Sustainability, citizenship and the environment

"Paul Polman - Unilever, FORUM 13 | Global Citizenship" Image copyright: Tate, photography by Kristina Gorlanova, 2013.

There is no doubt that growth has come at an enormous cost to our natural resources, which are rapidly being depleted. WWF estimate that parts of the world are already living off the equivalent of 1.5 planets. We are pushing at the limits of our ‘planetary boundaries’.

As a result, the prospect of what scientists’ term an ‘abrupt and irreversible environmental change’ is now very real. We already see extreme weather patterns fast becoming the norm. According to the Environment Agency, the UK spent a fifth of last year in flood, and even longer in drought. The cost to individual companies can run into hundreds of millions a year.

These challenges to the sustainability of our planet come before another two billion people enter the population – and many more aspire to higher standards of living. 

And we face these issues at a time when people’s trust in governments and other institutions to address them is at an all-time low. According to the latest global survey, only 48% have trust in their governments. Many in particular doubt the ability of political leaders to internalise international challenges, like climate change, and to show the necessary leadership. 

As a result, people are no longer asking, ‘who’s in charge?' Aided by the rapid escalation in social media, increasingly empowered citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Digital technology is allowing them to create large communities of interest, share information fast and drive to action. We already see whole regimes being brought down.

Business has an opportunity to step up and fill the leadership void, but it will require moving from an old licence to operate approach to one based on a ‘licence to lead’. Companies that understand this and are willing to become part of the solution to today’s social and sustainability challenges will have a bright future. Those that don't will become dinosaurs – outdated, outmoded and out-of-business. That is the challenge.

Paul Polman, CEO - Unilever, for Zamyn

© Zamyn and the author, all rights reserved. No reproduction, whether in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Zamyn.