Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 30 May 2012
Paul Polman
© Foto cedida por el entrevistado
Paul Polman, President of Unilever

Paul Polman was appointed an Executive Director of Unilever on October 2008 and assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer on January 2009.

Paul serves as President of the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust and Chairman of Perkins International Advisory Board. He is a Vice Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the European Round Table, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum and the Swiss American Chamber of Commerce. He is on the Board of the Consumer Goods Forum where he co-chairs the Board Strategy and the Sustainability Committees. He is a Trustee of both the Leverhulme Trust and Asia House, a former board member of Alcon and, since February 2010, a non-executive director of the Dow Chemical Company.

Paul earned a BBA/BA from the University of Groningen, Netherlands, in 1977 and an MA in economics and MBA in finance/international marketing from the University of Cincinnati in 1979.

Paul began his career at Procter & Gamble in 1979 and was group president Europe and officer of the Procter & Gamble Company until 2001.

Prior to joining Unilever, Paul was chief financial officer of Nestlé S.A. from January 2006 as well as executive vice president for the Americas from February 2008.

Recognized by Investor Magazine as chief financial officer of the year 2007, Paul received the Carl Lidner award from the University of Cincinnati in 2006 and was the WSJ/CNBC European Business Leader of the Year 2003.

Married with three children, Paul enjoys reading, marathon running, and mountaineering, but his main passion is for his role in running the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust.

What were you engaged in at the time of the Rio 92? Can you remember any particular episode of the conference that left its mark?

In 1992, I was living in Spain and even then was already acutely aware of resource challenges such as water and the increasing constraints being put on economic and social growth.

Rio 92’s chief achievement was turning sustainability from a peripheral issue, into one that could no longer be ignored in the debate about future economic growth and prosperity.

Perhaps the key achievement was that we adopted Agenda 21 which recognised the importance of finding the right balance and the interconnection between environmental, social and economic agendas. As importantly, there was a recognition of the importance of the private sector – and of the need for partnerships.

Which countries had the most outstanding participation in the Rio 92? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

Latin American countries, including the host country Brazil, have a proud record in championing the anti-poverty and sustainability agendas. This is as relevant to Rio+20 as it was for Rio 92.

Today, countries like Colombia, Peru and Guatemala have taken the lead in championing sustainable growth and getting the idea of Sustainable Development Goals onto the agenda at Rio+20.

What was the main legacy resulting from the Rio 92?

Rio 92’s legacy is still alive today. The Agenda 21 action plan on sustainable development agreed in 1992 helped lead to the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals a decade later. The last Rio summit also created the UNFCCC (the global climate negotiations) as well as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a body which encourages more sustainable growth in the private sector.
Now, twenty years on, governments, civil society and environmental groups are increasingly looking to business to promote sustainable growth. This is very different to 1992, where business was not seen as central to the solution to sustainability, as it is today.

Twenty years ago, businesses had yet to grasp the central importance of sustainability to business growth. At Rio+20, business can not only demonstrate the journey it has undertaken but also lead in key areas moving forward. For example, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is a pioneering new business model in which we will decouple growth and our environmental impact. We will aim to double the size of our business while halving our environmental footprint and improving the lives of over one billion consumers.

Among the resolutions taken at the Rio 92 conference, has there been any particular area where no progress has been made?

The challenge with all global processes is to maintain momentum. While many would have preferred even greater action over the last twenty years on sustainable development, it is important to concentrate on what progress has been made, and how to build on that. We should be impatient on some of the areas especially around climate change, nitrogen levels and bio-diversity.

What should be the main result of the Rio +20 conference?

I believe Rio+20 offers two great opportunities.

Firstly, we should begin a process to define Sustainable Development Goals for the 2015-2030 period. These would work like the MDGs, except they would apply to all countries and cover both poverty and environmental issues.

Secondly and crucially, businesses need to be brought into this agenda. Rio+20 must recognise the need for much greater collaboration between governments and business over sustainability. While more businesses need to demonstrate greater action for sustainable growth. Business needs governments to put in place the right public policy incentives and rewards to encourage businesses down this path.

What is your opinion regarding the basic text for the Rio+20?

The text is an issue for UN member states, but I would encourage governments to commit to more detailed proposals in support of Sustainable Development Goals, as well as recognising the business demand for public policy to encourage even more sustainable development. We are at the point where specific actions will speak louder than words. Business is ready for this I believe.

How can the corporate sector and civil society engage effectively and contribute towards conservation of the environment and sustainable development?

Civil society groups and businesses have a lot to gain from working together. We have seen this at Unilever. For example, we work with partners such as UNICEF to teach schoolchildren the benefits of washing their hands with soap – which helps prevent diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases. Unilever also works with Rainforest Alliance to ensure our tea and cocoa are sourced sustainably. Through recognising each other’s crucial role in society and in protecting the environment, we stand to gain a lot through collaboration. We simply can not do it alone.

What is the role of the emergent economies like the BRICS in impacts on the environment and in the solutions for environmental issues?

More than half of Unilever’s business is in developing and emerging markets, and we expect that to reach 70% by 2020. It is this growth which underlines the importance of switching to a new sustainable model of business. We are already using the Earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them, and if the middle classes of emerging economies start consuming in the way Europe and North America has, we will run out of resources. BRICS and business are both vital actors in developing the public policy and business action needed to address water and energy efficiency, waste, recycling and sustainable sourcing of raw materials.

To what extent is it feasible to structure a ‘green economy’? Why ‘blue economy’ is important too?

The concepts of green and blue economies are helpful ways to start thinking about how we recognise that resource scarcity is an issue today, and will become an increasingly critical issue to economic growth in future. It is absolutely possible to achieve sustainable and equitable growth. Unilever’s own experience has been that we can grow our business when we reduce our environmental footprint and ensure we source our materials sustainably. A different mindset and business model will be needed for this.

From the point of view of guaranteeing citizens’ access to food, water, and energy; how should governments and society at large be addressing the environment? What are the solutions for the future, for the Amazon, for Brazil and for Latin America?

One idea which Rio+20 should build upon is around developing a series of Sustainable Development Goals. Once the MDGs expire in 2015, we will need to maintain the world’s focus on poverty and hunger, while ensuring global collaboration to address critical environmental issues such as deforestation, climate change, water scarcity and sustainable production and consumption.

The crucial way we can meet these challenges is to ensure the private sector’s involvement in the debate. At Unilever, sustainable growth is central to our business plan. However we cannot act in isolation. Rio+20 offers the opportunity for governments and business to work together to design a roadmap for a sustainable future. More businesses must accept their role in bringing about a more sustainable and equitable economy, but governments must make this feasible through promoting the right policies, to make businesses act. It also takes personal responsibility. Our pioneering work as Chair of the B20 Foodsecurity task force is an example of this. We all have a clear responsibility and role to play to ensure still the original goals from Rio 92. A better future for all.
Paul Polman
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