The elusive fortune at the base of the pyramid

cimg7634It’s been an exceptionally busy week, beginning with the 2014 edition of Fortune Brainstorm Green (selected videos are online here) and ending with a holiday weekend visit from my new grandson, so I’m going to quickly post a link to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

It’s a long-ish story about doing business at the bottom of the pyramid, an idea popularized by the late C.K. Prahalad in a book published a decade ago. Here’s how the story begins:

When CK Prahalad‘s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was published in 2004, the book made an immediate splash. Its argument was irresistible: The world’s poorest people are a vast, fast-growing market with untapped buying power, Prahalad wrote, and companies that learn to serve them can make money and help people escape poverty, too.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates called the book “an intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability”. BusinessWeek’s Pete Engardio described Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan business school, as a business prophet. He was awarded honorary degrees and sought out by CEOs.

Ten years later, businesses big and small continue to pursue profits at the bottom of the pyramid. The global uptake of mobile phones has proven that poor people will buy cell service if it’s available at low prices. (It costs a fraction of a cent per minute in India.) Single-serve packages of shampoo, toothpaste and soap dangle from shelves of tiny storefronts in rural villages. Products ranging from eyeglasses to solar panels are being designed and marketed to people earning $2 a day.

The bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) market leader, arguably, is Unilever, with its Anglo-Dutch colonial heritage and a chief executive, Paul Polman, who is determined to improve the world. Unilever generates more than half of its sales from developing markets, with much of that coming from the emerging middle class. Its signature BOP product is Pureit, a countertop water-purification system sold in India, Africa and Latin America. It’s saving lives, but it’s not making money for shareholders.

And there’s the rub. If there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, it remains elusive. Partly that’s because doing business with the poor is unavoidably complex, and partly that’s because the notion was oversold, says Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell’s business school and an expert on the BOP.

“I haven’t seen anyone making a fortune,” Milstein told me. “Unilever’s made money on some products, but they’ve been challenged. Other companies are making profits, but not enough to matter to their organization.”

The story goes on to report on successful and not-so-successful efforts to do business with the world’s billion or two poor people. We’ll be considering this topic again next month at the Guardian, with a live tweet chat on Tuesday, June 10, at noon. You can read the rest of my story here.

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.”

My beef with B Corps

logoThere’s lot to like about the fast-growing B Corps movement, and one thing to dislike, as I explain in my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business US.

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably aware of B Corps. The idea takes a bit of explaining. B Corps are businesses that are certified by a nonprofit organization called B Lab to meet what its backers call “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” These businesses win certification much in the way that buildings are certified to have meet LEED environmental standards by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council; they have to complete an assessment of their performance, provide documentation and be open a review from B Lab, as the group explains here.

But the term B Corps is also used to describe “benefit corporations,” a corporate legal structure that has been set up by legislation that has now been passed by 20 states, including, most recently, Delaware. Benefit corporations need not be certified by B Lab, although many are.

It’s unavoidably confusing, but my beef with B Corps is simple.

The voluntary certification system makes sense to me, for reasons that I explain in the story–it’s a way to signal employees, customers and investors that a B Corps aims to do better than conventional companies. Most B Corps are small and privately held. Among the best known are Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, which is a unit of a conventional C Corps, Unilever.

The legal “benefit corporation” purportedly gives companies more freedom to serve society as a whole than conventional corporations have. I’m skeptical about this claim, to say the least, and I worry that it could be counterproductive–because it implies that conventional companies, which make up the bulk of the global economy, need to pursue profits, at the expense of broader social and environmental goals. This seems wrong on the face of it. After all, if Ben & Jerry’s can be certified as a “good” B Corps, doesn’t that mean that its parent company, Unilever, can be “good” too?

My worry is that the implicit argument — that most of the world’s companies don’t have the freedom to do the right thing for society — undermines faith in capitalism (which is fragile, at best, for good reason) and that it discourage reformers inside and outside of big companies who are pushing corporate America to do business better. It’s a bit smug to suggest that traditional companies can’t do as much good for the world as B Corps can.

