EPISODE 85: Net Positive: Fixing Food and the Graveyard of Dinosaurs

Chasing net zero is not enough: Former Unilever boss Paul Polman calls for business to go net positive.

«Fear doesn’t move people. Hope does», the business and thought leader says in this podcast episode, expounding on the transformative challenges for sustainable business, the global food system and the «myopic focus on shareholder return».

Paul Polman is the former CEO of Unilever, co-founder and chair of Imagine, co-chair at the Executive Board of UN Global Compact, and most recently, the co-author of Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take.

«Business is 65% of the global economy, 85% of the job creation, 95% of the financing. We simply cannot implement the sustainable development goals without the help of business,» Polman says.

Those who studied business in the last millennium, might remember Milton Friedman saying that «the business of business is business». While the climate crisis requires all emitters to go net zero, what can private sector companies gain from leaving a footprint that is net positive?

Polman points specifically to the large concentration of wealth in the private sector, which contains the innovation, the resources and the capacity to create large-scale coalitions for sustainable development.

«The short-termism that has crept into many of the businesses – or business models – is actually destroying wealth, not creating wealth.»

The graveyard of dinosaurs

He is adamant: Business needs sustainability just as much as the SDGs need the private sector to contribute their share.

«Increasingly we see that the myopic focus on shareholders alone; optimizing shareholder return on the expense of the other stakeholders is really not a good idea – and it doesn’t help companies», Polman says.

Major transformations are needed – but they will result in lower cost and more resilience.

«We are at the point of where the cost of not acting is starting to surpass the cost of acting».

He calls it a «huge opportunity that smart companies see». 

«The ones that continue to deny that, are increasingly headed to the graveyard of dinosaurs.»

Fixing the food system: ’30 % of the solution’

Polman noted during the UN General Assembly in 2019 that the SDGs are the business plan of our lifetime. Now, that may be more true than ever. 

Since then, the world has changed quickly – but not necessarily for the better. A pandemic has interrupted supply chains and inflation is spiking. Now, following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the country’s substantial role in feeding the world has exposed the weak resilience of the global food system.

«The food system was very broken before the Ukraine war, if I’m honest. Prices were very volatile, it was driving deforestation, keeping smallholder farmers poor, while many were malnutrioned.»

Regenerative farming is part of the solution. Moving to these non-intensive farming methods enriches the soil, enabling it to capture carbon, while producing more nutritious food and providing for farmer’s livelihoods. 

«We are underinvesting in food», he says, pointing to an atrocious disparity: agriculture accounts for 4% of global GDP, while being «30% of the solution» to climate change.

Listen to the full episode below, to hear Polman’s thoughts on the key ESG-related trends and why he is a prisoner of hope: 

… or find it wherever you listen to podcasts.

 

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