Paul Polman – Hope is Putting the Heart Back in Companies for Net Positive Change (Jane Goodall Hopecast S2 EP10 )


Full Transcript:

Jane Goodall (00:03):

Sometimes I need to record one of my books. People want a recording, an audio edition. And in my room, there’s a very small wardrobe. So with the door open, I balanced a mattress between the door and the wall, which put me in a soundproof room. Another mattress over the top of the door, crawled inside, and my sister came and closed the gap. And then I had to do some recording in this tiny, tiny, tiny space. And I think most people probably couldn’t have stood being cramped up like that, but I’m used to it because of all the hours I spent watching chimps, sometimes in very strange positions. So those are some of the fun things that I get to do.

Speaker 2 (01:03):

We are all connected, all our voices matter, and it will take all of our pooled talents and strengths to create a healthier planet.

Speaker 3 (01:11):

Our mother, are one and only home.

Speaker 4 (01:12):

I aspire to change the world, too, because of the hope she gave me.

Speaker 5 (01:16):

The earth is beautiful.

Speaker 6 (01:17):

She devoted her life to this.

Speaker 3 (01:19):

Together we can save the world.

Speaker 5 (01:22):

Together we can. Together we will.

Jane Goodall (01:23):

What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall. And this is the Hopecast. Today, I get to speak with someone who’s a leader in aligning business practices with practices that are good for the environment and for society, Paul Polman. Among his many endeavors, Paul is the former CEO of Unilever, and while he was CEO, he moved that company in alignment with his vision. He’s the co-founder and chair of Imagine, an organization that strives to build net positive companies. Most recently, he’s co-authored the book Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive By Giving More Than They Take.”

Jane Goodall (02:17):

I am really excited to speak with such a fantastic proponent of corporate sustainability initiatives that help to make our world a better place. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Paul Polman. You know, Paul, I’m really, really excited to talk to you in this Hopecast because you really have become one of my great heroes, and that book that you just wrote, Net Positive, it’s amazing. One thing I love about it is the stories that you fill in with because that’s very powerful.

Paul Polman (02:59):

You’re a great storyteller yourself, though. So we’re just trying to emulate what you show us in many respects. So, don’t be too modest on that.

Jane Goodall (03:08):

Well, I want to know how you began. What was your childhood like? Where were you, and what got you into business?

Paul Polman (03:16):

Well, I’ve been very fortunate, Jane. I was born in 1956. My father was 15 when the war started, and 20 when the war was finished. So he was deprived of high school. He was deprived of his education. They went into hiding, had to work on German farms when their labor had been depleted because of the war. And all what they cared about really was to be sure that their six children, myself being the second one, had a better life than they did. They met in Boy Scouts, my parents, so that was a very important part for all of us to be in Boy Scouts. My father ran it for a long time still afterwards. And he literally, he had two jobs to give us a better life. He unfortunately passed home when he was 68. I got to know him better after he had passed on, actually, the more I reflected on it, and the more wiser I was trying to become.

Paul Polman (04:08):

My mother was a teacher. So for her, education was the most important thing. And so that’s how I grew up. I wanted to be a priest first, and went to a seminary to study that. That was in those days already a dying profession. And so I ended up going back to my hometown and wanted to become a doctor. In Holland, there’s a lottery system because the government pays for education, which has been my saving. And my father made clear that I had to earn my own living. So I ended up going to business school because that was a second option. I did my bachelor’s, but I wasn’t very motivated.

Paul Polman (04:45):

His company had been bought by an American company called Goodrich. So he said, “Why don’t you go to the U.S., learn English, understand what business does?” So I ended up in the U.S., but not going to the tire factory. I just knocked on the door of every university. And for some reason, one let me in, which really is the story of one person who can change your life. In this case, the Dean of the Economics Department. First, I went to home economics. That shows you how much I knew and how much I understood from the system. But in those days in the U.S., I had a tourist visa, I had no money. So he said, “If you teach [inaudible 00:05:19]101, get straight A’s in your first semester, then we will offer you a scholarship. So I started that, got my scholarship, had another job like a maintenance man.

