LISTEN: Paul Polman on what it will take to deliver the SDGs

To kick-start edie’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) week, former Unilever boss Paul Polman explains why businesses need to get out of the traditional mindset of doing “less bad” and move towards regenerative, restorative and reparative actions that drive a new net-positive movement.

LISTEN: Paul Polman on what it will take to deliver the SDGs

Pictured: Polman (L) speaking with edie's content director Luke Nicholls at COP26

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The SDGs have been described as a global to-do list for the delivery of a future in which many of the planet’s biggest environmental, social and economic challenges have either been eradicated or are being addressed at scale.

An academic article published in the journal Nature Sustainability, assessing the political impact of the SDGs, concluded that “nothing has changed where it matters”.

The researchers behind the article found “little evidence” of governments changing policy and legislation to deliver the vision laid out by the SDGs, despite more references to SDGs by policymakers and business leaders. The article concludes that reforms in national and sub-national governments and UN agencies have been “modest” at best since 2015.

Speaking to edie’s content editor Matt Mace as part of our SDG Week (scroll down for details) Polman questioned whether businesses and nations “had the willpower” to drive accelerated action towards the Global Goals following setbacks in recent years.

“There’s no doubt that with Covid-19 we’ve seen a regression on the progress of the SDGs. The progress that was made to eradicate poverty or get more into education, for example has without a doubt had a setback,” Polman told edie.

“There is a big challenge and all the factors are coming together; climate, conflict, supply chain disruptions and the pandemic itself. The social fabric of society is severely being tested. Catching up is possible, but the question is do we have the willpower? We’re getting at a point where the cost of not acting is becoming higher than the cost of acting and more people are starting to see that.”

Business mindset shift

Polman is one of the most vocal advocates for the SDGs and has combined his business acumen with a passion for humanity to help steer the United Nations Global Compact as vice chair. As outlined in his new book “Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take”, Polman believes that businesses can work collaboratively to turn the many pressing challenges facing the SDGs into ways for businesses to drive resiliency by changing their business models.

However, as well as global progress on the SDGs slowing, business uptake also seems to be flatlining. BSI recently surveyed decision-makers from more than 1,000 UK-based SMEs across a range of sectors. Just 18% said they are aware of the SDGs, despite the framework having been launched in 2015 and with less than eight years now left to achieve its ambitions to time.

BSI also found that some half of decision-makers at large British businesses do not know what the SDGs are.

Polman points to the work on the UN Global Compact to showcase that, even during the pandemic, many businesses reiterated commitments to the SDGs. Through the two-year programme work of the Business Commission, which has since been passed onto the Global Compact, almost 17,000 companies have enshrined new ESG metrics into the way they work. Polman notes that this number sat around 13,000 prior to the pandemic, meaning around 4,000 businesses have paid the associated fees during the economic downturn in order to collaborate with others to champion new ways of business.

One key new way of working that businesses need to adopt, Polman claims, is moving away from a traditional “CSR approach” to “thinking regenerative, restorative and reparative,” which is what he calls net-positive.

But what does this look like in practice? During the conversation, Polman claimed that businesses needed to raise ambitions on climate and “reverse the trends in inequality” as they act as “pre-conditions” for the rest of the SDGs.

Specifically, on climate, Polman advocated that businesses should look for 2040 and 2030 goals, aligned to climate science, that include Scope 3 emission targets. Businesses should also look to champion the ongoing energy transition, set targets for nature and “help create the right jobs and a more inclusive economy”.

Doing so is likely to create a net economic benefit for society, despite the much-mentioned upfront costs (which continue to fall) for funding the net-zero transition.

According to Deloitte’s Global Turning Point Report, for example, if we do not take action to cut our carbon emissions now, over the next 50 years the climate crisis will cost the global economy a staggering $178trn. However, the same report highlights that strengthening global climate action could deliver $43trn to the global economy in the same timeframe.

Polman is aiming to unlock innovation across these areas through Systemiq Capital. Set up in 2018 by Paul Polman, Jeremy Oppenheim, Systemiq and Irena Spazzapan, the company is targeting solutions for sustainable food and material production, clean transport, climate finance and restoration projects. Existing portfolio companies include those working in synthetic biology and regenerative land use.

Pre-competitive collaboration

The former Unilever chief executive called on businesses to brave in embracing the challenges facing society, which most recently also entails responding to the short-termism being proposed by some governments in response to the energy and cost-of-living crises. He claimed that long-term plans, powered by corporate partnerships, will help businesses “set the bar higher”.

“We are moving but the problems we’re facing are catching up with us faster than the actions we’re taking and that’s probably a frustrating point because companies claim they are doing more than ever before,” Polman added.

“The good news is that the train has left the station. There are some bottlenecks, that are not to be denied, but we’re seeing tipping points on wind, solar and mobility, which means the voices of opposition get louder, so we have to deliver this right, not get accused of greenwashing. It’s the vested order that is crying wolf because the transformation is happening and they can’t stop it.

“We’re seeing enormous amounts of angst, pressure and uncertainty, and people are really worried, so companies that embrace partnerships and work with a better purpose and operate with a high level of humanity, humility, empathy and compassion, these leaders will have instilled a higher level of trust.

“I’m not sure the SDGs will be achieved…But business itself will result in more sustainable models and more net-positive actions for a more inclusive society. A better social cohesion where democracy is being restored. [We’re] increasingly moving to this pre-competitive space where we shouldn’t compete for the future of humanity. We need to nourish this, it won’t only come from individual actions, it will come from partnerships.”

edie’s SDG Week

Brought to you by the award-winning edie content team, the Sustainable Development Goals Week 2022 (19 – 23 September) is edie’s themed week of editorial content and events dedicated to informing and inspiring businesses to accelerate action on the UN’s Global Goals, including key goals aimed at eradicating poverty and promoting fair working.

edie’s SDG Week is about driving the transformational action needed to achieve the Goals. Hosted during the UN’s official Global Goals Week and tying in with Climate Week NYC, edie’s Focus Week will provide need-to-know industry updates, thought leadership discussions and practical insights which empower businesses to transform our world through the SDG framework.

We will be offering up a plethora of inspirational digital content throughout the week – led by a high-level online event, a Goal-focused webinar, a downloadable SDG progress report, an SDG special episode of the edie podcast and plenty of exclusive interviews and op-eds. Read on for more information on what we have planned.

See more information here.

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