Here’s how my story begins:

To the supporters of B Corps – benefit corporations that say they aim to serve workers, communities and the environment, as well as their owners – 1 August 2013 was an historic day. In what B Corps described as “a seismic shift in corporate law,” the state of Delaware, where one million businesses are legally registered, enacted legislation that will “redefine success in business” by giving the owners and managers of legally recognised B Corps protection as they pursue “a higher purpose than profit.”

The B Corps movement has much to be proud of: it has built a brand that stands for good business, attracted hundreds of committed followers and sparked debate about the role of business in society. But claims – sometimes made explicitly, sometimes implicitly – that B Corps have more freedom to take an expansive view of their social and environmental responsibilities is not only mistaken, but potentially damaging to the cause of sustainable business.

After all, if conventional companies have no choice but to focus narrowly on maximising short-term profits, at the expense of workers, communities and the planet, then we’re in a heap of trouble and unlikely to get out, because 99% of US businesses today are conventional C Corps, and most are likely to remain so.

You can read the rest here.

Unilever’s Paul Polman: Pushing the boundaries of sustainability

Paul Polman in the store in Unilever house for the employees.More than any other big-company CEO, Paul Polman is serious about sustainability. Polman is serious about pretty much everything, actually. He’s serious about a vast array of problems facing the world, ranging from climate change to malnutrition to obesity to water scarcity to inequality to human rights to global governance, and he’s serious, of course, about his company and its long-term financial performance and especially about its ability to help solve any and all of those problems. He can, and will, pontificate about topics like the UN Millenium Development Goals, the important message of Global Handwashing Day, the social mission of brands like Dove and Lipton and Ben & Jerry’s.

A fun guy? Not really. A fascinating guy? Yes.

I spent time with Paul Polman, as well as other executives at Unilever–including US president Kees Kruythoff, global marketing head Keith Weed, sustainability honchos Gail Klintworth and Jonathan Atwood–while researching a story on the company for FORTUNE. It appears in the June 10 issue of the magazine, under the headline Unilever’s CEO Has A Green Thumb. (The story is behind a pay wall, for now.)

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Unilever, which takes a uniquely expansive view of its role in the world. Far more than IBM, GE, Walmart or any other big company, Unilever puts sustainability at the core of its business — its strategy, its operations, its R&D and its marketing. (Patagonia, a much smaller, privately held firm, strikes me as similarly driven by broad concerns.) Polman’s theory, put simply, is “to put the challenges facing society smack in the middle of the business.” So Lifebuoy soap helps prevent the spread of disease in poor countries. Dove stands for the self-esteem of women. Lipton’s sustainable supply chain will help tea growers earn a livelihood. Operations, of course, are efficient, and the global supply chain of tea, tomatoes, onions, etc. aims to become sustainable.

In Port Sunlight, a tidy little suburb of Liverpool where the company got its start back in the 19th century, I visited a research and development lab where some of the scientists are focusing on coming up with laundry soap that can clean clothes using very small amounts of water, at any temperature. Much of the R&D at Unilever, in fact, revolves around planning for what the company expects to be a resource-constrained world.

Will the strategy pay off? So far, Unilever under Polman has done very well, outperforming consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble. But whether the firm’s financial results are driven by its focus on sustainability is very much an open question; more likely, it’s a result of the fact that Unilever has a strong commitment to emerging markets, which have been growing more than the US and EU.

There is, however, one way in which I’m convinced that Polman’s determination to make Unilever a better company has paid off on the short run, and that is with its employees. People I met, as best as I could tell, come to work at Unilever with energy and a strong sense of purpose.  That’s invaluable. As Polman told me, proudly, Unilever is one of the five most searched-for employers on LinkedIn, behind Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. That’s impressive.