Paul Polman (05:31):

And as I did my studies, I got into finance. A professor in finance wanted me to work for him. So I did that. So that’s how I got my MA and my MBA. And then it was a very small step to PNG because in the evening classes I had to take in the building, I worked as a maintenance man, they were full of PNG people. And so I got attracted to them. They offered me a job, and that’s how I started my international career.

Paul Polman (05:55):

But, a short way of saying, growing up in the sixties was Earth Day, Rachel Carlson’s book, Rio, Biafra, Vietnam War. We were protesting in the Netherlands because there were nuclear weapons and American bases when I grew up, one very close to my hometown. So we were a little bit of the modern day hippies, if you want to, but a very socially high level of consciousness. And that still is in my veins. So I always saw business as a force for good, and that we should be there to address the world problems, not creating them. But, many of these issues were probably not in our radar screen when we were only two or three billion people, but that has changed in the last few years. And now we have more to do, and we need to do it together because it’s simply too big for any of us to take on their own shoulders.

Jane Goodall (06:45):

We do have to do it together, and we actually have very dark forces to fight against. Isn’t that true? Turn it around. See that you make a difference. See, in your little sphere you are making an impact. And then, luckily, I’m sure you agree with me, Paul, but tell me if you don’t, when you do something that makes the world a little bit better, it makes you feel good. If you feel good, you want to feel better, so you do more.

Paul Polman (07:13):

Absolutely. I always say, Jane, the moment that you become a true leader is when you understand that putting yourself to the service of others, you’re also better off yourself, as well. Generosity always wins long term. It’s just that we don’t have so much time anymore. And that’s why your book Hope is so great, because we do need to now build on that momentum. And in the end, indeed, everything happens on the ground and it is about people, and it is about the local communities, and that we need to keep in mind if there’s one challenge in the global issues, it’s that we become very quickly distant from fellow human beings, from nature.

Paul Polman (07:48):

And we need to be sure that we keep that connection. That’s what I tried to do in my life in Unilever, because that’s where the solutions are. As we’ve seen with COVID, unfortunately, it didn’t come from the government. They were even still today withholding it from two-thirds of the world’s population. But it comes from the local people who go on the ground in the communities, who go through extraordinary efforts. That’s where you find the heroes. But you know it better than I do.

Jane Goodall (08:14):

Paul, how do we get other big companies to have the same altruistic attitude and love of service that you have? I hope this book will help.

Paul Polman (08:27):

That’s the idea. With this book, we actually are trying to create that movement, to reframe what good looks like. It’s not really about the book sales, it’s about the behavioral change. If we don’t understand with a higher level of consciousness that we actually are nature … Hubert Reeves said it very well when he said that man is the most insane species. He destroys a visible nature, but worships an invisible God, not realizing that the invisible God he worships is the visible nature he destroys in the first place. And this is what we are doing. So I’m actually now more hopeful because we need the private sector. It’s no sense denying, or isolating, or excluding. They are 65, 70% of economies in countries that you know, better like Tanzania and the whole region, probably 90, 95% of these economies with small and medium size enterprises. So they’re 80% of the financial flow, 90% of the job creation. We cannot achieve the sustainable development goals if business isn’t part of it.

Paul Polman (09:30):

And interestingly, we’re now at the point, as we’ve seen with COVID, that the cost of our failings are becoming higher than what it would cost us to address these issues in the first place. And this makes it very interesting for smart business. I think that is also why you see the financial market becoming more interested. They’re historically not being driven by reasons of morality, but increasingly, as we’ve seen in Glasgow with alliances, they’re starting to say we need to decarbonize our portfolios because it is not anymore a question of risk anymore, it’s a question of opportunity. Companies like Orsted in energy, or companies like Tesla in mobility and electric vehicles, they are getting increasingly more and more rewarded by the financial community because they’re positioning themselves well towards the future.

Paul Polman (10:21):

And what we’ve seen during COVID is that companies that accelerated this energy transition to clean energy, or that take better care of their people and their value chains, the human rights standards, the social safety nets, the racial inclusion, and companies that actively try to get more sustainable, they’re actually also getting a higher valuation from the financial market. And at the end of the day, that’s probably the biggest driver if we like it or not, that incentive that makes your company more resilient so that you can have a longer, more successful future.

