eco-responsibility. After the performance, and in a more formal tone, the face of the man the Financial Times calls "the most outstanding CEO of the last decade" appears on the big screen, in front of an attentive and amazed crowd.

Jean-Michel Lobry, moderator of the plenary session, gets straight to the point: "Why did you write this book?" And Paul Polman answers: "Because we know what we have to do, but we are not doing it at the right speed." More than an invitation to reflection and change, it is a true injunction to evolution: we must act, right now. In 209 days, we have already exhausted all the resources that our planet can generate in one year.

"Solve the world's problems, not cause them!"

A simple objective is clearly identified: long-term benefits. Companies must, for Paul Polman, implement "broader transformations to help change society". As if the icon of sustainable business could guess what the captivated audience is asking - "yes, but how?" - he goes on to say that companies must improve their leadership. "Business transformation depends on leadership, and everything depends on business transformation. We need leadership transformation!" he illustrates. Empathy and compassion are two fundamental things in the transformation of the entrepreneurial world, according to the author.

This is also a question of opportunity: "People are beginning to realize that the cost of our failures is significantly higher than the cost of our actions. Companies have the means to act - and it is in their interest to do so!" Paul Polman is convinced: "An ecologically virtuous company is a factor in economic performance." If we slow down the economy and turn more to sustainability, we will gain in performance.

The author of Net Positive also emphasizes the benefits and essential nature of partnerships. A company will not be able to achieve these objectives alone. "We need to work together", between companies, civil society, associations, lobbies and politicians, to find sustainable solutions to economic, societal and political problems. We must, together, solve the problem of corruption and domestic violence for example. There are many issues at stake, and the objective is strong.

Today's commitments, tomorrow's hopes

Therefore, in the (re)construction of a more efficient economic model, as it is more sustainable, we must become climate-friendly, "we must ensure that the financial markets serve the real economy". And to do this, companies and their stakeholders must take responsibility for their global impact by measuring and adapting it. "Your company will be sustainable if you yourself are sustainable," says Paul Polman.

Finally, Net Positive is a powerful story. A story of hope and possibility: "It's important that you play a key role in transforming your businesses". And it is surely because Paul Polman believes so strongly in what he says that his words seem so prophetic. "A company must have the courage to take responsibility for all its impacts, to find solutions, to strengthen its business model to solve problems, not create them," says the author.

We must fight for women to have the same rights as men, for dignity and equity to prevail, for young people to be empowered by companies and to be actors of change at its core. And it is by fighting for this that we will transform our companies and increase our performance while respecting the challenges of sustainable development. These are the issues that Paul Polman revealed during this opening plenary session, which was full of challenges and hopes. "I am a prisoner of hope," confirmed Paul Polman.

Co-president of the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate and vice-president of the United Nations Global Compact, Paul Polman is also the co-founder and president of IMAGINE. Convinced that businesses "must be a force for good", he proved that partnerships between the different actors of our societies are an excellent source of financial performance. CEO for 10 years of Unilever, his guiding principle is to mobilize companies for the climate emergency.