Here’s how my story begins:

Paul Polman calls himself a “hard-core capitalist.” Sometimes you have to wonder. The day he became the chief executive of Unilever in 2009, Polman said the consumer products giant would stop providing earnings guidance and quarterly profit reports. “I figured that the day they hired me, they can’t fire me,” he says, “so that was probably the best moment to do that.” The stock fell and analysts grumbled. Not long after came word from the CEO that Unilever, whose brands include Dove, Lipton, Hellmann’s, and Ben & Jerry’s, was determined to tackle big social and environmental problems like climate change, disease, and poverty. “If you buy into this long-term value model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us,” Polman told investors. “If you don’t buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don’t put your money in our company.” Shareholder return, he insists, cannot and will not trump nobler aims. “Our purpose is to have a sustainable business model that is put at the service of the greater good,” he says. “It is as simple as that.”

This sounds like the boilerplate that fills corporate responsibility reports, but Unilever, which has headquarters in London and Rotterdam, has gone beyond big U.S. Companies like GE, IBM and Wal-Mart by putting sustainability at the core of its business. In a 2010 manifesto called the Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever promised to double its sales even as it  cuts its environmental footprint in half and sources all of its agricultural products in ways that don’t degrade the earth by 2020. The company also promised to improve the well-being of 1 billion people by, for example, persuading them to wash their hands or brush their teeth, or by selling them foods with less salt or fat.

The Fortune story goes on to talk about Polman’s background (he once wanted to be a priest), the company’s paternalistic past and Unilever’s commitment to a water-purification product called Pureit that has little chance of ever making a profit. I hope you’ll find a copy of the magazine and enjoy the story.

Fortune Brainstorm Green, and the limits of corporate sustainability

Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green

Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green

The 2013 edition of Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference was, by most accounts, a hit. We had a record number of attendees, including more than 50 CEOs of companies and nonprofits, big and small; plenty of entertaining and informative conversation; and a healthy dose of fun, with celebs like Harrison Ford, will.i.am and (my favorite) ultra marathon runner Scott Jurek. As co-chair of the event since the first Brainstorm Green in 2008, I love to reconnect with colleagues and sources, meet new folks and learn from and, occasionally, by inspired by our top-notch speakers. The theme of the conference has been a constant: How can business profitably help solve the world’s most important environmental problems?

Unavoidably, the challenge of an event like Brainstorm Green (as well as a conundrum for anyone who writes about corporate sustainability) turns on the question of how much to cheer or jeer the efforts of companies that are trying to “go green.” My job, as I see it, is to do both–to applaud the leaders, to prod the laggards, and to do my best to tell one from the other. That’s difficult balance to do in a conference setting where the mood is one of bonhomie, where the speakers are our “guests,” and where the presumption is that everyone is doing the best they can. The trouble is, that’s usually not good enough.

Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green

Mark Tercek at Brainstorm Green

As Mark Tercek, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy, who I interviewed at Brainstorm Green, put it in his excellent new book, Nature’s Fortune:

Nearly every precious bit of nature–teeming coral reefs, sweeping grasslands, lush forests, the rich diversity of life istelf–is in decline. Everything humanity should reduce–suburban sprawl, deforestation, overfishing, carbon emissions–has increased.

Sad but true.

So if corporate America is changing for the better when it comes to the environment–and no doubt, many companies are–the pace of change is too slow and the ambitions of business leaders are too modest. Incremental change is not getting us where we need to go. [click to continue...]

Sustainability by anecdote

imgresI write stories. I read stories. I love a good story.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world,” says the British novelist Philip Pullman.

The corporate sustainability movement needs stories to inspire people, to win over customers, to change the world, as we heard last month at the GreenBiz Forum in New York.

But we need the right kinds of stories. Stories about people and companies that are having a meaningful impact. Stories that, ideally, drive broad and systemic change.

We’ve got big problems. We need big solutions.

Instead, my inbox overflows with stories that by themselves don’t get us where we need to go. Or stories that lack context.

Sustainability by anecdote, I call it.

Here’s one example that came in last month:

General Mills and Häagen-Dazs today announced an initiative designed to foster greater economic vitality for smallholder vanilla farmers in Madagascar and ensure the availability of high quality vanilla for future generations. [click to continue...]