Paul Polman (10:59):

And it’s not difficult to understand. Your employees are more motivated. You become a better employer brand. You have better relationships with the communities that you work in, with your suppliers. So when there are big shocks like we’ve just had, that is much more resilience and much more joint partnerships to help these things. And all of that gets translated into better results. So I always say that businesses that move into that direction are positioning them well for the future. The ones that don’t are heading towards the graveyard of dinosaurs. And I think we’re starting to see more of that already happening. It’s really in businesses’ interest to make societies function. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to function either. There are no jobs on a dead planet, as you know.

Jane Goodall (11:46):

No. I’ve always said, and I’ve never really known if I was right to think this way, but that big corporations, big powerful corporations, in so many cases, are propping up governments like supporting campaigns. So do you think that as businesses move in the direction that you’ve just outlined … and in a way it is seeing writing on the wall. Some of the CEOs I’ve talked to have seen we cannot go on with business as usual. It’s just not possible, not on a finite planet. So do you think that as small companies move in this, obviously the only sensible direction, is that going to be able to influence some of these governments that are swinging so frighteningly to the far right?

Paul Polman (12:37):

Yeah. It’s a good question. And sometimes you do a step forward and two steps backwards, and it feels like that sometimes. And that is frustrating. If you see what happened in the U.S. with the previous presidency, or with both narrow now with the rainforest in Brazil, or … and some others, the world is full of populists, or nationalists, or hate I say, xenophobics. And actually, it’s not the fault of these people. We really have to go back to why they got elected in the first place. And it is because we failed to address these issues before. We failed to make this a more inclusive growth, we failed to make it a more growth. So these are little signals of failure more than anything else.

Paul Polman (13:19):

And I think CEOs, which are now being seen as more trusted than governments in many places, understand that they not only have a bigger role to play, but that they also have to step up and make their voices heard. 95% of CEOs don’t want to go back to where we came from. Most CEOs understand that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. And anything by definition that we can’t do forever is unsustainable. They also understand that they have to defend the basic human values.

Paul Polman (13:49):

Anytime politicians try to attack dignity and respect, democracy, equity, they have to step up. And you saw that happening in January 6th in the U.S, or when human rights are being violated. CEOs need to have an opinion. And frankly, society expects them to have that opinion. Employees expect them to have that opinion. One of the big changes that we have seen is the employees actually being willing to walk out. Every week now there are companies, be it from Netflix, to Microsoft, to Amazon, good companies in essence, but where their employees say, “If you’re not more aggressive on climate change, I don’t want to work here anymore. If you give mattresses to the border control in Mexico, where children are separated from their parents, I don’t want to be part of it. If you give face recognition to the government and they start to control us in a way that undermines democracy, I don’t want to work here.” So the companies have activists, like you’ve been a whole life to some extent, an activist, from the outside in. We’re now finding them actually inside. And that’s a big galvanizer for change.

Paul Polman (14:55):

The big change we’ve made in the last few years is that people are now convinced of the direction. The why is not any more an issue. A few people, but the why is well understood, why we need to create a more inclusive society, why do we need to attack the issues of client climate change or food security, et cetera. It’s just that they struggle with the how. And because a lot of these things we can’t do anymore within the current system that we have created. So optimizing a system that doesn’t quite work for us is nearly the definition of insanity.

Paul Polman (15:26):

So what we say in the boo Net Positive, as well, is companies have to play a bigger role to drive these broader system changes. How can you drive the accounting system to not only reward financial returns, but also social and environmental returns? How can you change your food system to protect biodiversity? How do you change your energy systems to get out of the drug of fossil fuel, or methane, or gas and coal? So these are the type of big changes that are happening now, and they struggle with it. What the book is trying to do is change what good looks like. Many companies are in what we call the CSR space, corporate social responsibility, and that’s about being less bad. But in a world that already has overshot its planetary boundaries, less bad is not good enough anymore. So, you understand.

