One of my business heroes is Paul Polman. As CEO of Unilever for ten years, he scrapped short-term reporting and set out on a remarkable mission to achieve business growth without increasing the company’s environmental footprint. Recently I had the chance to hear him in person at the business school here in Oxford. Forthright and full of facts, he held the audience as he talked passionately about climate change, global inequality, and the role of business.
How much has the world of business really changed? It is hard to tell. Polman would have us believe there’s a leadership gap that politics isn’t filling, and that business could. I consulted this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Remarkably, business is up there alongside NGOs as the world’s most trusted institutions. People believe CEOs can and should change things for the better. The most trusted relationship of all is ‘my employer’.
This is at the same time encouraging and perplexing. Despite the advent of B-corps and purpose statements, not much has really changed, according to Professor Colin Meyer. In his new report for the British Academy he claims the UK has one of the most extreme forms of capitalism in the world. Polman was excoriating about big tech companies that have minimised their tax around the world. I think many of us would agree that radical change is needed.
Here in the UK the Labour party proposes big change. Their manifesto includes one of Meyer’s proposals, to enshrine social purpose in corporate law. However Meyer is less positive about their programme of nationalisation. I’d say neither of the main parties here tick all the boxes.
Those of us in business who care about the future will, in the end, largely be left to shape our own destiny. And that’s how it should be. Our political choices are important – it matters how we vote – but in the end it will be our daily choices that define us. It is by the way we live and do business that you and I can rewrite the rules of success and shape the world for the better.