Oxfam America: Big Food is failing the poor

fig-2-brands-72dpi-1280px-nologosNew research by Oxfam America into the social and environmental policies of the world’s 10 biggest food and beverage companies puts Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola at the top of the list and Associated British Foods, Kellogg’s and General Mills at the bottom. In the middle of the pack are Pepsico, Mars, Danone and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft).

Oxfam American said in a presss release that the Big 10 food and beverage companies, which together make $1 billion a day, are “failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products.”

That stark accusation was tempered more than a little during a telephone news conference where Oxfam America launched a new global consumer-focused campaign called Behind the Brands.

Ray Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, described the big food companies as “recognized industry leaders.” Jane Nelson, a senior fellow at Harvard who specializes in corporate responsibility, went further, saying these are among the “most responsible, best managed, well governed companies” in the food sector.

So which is it, really? Are these companies industry leaders or are they failing the poor?

Maybe a little of both. [click to continue...]

Clorox Green Works: What were they thinking?

Are corporations people? I’ll leave that for legal scholars to decide.

Are corporations funny? Uh, almost never.

Today’s evidence comes in a breathtakingly dumb digital ad campaign from Clorox Green Works. It runs the risk of  insulting the consumers of its environmentally-friendly cleaning products while managing to ridicule millions of people who are trying to be more conscious about the social and environmental impacts of the things they buy.

Worse, it’s not even funny.

See for yourself, if you can bear it.

Now, I’ll admit that deep green consumers can be extreme. I’m recalling, right about now, the menu of a 100% organic vegan restaurant called Cafe Gratitude in Santa Cruz where dishes had silly names like “I am Fulfilled” and “I am Open Hearted.” The food turned out to be fantastic.

But Clorox, instead of guiding people through a confusing landscape of sustainability claims, here chooses to caricatures conscious consumers as people who reuse dental floss, who say things like “I can’t believe you’re wearing leather,” who ask irritating questions about the provenance of their fish and who go ga-ga over “local, gluten-free, bio-dynamic, Fair Trade, dolphin-safe, edible” hair conditioner.

I honestly don’t understand what Green Works is trying to do, and reading the press release accompanying this marketing campaign only confused me further. [click to continue...]

A puzzling list of sustainable companies

Canada's oil sands: Sustainable?

Canada’s oil sands: Sustainable?

Here comes a new list of the “most sustainable corporations in the world,” and it’s a doozy.

Two of the top five companies on the 2013 Global 100 list are oil and gas companies:

3. Norway’s Statoil ASA

4. Finland’s Neste Oil.

Read farther down and you find:

No. 81. Suncor Energy,

which was the first company to develop Canada’s oil sands, source of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet.

A notch below is:

No. 82. Unilever

the consumer products giant whose sustainable living plan embodies the broadest and deepest commitment to corporate responsibility of any big, global company.

This is….er….puzzling.

So what’s going here? And what does this tell us about corporate sustainability rankings and their meaning, a topic that never seems to go away? [See my blogpost Corporate sustainability: Who's up, who's down, who cares?] [click to continue...]

2012’s green business heroes

Bill McKibben does the math

Bill McKibben does the math

Some say, and with reason, that 2012 was the best year ever. Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity. Of course there’s plenty to worry about–the fiscal cliff, gun violence, chaos in Syria and the Congo–as always there will be. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the long arc of history bends towards a more just and sustainable world.

In the little corner of the world that occupies much of my attention–the places where business and sustainability intersect–it has not been a good year. Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. We’re burning more coal, oil and gas than ever. Policy is stuck, in the US and internationally. This will be the hottest year on record in the US, and still people don’t accept the science of climate change. Go figure.

That said, in this final blogpost of 2012,  I’d like to salute some people (again, mostly from the world of business and sustainability) who fought the good fight during the year  just past. Some are business people, others are politicians, activists and even journalists, but they are all doing what they can to bend the arc of history. They’re my green business heroes for 2012. [click to continue...]