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Unilever CEO Paul Polman: He's always looking for greener way to do things

Mr Paul Polman received the Champion of the Earth award, the UN's highest environmental accolade, for his leadership in sustainability.
Mr Paul Polman received the Champion of the Earth award, the UN's highest environmental accolade, for his leadership in sustainability. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Unilever CEO aims to use only sustainable materials, halve its carbon footprint by 2020

He heads a multibillion-dollar company that makes and sells fast-moving consumer goods from soap to ice cream, but Mr Paul Polman is also a green advocate with an eye on the long term.

By 2020, the chief executive officer of consumer goods giant Unilever hopes to halve its carbon footprint and source all of its agricultural raw materials sustainably.

Among other things, this entails ensuring that all the palm oil bought by Unilever - estimated to be 3 per cent of global production - will be sustainably sourced and 100 per cent traceable.

"Increasingly, consumers are demanding sustainably sourced products," Mr Polman, 59, told The Straits Times earlier this month when he visited Singapore. Unilever's Singapore office is its global operations hub.

"Sometimes it might be because they want to save the orang utan, or because they feel very worried about air pollution," he said.

The other reason for the focus on sustainable raw materials is that if something is not sustainable, "then by its definition, we will run out of it".

To show that he means business, Unilever last month opened a $202 million palm oil facility in North Sumatra, to ensure that all palm oil which goes through that facility is traceable to mills.

Mr Polman said the investment in the Sei Mengkai plant is another step towards achieving the "more stretching target" of purchasing all palm oil sustainably from certified, traceable sources by 2020.

The plant in Indonesia, he said, will refine palm fruit and/or kernel only from known and certified sources, which goes into many of Unilever's products, including margarine, soap and shampoo.

As of this month, 72 per cent of Unilever's palm oil can be traced back, at least to the mill, in the country of origin, he added.

The demand for greater transparency and sustainably sourced products came under the spotlight after Singapore and other parts of the region suffered one of its most prolonged bouts of haze this year.

Mr Polman said most of the issues associated with the haze were a result of unsustainable farming. And a way to solve this would be to provide farmers with better access to financing, so as to adopt farming practices that would help them increase yields without cutting down trees.

"Indonesia doesn't need to deforest more to fulfil world demands. What they need to do is to get a better intensity per acre of production," he said.

Mr Polman, who joined Unilever in 2009 after stints at two other consumer goods giants P&G and Nestle, has made a name for himself as a business leader who cares for the environment.

In January this year, he criticised business leaders who put profits ahead of sustainability, Britain's The Telegraph reported.

In September, he was awarded the United Nations' highest environmental accolade - the UN Champions of the Earth award - for his leadership in sustainability.

Mr Polman, who is married with three children, said he grew up in the countryside in the Netherlands and came from a family of boy scouts. "I think if you do those things, you are automatically a little bit closer to nature," he said.

He believes companies have an obligation to use the planet's resources wisely.

"We have no rights to use the scarce resources in this world. We have the right to look after them for future generations."

Mr David Kiu, vice-president of Global Sustainable Business and Communications, Unilever Asia, said he has worked with Mr Polman since 2012.

"I find him a visionary leader who is always two steps ahead, and inspiring to work with. He is always thinking about how our business can make a positive social impact."

On the UN award, Mr Polman said: "It's quite an honour, but we only deserve the award if we have solved the challenges.

"Reputations are not made by what people say, but what people do... I'd rather stay focused on solving the issues."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'He's always looking for greener way to do things'. Print Edition | Subscribe