Paul Polman (16:15):

So you have to start thinking restorative, regenerative, reparative, and that is really the essence of Net Positive. But it starts with that higher level of consciousness. And it starts with taking responsibility. You cannot hide behind outsourcing your value chain and then outsourcing your responsibility. It doesn’t work anymore. You have to take responsibility of your total impact in the world, all consequences intended or not. That’s where companies like Facebook, which have a big role to play. A great platform brings education, healthcare, whatever to people. But if you don’t take responsibility for child addiction to the media, undermining of democracy, or hate speech, then people don’t accept this anymore. We have to get into this mindset of net positive.

Jane Goodall (16:59):

You know, I’m thinking of states that are becoming very autocratic dictatorial. So, one of the things that people have always picked up on is sanctions. We’re going to sanction you. And if you look at sanctions from the other side, from the side of the country being sanctioned, the dictators who are doing all these bad things, it’s not hurting them. But the people who really suffer are the people who can’t get stuff anymore because it’s been sanctioned. So do sanctions work? Is it a way to go, or do we have to find another way to tackle these … Well, I call them rogue regimes because they are.

Paul Polman (17:40):

Yeah, they are. And unfortunately, we have too many of them still. And the reason that sanctions don’t work as well as they were intended to be is because the whole wealth is not aligned anymore. So if you close the door in one direction, the door opens in another direction, and the effect of the sanctions disappear. You look at the tragedies unfolding right now in Myanmar. And we’ve tried to put coalitions together from businesses and say what happens to the Rohingyas is unacceptable. These are major, major violations of human rights, that if we stay silent or don’t do anything, that becomes the norm. And if that becomes the norm, we actually erode humanity. We become complacent to the crime itself. It’s the same as in any other country when we don’t speak up to things that we know are wrong. So we do need to keep pressure in some way or another to show what the standards are that the world can accept, and what the standards are that the world can’t accept.

Paul Polman (18:36):

But what is more of an incentive to change is not that fear or that threat, because you and I know when you try to get people to move out of fear, your amygdala goes into overdrive, and you get the fight, the flight, the freeze. It becomes reconstructive behavior. What is beautiful about your book that I have here, the book of Hope, is that you approach it positively. So how do you change companies? How do you change systems is by showing what that potential is, by showing that actually where we are going to is 10 times better than where we came from. And there will be companies or people that will suffer in that transition. And what we need to learn to do is be very respectful, ensure that we help these people. The problem with globalization was not globalization itself. It’s that we didn’t take care of the ones that were suffering from globalization.

Jane Goodall (19:39):

If we, as we must, phase out factory farming of animals, and what’s called conventional agriculture, which you know a lot more about than me after being in Unilever, that means all these people who are working in the factory farms in horrible conditions, we have to find jobs for them, don’t we?

Paul Polman (20:00):

Yeah. What you actually see is now, Jane, that this transition to this greener, more inclusive economy, that decarbonized economy, which we must, that it actually has the signs of more job creation, better job, more resilient jobs. And, by the way, in a world that we can live in. But that transition, if you close a coal mine, you have to take care of the coal miners. And that’s the same for these slaughterhouses. The good thing about Glasgow, the COP26, where we did the climate change negotiations … and you were there not only in spirits, you were there with a strong advocacy from a distance, and your voice was heard. But for the first time, people understood that if we wanted to stop the … or solve the climate changes crisis, it cannot only be an energy transition. We also have to think differently of our food system. We have to protect our natural habitat.

Paul Polman (20:50):

You know, our food system is nearly 30% of emissions, methane and livestock that you refer to being one of the major ones. And yet it’s also 20, 30% of the solution. The tree is probably the best invention in the world. And the good thing about Glasgow is that nature based solutions have come on the radar screen. We obviously have the Food Summit. We have the COP15 in Kunming, but people are starting to see this.

Paul Polman (21:14):

And as part of this, we need to reverse nature loss. We need to get rid of methane that has actually made the food industry increasingly one of the bigger carbon emitters. And that means alternative diets, changing to alternative proteins, and all these things. And you see that the market starts to understand that you look at the market valuation of companies like Beyond Meat or Oatly. They have created more value than the conventional food companies who have been sleeping at the wheel. So in that sense, the economic process, to some extent, is start adding to work in incentivizing the right behaviors. But we must. We don’t have much time there anymore.

