Yesterday, in an interview with Peter Tufano from Saïd Business School Paul Polman concluded that covid-19 had “shown the gaps that exist in our society”, and that a “global crisis like this requires a global response”.
Polman, who stood down from running Unilever at the end of 2018, is a seasoned businessman when it comes to discussing sustainability issues. Under his leadership, Unilever helped lead the charge, on behalf of large corporations, in defining why pursuing a “shared value” agenda (coined as such by Porter and Kramer in the Harvard Business Review almost a decade ago) might end up being more than just a newfangled public relations exercise.
From designing a unique global sustainability charter (The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan) for their business operations, and investing in their own accountability frameworks and evaluation metrics for this, through to chairing the private sector group who influenced the UN’s shaping of the current Sustainable Development Goals, Unilever’s ten year sustainability trajectory under Polman paved the way for many other industries.
Way before this last particular decade, many of Unilever’s brands had more than dabbled in the “CSR” space. One of the first tie-ups I learnt about, when I joined CARE International in 2006, were the hand-washing initiatives led by Dove soap in south Asia, and which engaged local CARE teams in finding innovative ways to distribute health messages to rural communities.
It was clear to me, during my initial years with CARE in London, that Unilever had an omnipresent feel about it as a company, in terms of its presence on the sustainability scene.
When I joined the WSUP management team in 2008 for CARE, Unilever were one of the most active private sector partners, determined to prove that the answer to global water-sanitation issues lay in the collaboration between government, private sector and civil society working together.
And then, by 2010, CARE had launched JITA, a rural sales programme in Bangladesh that relied on everyday products being sold by local tradeswomen. No surprise, then, that Unilever had pioneered the earlier pilots to JITA, adapting certain products for harder to reach communities (also no surprise that it was Professor Linda Scott from Saïd Business School who championed a significant investment in measuring the impacts of JITA’s work).
Indeed, in the arena of the emerging partnerships and collaborations, which I saw take shape during those years, Unilever were front-runners.
Moving to Vietnam in 2011, I spent more time in the Asia-Pacific sustainability arena, only to find a similar dynamic out here, with Unilever once more driving the debates and popping up at conferences and seminars to lead the examples of good practice, particularly when it came to partnerships and sustainability.
So, in many ways, Polman’s insights yesterday fell well in line with what I would expect him to say about the current covid-19 pandemic.
Words are easy – real and sustained action tends not to be so.
The tension with putting words into action is not a new phenomenon. I’d be the first to challenge a lot of the work that companies put out there under a sustainability banner. To me, we’ve a long way to go on the topic of forging genuinely meaningful and long lasting partnerships between different organisations and especially when it comes to multi-national companies.
It seems to me, though, that covid-19 has somewhat re-written the script, not just for how businesses might engage in societal and environmental issues, but how every organisation engages.
Every conversation that anyone in the world is having today is in some way influenced by covid-19. It has changed everything. Forget starting any new chapter headings, we all need to learn a new language to read this particular book.
And that is, perhaps, why I found Polmans’ words so inspiring.
Already, covid-19 and the new realities it has brought upon society, simply must now be a catalyst for changing the way organisations work together. Somehow, before old habits and models and behaviours are allowed to creep back in, we must foster long-term commitments by government, private sector, and civil society to actually be the global “responders” that Polman is insisting are required.
In the interview, Polman cites some immediately comforting examples of where health, tech, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors have collaborated together to address the pandemic. The world is rising to certain aspects of the challenge it faces.
Many commentators have been quick, also, to recognise the very positive way in which these recent months can help shape a healthier society in the future. One where larger numbers of people make choices not geared towards satisfying their own desires or needs.
Also in the mix, as the realities for the world’s poorest and most marginalised population groups come sharper into focus, is a greater awareness about the extent to which covid-19 will almost certainly end up further increasing the world’s inequalities – inequalities that have for so many years exacerbated the vulnerabilities of those living with very little prosperity and facing constant injustices.
As Polman mentioned yesterday, every year 8 million people die because of cigarettes, and 7-8 million because of air pollution. That the fatalities for which covid will be responsible won’t reach such numbers, further highlights perhaps the complacency that exists about the sales of tobacco and the number of regulatory controls that effect air quality.
I listened earlier in the week to someone on the radio talking about the many millions of people the world over who, for reasons of old age or disability, have been self-isolated from society their whole lives. That radical re-thinking about the digital and virtual nature of providing services and products – be they educational or health related, or other – is now well underway because of covid-19 is both exciting and deeply revealing.
Does this mean covid-19 embodies some type of perfect humanitarian storm of circumstances, out of which new alliances, partnerships and cross-sector collaborations will be forged? Did the world need the “re-boot” that I’ve read some people describe the current circumstances as?
Time will tell.
To quote Polman from the start, this crisis like none other before it, is “showing our society’s gaps” – for everyone to see. Acknowledging these gaps is one thing. Finding the right, long term solutions to them is another.
Polman indefatigably believes that the right type of solutions will only be found if the world works together.
And, at this point in time, I can only whole-heartedly agree.