Living our purpose

Unilever has now seen 8 years of top line progress, averaging twice the rate of overall market growth, whilst simultaneously improving the bottom line.

Paul Polman speech

Not easy to do in today’s environment. Unsurprisingly, shareholders have benefited with a return of over 200%.

For Unilever, shareholder return is a result of what we do, but not why we are here. For over a hundred years, our goal has been to improve the lives of the world’s citizens one day and one person at a time.

With his commitment to making cleanliness commonplace and improving lives, William Lever focused on what he called ‘shared prosperity’. Our mission has not changed much since then and with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we are still showing there is a different way of doing business – one based on multiple stakeholders rather than a single-minded focus on shareholders.

We have made great progress. Our results show that it is good for business, with increasing evidence that our purpose-driven brands do better. Our 18 Sustainable Living Brands grew 50% faster and account for 60% of total growth. We are already reaching hundreds of millions with health and hygiene programmes, and providing livelihoods to millions more, especially through our focus on women’s empowerment. 

The USLP is also guiding our M&A activity, including last year’s acquisitions of Blueair, a company focused on air purification, and Seventh Generation, a home and personal care business that uses plant based ingredients, which thinks seven generations ahead in all it does.

Increasingly we are guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals which, in addressing humanity’s biggest challenges, also provide an enormous opportunity for responsible growth. Indeed, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, under the incredible leadership of Mark Malloch Brown, calculated that the SDGs offer a $12 trillion economic opportunity and can create up to 380 million new jobs.

At a time when we have difficulties growing our economies and creating employment, the cost of not acting is becoming more expensive. With 9% of global GDP devoted to conflict prevention or wars, and climate change costing 5%, it is easy to see why – both morally and economically – we need to act.

Companies that cannot show they are making a positive impact in addressing challenges like hunger, climate change, gender equality or access to education will soon, in my view, have no reason for being. There is no business case for enduring poverty and no reason to accept companies that are run for the benefit of a few at a cost to many.

There are still many challenges to overcome, including the short-term focus of financial markets, the difficulty in giving social or environmental capital a true value and political systems too often focused on the next election cycle instead of the next generation.

Our work with many valued partners has allowed us to make good progress against our targets and we have learned from our experience as well as our mistakes. However, for as long as many of our fellow citizens still feel excluded from a decent life or from equal opportunities, there is no reason to celebrate.

We simply and humbly request your continued help. It is only in deep partnerships, based on trust and mutual respect, inclusion and intergenerational thinking, that we can solve our many challenges. More than ever, we are committed to living our purpose and continuing to use the USLP as a blueprint for growth. Together we can create a better world for all, now and for generations to come.

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Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever

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