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Paulus Polman: oration

Read Professor Veronica Hope Hailey’s oration on Paulus Polman for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in December 2016


Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce Paulus Polman, a global business leader noteworthy for his approach to environmental sustainability.

Since arriving as CEO at the beginning of 2009, Paulus Polman has helped to turn Unilever around. More than €15 billion in turnover has been added and the company is currently enjoying its eighth consecutive year of top-line and bottom-line growth. It is today one of the world’s most respected and sought-after employers. Last year, for example, it was the third most in-demand employer among job-seekers on LinkedIn, after only Apple and Google. Not bad for a company making soap and soup! It has recently been named No. 1 Company in the prestigious Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

Unilever’s success has been founded on a very different business model and philosophy from that of most mainstream businesses. Paulus Polman urges business leaders to address both the challenge of environmental sustainability and also the underlying causes of poverty and economic inequality endured by many across the world.

Born in The Netherlands and an Economics graduate from Groningen University, Paulus Polman’s concerns for the environment and the role of business in society developed during his long years with Proctor and Gamble and also Nestlé. When he took over the helm at Unilever in 2009, leading 172,000 employees worldwide, he took significant action. Paulus Polman said that he only wanted investors who shared the view that Unilever needed to shepherd the Earth’s resources as carefully as it did its own. As he explained in an interview with the Financial Times in October of this year, he told investors “So if you buy into this long-term value-creation model which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest in us.”

Paulus Polman launched the Sustainable Living Plan. This laid out how Unilever would reduce its carbon emissions, ensure that its raw materials were sourced responsibly and boost the life-chances of the world’s poorest of the poor. He pledged to halve the environmental impact of the manufacture and consumption of Unilever’s products by 2020.

Paulus Polman has taken this philosophy and has actively sought to cooperate with other companies to implement sustainable business strategies and drive systemic change. He is, for example, Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, a member of the B Team and sits on the Board of the UN Global Compact and the Consumer Goods Forum, where he co-chairs the Sustainability Committee.

Paulus has been closely involved in global discussions on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and action to tackle climate change. In 2016, Paulus was asked by the UN Secretary-General to be a member of the Sustainable Development Goals Advocacy Group, tasked with promoting action on the 2030 Agenda. Prior to this, Paulus served on the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, presenting recommendations on the SDGs on behalf of the private sector. He is a founder member of the newly-formed Business and Sustainable Development Commission. Paulus also served on the International Council of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose flagship report ‘New Climate Economy’ demonstrates that lasting economic growth can be achieved at the same time as reducing the immense risk of climate change.

In recognition of his contribution to responsible business, Paulus has received numerous awards and accolades. Last month, he was created Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in France, in recognition of his efforts in galvanising business action on sustainability and for his involvement during the historic 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. He has received the Rainforest Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (2014), the UN Foundation’s Champion for Global Change Award (2014), the Oslo Business for Peace Award (2015), the UN Champion of the Earth Award (2015) and the Singapore Government Public Service Star - Distinguished Friends of Singapore.

At the invitation of the Prime Minister, he serves as a UK Business Ambassador.

The University of Bath’s School of Management Operations and Supply Chain academics have both researched and modestly supported Unilever in its strategy to achieve environmentally sustainable supply chains across the globe, as well as deploying groups of our postgraduate students on projects within this area. Unilever continues to provide work placements for our students around the world.

Chancellor, I present to you Paulus Polman who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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