Paul Polman: Business chiefs must 'reinvent capitalism' to thrive in 21st century

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Polman calls capitalism 'damaged ideology' and urges private sector to spearhead progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Corporate sustainability trailblazer Paul Polman last night issued a dramatic call for business leaders to "re-invent capitalism", in a speech to the Chairs and CEOs of top UK and international companies.

Speaking at the annual Odgers Berndtson dinner in London, the former Unilever CEO told guests that "capitalism, which has been responsible for the growth and prosperity that has done so much to enhance our lives, is a damaged ideology and needs to be reinvented for the 21st century".

He called on his audience to take a lead in addressing major world problems, arguing that firms which prioritise tackling climate change and inequality will prove the most successful in the 21st century.

Polman has long been vocal about the risk climate change presents for the business community, famously revealing in 2015 that climate impacts were already costing Unilever €300m a year.

On stepping down as Unilever CEO at the start of this year, Polman was hailed as one of the first global business leaders to demonstrate that multinational companies can combine making profit with prioritising sustainable and socially conscious decision-making.

While at the helm of the consumer goods giant, he championed its Sustainable Living Strategy, viewed as an exemplar for corporate sustainability strategies and praised for driving investment in green product development, supply chain improvements and packaging innovations.

Earlier this year Polman launched IMAGINE, which he describes as an "activist corporation" that aims to work with companies to step up action towards achieving the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Polman used his speech at the annual Odgers Berndtson dinner to drive home this message.

"Responsible business must step up," he said. "The commercial incentive for investing in the SDGs is compelling, with the opportunity to unlock economic growth worth at least $12tr a year and generate 380 million jobs.

"Companies with a strong sense of purpose are better able to grow not only revenue and profits but also create additional value, such as customer loyalty, attracting top talent and developing new products and services."

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