Brice Bunner

Unilever CEO Proves Doing the Right Thing Can Make Your Business Profitable


 Image ©: Ossi Piispanen via Financial TimesAs the front-man for Unilever (one of the most sustainably-oriented companies out there today) Paul Polman is taking his well-deserved hiatus, I thought it appropriate to review the mainstay of his campaign both with the worldwide brand and his work with the UN. Throughout his tenure, the CEO maintained the humble solution-based thinking that has always been at the heart of such an environmentally-focused company as Unilever. Paul’s tenacity for sticking to the sustainable serves as a case study in how being sustainable can actually be profitable.

But isn’t being green more costly?

It used to be a common thought that striving for sustainability was tantamount to losing money—that green was just too expensive to maintain. Be it through technological breakthroughs, cultural acceptance, or previously misconstrued expectations (of its expense) the current state of sustainable business is actually quite a different story today.

In fact, as we can see with Unilever’s stock prices during Polman’s tenure, being sustainable was actually quite profitable. It could be argued, even, that the sustainability of the company is what made it profitable. But the truth of this story is that there is no longer an argument to be made for resisting sustainable behavior in business.

Conscious Capitalism could be the answer

You’ve likely heard the axiom given that the principle objective of business is to make a profit; that creating profit ultimately benefits the community, so it’s good to do so. And capitalism is one of the best systems we have for promoting and validating that claim. But the core of that axiom is that the community benefits just as much as the business.

Too often, however, businesses put profit over people—and certainly over planet—in a traditionally capitalistic system. Now, I’m not saying the system is broken. What I mean is that it can be exploited (like anything else), and because of this, capitalism often leaves a foul taste in the mouths of environmentalists.

But Conscious Capitalism is the pursuit of that profit while allowing people and the planet to dictate what means the business uses to create their profit. It’s the embodiment of the triple-bottom line that many environmentally-minded people know so well.

What Mr. Polman proved at Unilever was that this mindful way of doing business is not only better for the environment, but it increases shareholder value as well. His example demonstrates that these methods of being sustainable in a business setting are not contrarian to responsible company policy making.

In fact, because of more and more businesses moving in this direction, the sphere of sustainable-focused investing is that the companies looking to do this will actually do better over the long term as opposed to a company who isn’t mindful of their footprint. Sustainable behavior, then, is a strategic business move that provides long-term value; when doing the right thing can actually make you profitable.

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