awards

Paul Polman
September 18, 2017

Thank you Jerry for that kind introduction. And thank you Rabbi Schneier for all that you have done over more than half a century to spread the message of tolerance and respect for all. Can anyone doubt that your work – and that of the Foundation – is needed more than ever. Our society today is perhaps more polarised than at any time. Captured well in a Time magazine article I read on the way over. Citing the Pew Research Centre, it notes that the political divide in America today is characterised by those who…and I quote: “….deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighbourhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood”. True here, but also in other parts of the world. No wonder we seem paralysed as a society, unable to move things forward. For many life has become the worst kind of zero sum game. Too many see the truth of the other as an assault on their own. When did we lose our sense of our shared humanity? And when did we stop seeing the full humanity in the other? And how do we regain it. As Elie Wiesel, who we recently lost and whose moral voice for so long appealed to all of our consciences, taught us: “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” It’s clear to me that business must play its part. In fact, I don’t believe we can fix our broken society or our degraded environment without business. And I’m encouraged. Because many businesses are stepping up. It is significant tonight, for example, that you have chosen to recognise three business leaders. Many others are speaking out. On everything from LGBT rights to climate change to standing up to racism and intolerance, there is a rising tide of business leaders who see their role as putting their companies to the service of society, and not the other way around. But we need more. And the task is urgent. Already it is two years since the leaders of the world came together – just a short distance from where we sit tonight - to sign the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The SDGs are not only a scorecard on the state of the world, they are an appeal to our individual and to our collective consciousness for what we might – indeed what we must - all accomplish together. They are also a roadmap – a 15 year business plan, if you like – for building a better world for all, one in which no-one gets left behind. And we’ve made progress. This week in New York we’ll pause for a moment to celebrate some of the successes. But it is not yet at the scale or the impact we need. And we face some uncomfortable headwinds. - A growing air of cynicism and distrust. - A stubborn culture of short-termism. - The devastating effects of climate change and the growing threat to our planetary boundaries. So, it won’t be easy. I understand that. But it’s not that difficult either. I’m optimistic. What gives me hope is the many young people I meet as I travel around the world. Young people who want to work for companies that are driven by a deeper sense of purpose. And they are not alone. Things are moving. - Citizens are demanding change. - Policy-makers are regulating for it. - And the financial markets – often the determinant of these things – are at least asking the right questions. Very soon the sheer economics will drive change as the cost of doing nothing starts to exceed the cost of taking action. Let’s hope by then it’s not too late. But isn’t it better to be proactive; to shape our own destiny with responsible business models that speak to the needs of our time and the desires of the people we serve? That is what we are trying to do with our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Decoupling growth from environmental impact while increasing our positive social impact. In other words sustainable and inclusive growth. Because the two go hand in hand. Yet saying it doesn’t make it easy. It’s scary. Unsettling. It hasn’t been done before. We don’t have all the answers. And we know there is a limit to what we can achieve alone. Which is why working with others in partnership is so important to our model and to everything we are trying to achieve. It is also totally aligned with the spirit of the SDGs – goal 17 is Partnerships – and to the beliefs I know of this organisation. As the African proverb says, if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. At the end it comes down to leadership. We all know what needs to be done. We’re an intelligent species. The question is do we have the resolve and the conviction to lead together for the change that is needed. Or are we prepared to commit one of the biggest intergenerational injustices of all time. Are we willing to defy the tide of human progress and leave the next generation worse off than the last? All of us here tonight I suspect are in positions of leadership. In business, in public office, civil society, in synagogue, church or mosque. That leadership brings with it formal authority. And no system can function without formal authority. Yet what makes any system truly work – as my good friend Dov Seidman has argued - is when leaders in formal positions have moral– and not just formal - authority. We cultivate and wield our greatest moral authority when we act from conscience, not tied to short-term interest or the call of balance sheets and profit and loss lines. But knowing that if we do the right things, then we will have the right outcomes, and if we do good, good will come for all. Again, easier to say, hard to do. The pressures to do the easier wrong rather than the harder right can be immense. It takes courage. Formal authority can be won or seized. Yet moral authority has to be earned and sustained every day, and wielded humbly, with justice and fairness, or it is quickly lost. Of course this is nothing new. Nor is it confined to one region, one sector, one religion. It goes back to the Golden Rule. “Do to others what you want them to do to you”. It seems simple. Obvious. Indeed, as the late Vaclav Havel argued in a remarkably prescient lecture given at Harvard more than 20 years ago: “Our conscience must catch up to our reason, or we are lost”. Prophetic words indeed to end on. And one of the reasons why I am so proud this evening to support – and be recognised by – this Appeal to Conscience. Thank you for everything you do.

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