The bottom line is that Paul Polman is not focused on the bottom line.
Polman is CEO of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer-products multinational. Managing a corporation that operates in 100 countries, markets 400 different brands, employs 169,000 people, and grossed $56 billion in 2016 should be enough to keep Polman at his desk. But this Dutchman has had his mind on far bigger things since he took the helm in 2009.
Polman co-authored a 2014 essay in which he announced that capitalism has “proved dysfunctional in important ways. It often encourages shortsightedness, contributes to wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and tolerates the reckless treatment of environmental capital.”
Polman has directed his employees to avoid a singular focus on ROI and instead implement USLP: Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan. Its latest annual report trumpets the slogan: “making sustainable living commonplace.”
The liberal media love Polman’s shift from generating black ink to pursuing a crunchy, green Weltanschauung.
Fortune praised “Paul Polman’s Plan to Save the World.”
“Unilever’s CEO Is All In on Addressing Climate Change, Global Poverty,” crowed a Huffington Post headline. “Unilever’s Paul Polman on diversity, purpose and profits,” the Guardian cheered in London. Politico applauded: “It’s Not Just George Soros Anymore.”
This outpouring of love in global newsrooms apparently has blinded the media to the dark side of Polman’s vision. Under his leadership, Unilever has violated virtually every gospel that Polman has preached.
Unilever paid its female workers in Kenya about three euros per day in 2011 — or roughly $4.15, at that year’s average exchange rate —according to the Irish Times. These women also inhabited low-quality housing. Even worse, the paper reported, they typically spent about a quarter of their wages to bribe their bosses to avoid being sexually harassed.
Unilever sourced tea from Indian producers whose employees serve under consecutive, short-term contracts, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror reported in 2014. This keeps them on payroll, but without those pesky pension-and-health benefits.
Last year, Unilever settled a long-term legal battle with Indian workers who suffered mercury poisoning at a now-padlocked thermometer factory. The Indian government confirmed laborers’ complaints that mercury sickened them and damaged their children.
On March 2, South Africa’s Competition Commission recommended prosecuting Unilever for colluding with the Sime Darby Group over the sale of margarine and cooking oil. Antitrust officials in Pretoria say that the companies restricted open trade by agreeing to stay out of each other’s markets for certain products, thereby creating mutually beneficial monopolies for specific goods. Consequently, Unilever could be fined 10 percent of its annual revenue.
These corporate misdeeds have disgusted one Dutch watchdog.
“Do not fall for the sweet talk of Unilever,” the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations recently told Holland’s newspaper De Dagelijkse Standaard. “This business is not the jewel in the Netherlands, but rather something we should be ashamed of.”
While Polman has left human-rights activists cold, he has frosted investors, too.
As Polman served as King of the World, Unilever’s sales growth hit a five-year low in 2014. Its overall revenue fell 1 percent in 2016. In the last twelve months, Unilever’s stock price has risen 10.6 percent, lagging the S&P 500’s 14.4 percent increase and the Dow Jones’s 16.6 percent climb.
Investors were buoyed in mid February when Kraft Heinz offered to buy Unilever for $143 billion. Its stock soared 14 percent. But Polman then rained on the parade and rejected the deal. Analysts reckoned that Polman preferred to continue his global crusade rather than endure cost cutting under Kraft Heinz.
“As a Unilever shareholder,” Graham Shore wrote last month in the Financial Times, “I would prefer if Mr. Polman furthered his societal ambitions using his own rather than his shareholders’ money.”
Paul Polman could satisfy many people, not least himself, by standing down as Unilever CEO and announcing his candidacy for secretary general of the United Nations.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online.