Paul Polman launches sustainability consulting firm Imagine

17 July 2019 3 min. read
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The former CEO of fast moving consumer goods giant Unilever has established a new foundation and consulting firm to battle inequality and climate change. Paul Polman is set to invest an unspecified amount of his own funds into the creation of Imagine, which he hopes will help companies to pursue the sustainability goals of the United Nations with a “collective sense of urgency.”

One of the world’s foremost businessmen has leant his weight to a new sustainability consulting firm. Paul Polman – the Dutchman who ran Unilever for almost a decade with a social slant – has launched Imagine. The group is a foundation and corporation, which will work with companies to press ahead with global goals for sustainable development.

According to his personal LinkedIn profile, as CEO of Unilever, Polman’s “personal mission” was to “galvanise our company to be an effective force for good.” Now he will continue to push further in that direction, along with co-founders Valerie Keller – the former Global Leader of EY Beacon Institute – and Jeff Seabright – Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever under Polman. The 62-year-old executive will also invest an unspecified amount of his own funds in the project.Paul Polman launches sustainability consulting firm ImagineAccording to an email addressing former colleagues and business contacts detailing his new project, Imagine’s imperative is to “eradicate poverty and inequality and stem runaway climate change which has never been more acute,” as well as adding a “collective sense of urgency to move at scale and speed” to the efforts of global business to address such systemic failures.

While he has frequented the top table of global capitalism throughout a 40-year career – holding various roles at Proctor & Gamble, as well as being CFO at Nestle before arriving at Unilever – Polman has long cultivated a reputation for being something more than the standard dog-eat-dog executive of the modern age. He once told some McKinsey consultants with whom he worked frequently that Ghandi, Mandela and Mother Teresa were among those who inspire him, while the name of his new firm appears to pay homage to a famous John Lennon song.

In public interviews Polman has also regularly confirmed that he actually wanted to become a priest earlier in life, but eventually chose to study economics en route to his career in big business. In an interview from Het Financieele Dagblad (the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times) in 2014 he confirmed, "I first wanted to become a priest, then a doctor, but ended up in business and learned that I can help more people here to improve their lives."

Polman still regards the private sector as the “main engine for change,” something embodied by his time at the top of Unilever in particular. As CEO, he directed the firm to install clean toilets across the continent of Africa through its Domestos brand, while he also encouraged Asian schoolchildren to wash their hands using the company’s Lifebuoy soap, as part of a drive to reduce the spread of disease.

Commencing a new chapter in his life having exited Unilever at the turn of the year, however, his email stated that “even a company like Unilever can only do so much,” adding that “we have a fight against the clock here.” To that end, Imagine will now work with companies to pursue the sustainability goals of the United Nations at a more rapid pace.