Jane Goodall (21:52):

You know, the big difference … and I’ve said this to you before. The big difference between us and our closest relatives, chimps, are intellect. I mean, okay, animals are way more intelligent than we used to think, but it doesn’t compare with sending a rocket to Mars. That’s the order of difference. So we have not used our intellect wisely. We’ve lost the wisdom of making a decision based on how will this help the health of the planet, the future generation, all the things you’re talking about in your book, which seems to have been a disconnect between the clever intellect and love and compassion, the human heart. We have to now use our intellect together with our heart to come up with those kind of solutions you are talking about.

Jane Goodall (22:45):

We need to move to a plant based diet. We need to move away from on this conventional agriculture. We need to ban nuclear weapons. We need to use all the money that’s spent on defense and aggression to help alleviate poverty so that everybody can make wise decisions in how they live, and not be forced to destroy the environment or buy horrible junk food in order to survive. We know how to do that. It’s the will to do it. And if you, with your book, can get together with other CEOs of major companies, and put out this positive message that if you do this, if you follow this lead, your company will prosper.

Paul Polman (23:29):

Yeah. Yeah, I could not have said it better, Jane, and I totally agree with that. It is willpower. This is not a crisis of climate change, or food security, or inequality. It’s a crisis of empathy, greed selfishness. We call it in the book, courageous companies, but that is made up of courageous leaders. Courage comes from the French word coeur, and coeur is the heart. We really need to bring humanity back to business. We need to have the heart and the brain. And what we’ve seen during COVID, to your point, is that leaders and companies that did better were leaders that were operating with a much higher level of empathy, or compassion, humanity, humility, purpose driven, partnership, thinking multi-generational. All these things are the new forms of leaders, from competitive leadership to cooperative leadership.

Paul Polman (24:17):

I always tell these CEOs we have now so many issues that decide the future of humanity, we shouldn’t compete on that anymore. And it’s interesting because we are humans. Humanity comes from the Latin word humus, which is Earth. We are destroying ourselves by our sheer act of destroying others. I think it’s coming through with more and more people. You won’t get them all. So what we need to do is get to these tipping points, and then give governments more courage. Because at the end of the day, we need all of us, including the right regulations and frameworks, to not get dragged down by undoubtedly some of the bad elements or the free riders. So this is really a process of change that we need to accelerate now. And I’m hopeful, for the many reasons that you describe in your book and some others, that I think we’re on that right track, but we just need to accelerate it now.

Jane Goodall (25:19):

When you talk about values, Paul, this was something that, it suddenly hit me the other day. We talk about, oh, you’ve got to give your children a good education and the right values, and then everything will be fine. But jump to the other side. Jump to the extremists, for example. They’re teaching children what the children believe is ethical behavior, that it’s ethical to go and bomb innocent people. Does that not come by to that certain people have been underserved, and therefore they’re angry and they’re desperate, so they clutch at anything, and that’s why we get all these demonstrations and aggression?

Paul Polman (26:01):

Yeah, I think you cannot … I’ve always said, and you’ve actually lived it, but in any system where too many people feel they’re excluded or not participating will ultimately rebel against itself, and you can see that. And for business, it’s not good either. Henry Ford understood that you need to pay your workers well so they all could afford a T Ford. But it’s the same now. We all need to be sure that we create something that is more inclusive, and all the businesses would be better off themselves, as well.

Paul Polman (26:30):

You see now that the biggest problem in this part of the world is attracting talent. People don’t want to work for companies anymore that really don’t create this more inclusive, sustainable world. And it hurts the success of these companies long term if they don’t address that. You see it in these emerging markets where you have a population growth, what the effects are if these people don’t have any prospects in life. Then the only option they have is terrorism. I was, unfortunately in Mumbai in the hotel with the terrorist attack, and-

Jane Goodall (27:01):

Oh, wow. Were you?

