‘Make us feel uncomfortable…’ Three tips from Paul Polman on how charities should work with business

Claudia Codsi Influencing, Private sector

Business leader and campaigner Paul Polman has long been a proponent of the idea that business should be a force for good. Today, he says people in organisations campaigning for change must seize the chance to connect with a new generation of ‘Greta Thunbergs in every company’ to help drive social impact. Claudia Codsi reports back on his recent talk to Oxfam staff

Paul Polman
Paul Polman: “Employees are there as we’ve never seen before, demanding action”

Paul Polman and Andrew Winston’s new book – Net positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take – tackles the global threats to our ways of life: inequality and injustice, climate change and biodiversity loss – and puts them firmly on the corporate radar, presenting a compelling business case for why companies can and should help shape a better future.

Paul recently came to an Oxfam staff event where I interviewed him about the role of business in contributing to a more just and sustainable world – and the role of NGOs in pushing them to this higher ambition. Like many other charities, Oxfam engages with the private sector in several ways: public campaigns challenging them to raise the bar; private dialogue and advisory services to promote better practice on human rights and sustainability; and mutually beneficial strategic partnerships.

Here are three takeaways from Paul on how campaigning organisations can push business to be better.

It is NGOs’ role to make corporations feel uncomfortable

Paul said businesses needed to proactively invite campaigners into their boardrooms to challenge their thinking. He acknowledged there could be tensions between companies and campaigning organisations such as Oxfam, but said these are important and should be welcomed by business. “If people within businesses don’t feel uncomfortable in these discussions with NGOs, it means they are not going fast enough, they are not going far enough.”

“At the same time, campaigners have to be realistic, they have to understand constraints and have to be willing to walk the journey with corporate partners. But it is your role as NGOs to make us feel uncomfortable.”

Paul gave some examples from his time as Unilever’s CEO between 2009 and 2018 of how he worked with Oxfam. For instance, an Oxfam-led study of labour rights in Unilever’s work in Vietnam revealed workers were earning below the minimum wage and drew attention to other concerns about conditions in its factory. That report secured commitments from Paul to change Unilever’s practices, including a sustainable living review in all 180 countries where it worked. The report was also listed in Unilever’s human rights report in 2015 as a milestone in the company’s understanding of human and labour rights in its supply chain – and opened the door to discussions with Vietnam’s National Assembly on raising the living wage.

The public report also helped to drive profound systems change. If Unilever had challenges, most likely everyone did, making it easier for other companies to open up about problems in their own supply chains, and to work to address them.

Paul sees such spotlighting of uncomfortable facts as essential. After all, if campaigning organisations don’t speak out on social justice issues, Paul asked, “who would do it? “Who would hold the private sector to account?”

Seize this window of opportunity: there’s now ‘a Greta Thunberg in every company’

Paul was clear that there is an unprecedented window of opportunity for charities to galvanise greater action from the private sector for a more sustainable future. One big reason this has opened up, he said, is that it has become obvious the costs to business of doing nothing are too high. “Business cannot succeed in societies that fail, nor can it be a bystander in a system that gives it life in the first place – and that’s the essence of my book.”

Whether it is the costs of gender inequality, of climate change, or conflict and wars, it is clearer to businesses that the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action. “For the first time we are seeing the financial market pushing for change at shareholder meetings on human rights or on climate action. Companies are seeing that we are rapidly moving from risk mitigation to seizing the opportunity to create a better world.”

Another window of opportunity comes from the values of younger people, who are already making their voices heard as customers and as junior staff within companies, and are the next generation of business leaders. “There is also enormous pressure coming from the young, millennials, the Gen Z and Xs. They are purpose-driven and they want a better world.”

Paul talked of there being a “Greta Thunberg in every company”, urging it to do better. In response, “CEOs are changing – some not fast enough, some are not listening yet, but employees are there as we’ve never seen before, demanding action not only on climate but increasingly on the social side as well.” He compared this pressure on business leaders from their own employees to industrial action – like “the biggest walk-out in the history of mankind”.

Focus on partnerships that change fundamental ways of working and drive broader change

Paul recommends that net positive companies work with NGOs and communities strategically, not just through corporate social responsibility programmes, but as a central part of a company’s long-term strategy, focusing efforts on where they can best improve well-being through their business and brands.

He told Oxfam staff that issues the world faces are of such magnitude and the need to solve them is so urgent that we need a new level of partnerships. This is especially true in a world where governments are doing less multilaterally, leaving it to others to fill the void.

“We’re talking in this book about the importance of net positive companies playing a role in driving the broader systems change,” he said. “Right now, we’re really trying to optimise within a system that isn’t working and frankly we’re not getting the results. Historically we’ve relied on governments to do that, but it’s just simply not working any more. Multilateralism is at a low point… and you see more populism, nationalism and short-termism in politics.”

‘For the first time we are seeing the financial market pushing for change at shareholder meetings on human rights or on climate action’ 

Paul Polman

Oxfam and Unilever have interacted on advocacy and programme partnerships over more than a decade on issues aligned to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, including workers’ rights and gender equality. Unilever made a commitment in 2021 that requires any supplier to Unilever to pay a living wage by 2030 and Oxfam continues to play a role working with Unilever’s suppliers to deliver this goal. We have collaborated on supporting communities hit by disaster, and partnerships such as the Enhancing Livelihood Fund, which showed how suppliers could drive deeper social impact for smallholder farmers, and a campaign with Lifebuoy soap to promote handwashing and hygiene. Paul sees a broad social impact from the relationship: “The work Oxfam has done with Unilever on many things made Unilever so much better and, by making Unilever better, it made society better”.

What was clear from our chat is how strongly Paul feels that organisations such as Oxfam can leverage the size and scale of companies like Unilever to achieve a transformative impact. Indeed, he said, it’s “organisations like yourselves that gets us to those discussions. If Oxfam hadn’t been there, I don’t think we would have had the book, or the discussions that we’re having today and the world would be even more miserable than it is now.”

That is a message that resonates strongly today at Oxfam, where our Oxfam Business Advisory Service offers direct support to companies to improve labour rights, livelihoods, gender equality, human rights due diligence and more. Such partnerships complement campaigns like Behind the Brands, which challenged the world’s 10 largest food and beverage companies to improve policies and practices, and Behind the Barcodes, which urged supermarkets to improve human rights and wages in their supply chains. We seek to create change to end precarious work, ensure women’s work is valued and tackle climate injustice to build a radically better world.

Paul Polman clearly believes that a better world is possible, telling us that, despite everything, he remains optimistic. “There is no CEO who wants more unemployment, more air pollution, more people going to bed hungry,” he said. “I remain a prisoner of hope.”


Claudia Codsi

Claudia Codsi is Head of Private Sector Partnerships at Oxfam GB

Find out more  about the Oxfam Business Advisory Service (OBAS) here and the way Oxfam works with the private sector here