Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

The Dutch businessman on a mission to unite companies over climate change

by Belinda Goldsmith | @BeeGoldsmith | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 10:22 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Paul Polman, then chief executive officer of Unilever Plc, attends a forum in Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris, France, August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Image Caption and Rights Information

"If you can bring about 25% of the industry together across the value chain, you can create tipping points, and that accelerates things," says Paul Polman

By Belinda Goldsmith

DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - While global leaders take to the stage at Davos in the Swiss Alps, one of the world's most prominent businessmen is busy behind the scenes - trying to bring together the heads of major companies to tackle climate change and inequality.

Paul Polman became known as a leading voice on sustainable capitalism while running consumer goods giant Unilever for 10 years and is a regular at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting for the global elite in the upmarket ski resort.

Since retiring from Unilever a year ago, Polman has set his sights on using his sway among business chiefs, governments, finance and civil society to get them to work together on climate change and making economies fairer for everyone.

"If you can bring about 25% of the industry together across the value chain, you can create tipping points, and that accelerates things," Dutch businessman Polman, 63, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at a Davos hotel.

His new sustainability consultancy, Imagine, set up last year, scored a major victory by organising a fashion industry pact to announce at the G7 summit in France in August.

The pact involves 62 major fashion companies striving to use sustainable cotton, cut out single-use plastics, and align their business with the Paris climate pact to address global warming.

Now Polman wants to convene similar agreements in the food and land sector, tourism and travel, technology and finance, saying these companies had the biggest impact on the United Nations' global goals to address inequality and climate change.

He was optimistic an agreement was achievable fairly quickly in the food industry where he is already well connected as chairman of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

"They all want to be part of it ... six months from now we'll have a substantial group in the food sector," he said.

Polman said leaving Unilever gave him greater influence.

"As a CEO you had shackles around your legs," said Polman, who has taken a leading role on a powerful list of bodies including chair of the International Chamber of Commerce.

With global challenges growing, governments could not be relied on, he said, adding that chief executives were starting to step up with bolder initiatives.

He cited Microsoft's pledge to go carbon-negative by 2050 by removing carbon it has emitted over the past 45 years, and asset manager BlackRock saying it will stop investing in companies with a "high sustainability-related risk".

"Things are happening at a faster pace than perhaps people think, but the multilateral process is difficult," he said.

He pointed to disappointment over the recent COP25 climate talks, deforestation rising in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, the U.S. administration quitting the Paris pact, and the Australian government's reaction over bushfires and climate change.

But there was greater awareness at Davos this year about the need to act, including a commitment to plant one trillion trees to curb climate-heating emissions, he said. "The initiatives are becoming bigger and bolder. Is this enough? No, because you cannot change the world without governments' buy-in," he added.

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.