Paul Polman (27:03):

Yeah, many people around us lost their lives. And for one miracle reason I still don’t understand, we came out. But the root cause of that is poverty, again, once more, and it ought to make us more determined to fight these things. And I like your reference to the golden rule. My wife wrote a book called The Imaginal Cells, and her version of the golden rule, which you find in every religion, actually, is do unto others, and the planet, as you would have done unto yourself. So, she inserted the planet in there, which I know you like. But if we would just, in case of doubt, live that golden rule, the world would already be a significantly better place.

Jane Goodall (27:45):

I’ve said that, too. All we need with the golden rule is to include nature and animals. By the way, did you see that amazing ruling by the Ecuadorian High Court about the rights of nature? That was a landmark ruling, honestly. It means that all throughout Ecuador, governments will not be allowed to put mining concessions in areas of high biodiversity value. And this is amazing.

Paul Polman (28:12):

That is a breakthrough. No, and it’s a sad thing that we increasingly need to go to the courts to hold up a higher level of consciousness. You have now governments that are being chased in the courts because they’re not aggressive enough on climate change, or companies for that matter. And if we don’t give the rights to all living species, including not only the human beings, then we will not get there. Satish Kumar said it well when he said when they teach economy, they should also teach ecology. You cannot teach the running of the house if you don’t teach the managing of the house. And this gets very much to the managing of the house.

Jane Goodall (28:51):

When you were working for P&G, was that a time when there was a lot of demonstration against animal testing?

Paul Polman (29:00):

Yeah. When I was running in the UK P&G, at that time responsible for the UK and Ireland early in my career. I had people of PETA going after me and said, “You do animal testing in your research laboratories.” I said, “I don’t think so,” and, “Why don’t you come have a look?” “No, I don’t want to look because you’ve removed them anyway before we come.” So there was a little bit that situation of how can we together solve it? And in Unilever, very practically, we had developed all these testing methods that were helping us to be predictive, to get safe products, but didn’t require animals. And we were talking actively with countries like China and Russia to change their laws so that you didn’t have to test animals to be able to sell products.

Paul Polman (29:46):

So, I think in the book Net Positive, we talk about the responsibility of companies now to use their size, scale, and force to drive these structural changes. And we probably saved hundreds of millions of animals by changing the laws. It doesn’t serve anything to say to companies, “Don’t go to Russia or China because they have animal testing,” or “Don’t go into this or that country because their human rights valuations.” Because at the end of the day, you can’t go to any country in the world under that principle. So how do you become that force for change that is bigger than yourself is how I think we need to start thinking more to get to what you and I have been talking about, this more inclusive, equitable world.

Jane Goodall (30:30):

I really want to thank you because I know how busy you are.

Paul Polman (30:32):

Thank you for all what you are doing, Jane. And we need to find some time to truly catch up. So let that be the promise for the new year.

Jane Goodall (30:57):

If big companies continue exploiting the natural resources that are finite, if governments continue to believe that annual growth of GDP is more important than protecting the environment for the future, then what will it be like in 2050? We need a new relationship with the natural world and animals.

Jane Goodall (31:24):

Feel hopeful and inspired to act with the Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host Jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is Frequency Media. Michelle Corey is our executive producer. Ina [Gakusha 00:31:58] is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson, with additional violin tracks from Angie [Sheila 00:32:12]. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Earnest Filler.

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About Author

Scientist. Activist. Storyteller. Icon. Jane Goodall blazed the trail and changed the world. Now, she's studying new subjects – humans! This brand-new podcast will take listeners on a one-of-a-kind journey as they learn from Dr. Goodall's extraordinary life, hear from changemaking guests from every arena, and become awed by a growing movement sparked by Jane and fueled by hope. Join us as we get curious, grow compassion, and take action to build a better world for all. As we face some of the greatest challenges to humankind and the natural world, we have a unique opportunity: the power of technology to connect and share ideas. Now is the time to galvanize people around Jane’s message of hope in action and bring big thinkers together to change hearts and minds alike. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute by Dan DuPont, Shawn Sweeney, and Ashley Sullivan. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Shyr. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.