Paul Polman: A radical CEO

Paul-Polman-chief-executi-005“We’re the world’s biggest NGO,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, sometimes likes to joke.

Literally, he is correct: “We’re a non government organization. The only difference is, we’re making money so we are sustainable.”

Lots of money, in fact. As one of the world’s biggest consumer products companies, with such brands as Dove, Hellman’s, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever generated about $67 billion in revenues and $7.2 billion in profits last year.

But while Polman has led a turnaround at Unilever since becoming CEO in 2009, he is best known because he is outspoken about his belief  that “business should serve society.” He sounds more like the leader of an NGO like Oxfam or Greenpeace than your typical CEO. He’d rather blather on  about the Millenium Development Goals than boast about his company’s earnings.

More important, Polman’s Unilever uses its global to work for change, around a set of big issues, ranging from curbing climate change to eradicating poverty to deforestation.

That’s why the Center for Global Development, a DC think tank, honored Polman the other night with its “Commitment to Development: Ideas in Action” award. Previous winners include Global Witness, the One Campaign and Oxfam. Polman is the first business guy to get the award, as best as I can tell.

One reason: Unilever’s strong commitment to reducing deforestation, which helped drive the decision late last year by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil producer, to sign a “no deforestation” pledge. Wilmar’s commitment has the potential “to create a global revolution in how we grow food,” Scott Poynton, executive director of The Forest Trust, wrote last month in Guardian Sustainable Business. Palm oil is used in a variety of foods, as well as personal care products, like soap.

At the awards dinner, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, said of Polman:  “He is surely the most outspoken and effective advocate for reducing the amount of deforestation that takes places to produce consumer goods.”

I went to the award ceremony not because I hadn’t heard Polman before — we spent time together last year when I profiled him in Fortune, under the headline Unilever’s CEO has a green thumb — but because he is such an outlier in the business world and I wanted to hear what was on his mind.

He didn’t disappoint. Some highlights from his remarks:

On the need for government policy to curb climate change: “We need to have the business community in the US speak up more, and then the Republicans will have to listen.”

On the urgency of dealing with global problems: “First and foremost, I am a businessman. I like to get to action. This worldis very long on words and very short on action.”

On the importance of sustainable development: “It is desperately needed that we build a new economic world order where we live within planetary boundaries.”

On global inequality: “The top 1.2 billion people consume 75 percent of the world’s resources. That is a system that is not in equilibrium.”

On the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh, who are paid 11 cents an hour“That’s as close as you can get to modern-day slavery.”

On the opportunity to have an impact: “In the next 15 years, we as a generation have the opportunity to be the people who eradicate poverty in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

On the need for business to step up to deal with social and environmental issues: “If you don’t make a positive contribution, you will be rejected…I  don’t understand why more CEOs don’t see this.”