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Some Firms Are Putting Shareholders Above the Long-Term Future of Humanity: Ex-Unilever CEO

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  • "When push comes to shove, these companies put their shareholders, their short-term shareholder return, above the long-term future of humanity," Paul Polman said.
  • In the run up to the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, there's a glimmer of hope that some sort of meaningful change could be around the corner.

The former CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever has taken a swipe at firms who prioritize short-term goals over longer term ones rooted in sustainability.

Paul Polman has castigated some companies who proclaim "they are the second coming" while simultaneously slowing efforts down.

Speaking at CNBC's Sustainable Future Forum on Monday, Polman — who is the co-founder and co-chair of the social venture Imagine — said there were many companies in the U.S. who were "making major commitments to be net zero and to decarbonize their whole value chain that have been applauded."  

But some of them, Polman claimed, are using "funds via lobbying to stop the Biden infrastructure bill which … tries to tackle these issues. Why? Because there's a small tax increase involved."

"So again, when push comes to shove, these companies put their shareholders, their short-term shareholder return, above the long-term future of humanity," he said. "And that is not acceptable anymore."

Polman, who made his comments during an interview with CNBC's Steve Sedgwick, went on to suggest such an attitude was "not a smart move if you want to build trust and if you want to build your corporate reputation."

While the above scenario may appear to be a challenging one, there is also a glimmer of hope that some sort of meaningful change could be around the corner.

Later this month, the COP26 climate change summit will kick off in the Scottish city of Glasgow. A lot is riding on the talks, which U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described as "the turning point for humanity."

For his part, Polman struck a note of optimism. "In Glasgow … we have $90 trillion of money under management making a request to governments to help them decarbonize their portfolios and move forward," he said.

"Increasingly, they're making these commitments not only with declarations but they're asking companies to start moving as well," Polman added, stating there was no question that the balance had tipped.

The $90 trillion figure is a reference to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.

Chaired by Mark Carney, the Bank of England's former governor, GFANZ describes itself as "a global coalition of leading financial institutions committed to accelerating the decarbonization of the economy."

Polman went on to say that governments needed to step in now "in order to make this transition happen at the scale and speed that is needed."

"For example, with standards setting, we have over 200 standards on sustainability, which on the one hand is a good thing because it shows that it has become more popular," he said.

"But now, we have to avoid the greenwashing," he said, going on to call for a collaborative approach. "We would be well served to work together to ensure that we get less standards but more effective ones."

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