By Daniel Hunter

We need to “stop stealing from future generations” and “restore faith in capitalism”, the Unilever chief executive Paul Polman told business leaders at the CBI Annual Conference on Monday.

Mr Polman’s speech followed an introduction by Martin Cook, the Ernst & Young UK & Ireland commercial managing partner, in which Mr Cook said that “people want to hold businesses to account if they don’t think they’re behaving in the right kind of way”. He argued that for Ernst & Young, “doing good is doing good business” and set Mr Polman the question, “what makes a good, responsible business”?

Mr Polman recognised that “the most important thing is to get the growth back. That has to be the number one priority — economic prosperity for all”.

But he argued that “we actually have to ask ourselves a much more profound question, and that is what kind of growth do we really want for the future? Do we want to return to the … self-interested, short term growth model that is actually at the roots of the 2008 financial crisis?”

Mr Polman argued that this growth model has led to trust in business and government that is “at the lowest levels it has ever been … and caused many people to question the fundamentals of capitalism”.

However, he told the audience of business leaders that “there is a different approach to doing business, and we have a unique opportunity to restore that faith in capitalism and develop these new business models that are desperately needed. Growth and the needs of society don’t actually work against each other, but go hand in hand”.

Mr Polman warned that businesses have “a very simply choice” to make. “Either we actively make these changes ourselves or these changes will be forced upon us”.

He set out two main ways in which change must take place.

Firstly, growth must become more sustainable, as well as more equitable. “Even today, 900 million people go to bed hungry. We need new business models … that take into account not just the economic but the sustainable and equitable parts of growth. If we don’t … we will increasingly be rejected as business”. However, he added that “very handsome financial benefits” await companies which seek to make these changes.

Secondly, Mr Polman highlighted the change in consumer power that has driven events like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

Using the example of his own company, Mr Polman explained how Unilever “every day touches the life of 2 billion people and there’s no government that can match that”, and explained how “audacious goals” are in place to drive change within the company and to put the consumer at the “centre” of everything it does.

Mr Polman concluded that “only businesses that make a positive contribution to the state of the world will be accepted by consumers” and that the “business opportunity is there for companies of all sizes”.

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