Real change comes from businesses and communities acting together

As “we now face a series of issues and challenges that are in danger of overwhelming us,” a lecture on responsible capitalism could not be held at a more appropriate time, said Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever and the keynote speaker at the third annual Thomas J. Bata Lecture Series on Responsible Capitalism. “The PaulPolman-Hdebate over the future of capitalism is in full swing.”

Paul Polman

The lecture series is presented in collaboration with York’s Schulich School of Business and the Tomas Bata University in Zlin, Czech Republic. It was established in 2008 to commemorate the late Thomas J. Bata, who built the Bata Shoe Organization into the world’s leading footwear retailer and manufacturer, and was inspired by the Bata family’s strongly held belief that business is a public trust that should contribute to the well-being of the communities in which it operates.

Polman, who heads one of the world’s largest consumer products companies, said the world is in the grip of economic volatility and political uncertainty due to unemployment – and especially youth unemployment – which remains unacceptably high; abrupt and irreversible environmental change that is causing extreme weather conditions in countries MarcKielburgeraround the world; and the looming threat of a growing global population.

Marc Kielburger

“And we face these issues at a time when people’s trust in governments and other institutions is at an historic low,” said Polman.

A lack of trust in today’s leaders undermines business, the ability of organizations to meet their commitments to customers, employees and communities, and means management has to work even harder to make a difference, he added. “Companies that understand this and become part of the solution will have a bright future. Those that don’t will be dinosaurs – outdated, outmoded and out-of-business.”

Polman said he believes businesses today have an opportunity to take the road less travelled and that managers have been given a license to lead. He explained that the only way for a business to DeszoHorvathguarantee long term prosperity is to grow the organization in line with the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve.

Dezsö J. Horváth, dean of the Schulich School of Business

“There is a huge opportunity for businesses that embrace this new model of responsible capitalism. But it needs a different approach. This goes well beyond CSR.”

It is an approach Polman is pioneering at Unilever. The company’s Sustainable Living Plan is a new model encompassing all of its brands, categories and countries, taking co-responsibility for the total value chain. The Plan has three big goals by 2020:

  •     To help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being;
  •     To reduce the environmental impact of their products by 50 per cent, and
  •     To source 100 per cent of their agricultural raw materials sustainably, protecting the livelihoods of more than 500,000 smallholder farmers.

“Real transformational change will come from businesses and others acting together,” he said. “The challenges are simply too big for any one of us to do it alone. We have to act together to address these bigger challenges.”

Following his keynote address, Polman took part in a panel discussion on responsible capitalism with moderator William White, partner, CBW Associates Management & Growth Consulting and chair, Centre of Excellence in Responsible Business, Schulich School of Business; panellist Geoffrey Cape, CEO & co-founder of Evergreen; and panellist Edward Waitzer, Jarislowsky Dimma Mooney Chair in Corporate Governance and director, Hennick Centre of Business & Law, Schulich School of Business.

When asked about the leadership competencies required at the top to embrace the new changes, Polman emphasized “the need to be drawn by a deeper sense of purpose; the purpose that comes from a deeper sense of responsibility, not just now to ourselves, but to leave a legacy.” That, he said “requires a strong moral compass.”

Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children and co-founder & Co-CEO of Me to We, was a guest speaker at the Bata Lecture.