Paul Polman impressed everyone with his passionate opening address at Social Enterprise Futures. He was openly critical of an economy that is not set up to put people and planet first stating that “we can’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet. COVID is a direct result of our actions destroying the planet we live on.”

Sustainability and the need to do more to take on the climate emergency lay at the heart of his comments as well as the need to work in partnership to build a more inclusive economy, shifting away from a model built on shareholder primacy. Perhaps most importantly was his emphasis on just how important social enterprise will be as we look to the future, stating that we should not be asking to have a seat at the table, we should rather “own the table.”

Here are 3 key takeaways from his speech:

We need to continue to pressure government to make changes.

While the former Unilever CEO welcomed Boris Johnson’s recently announced 10 point plan for a “green industrial revolution” Polman said it was crucial to keep holding governments to account as there had been “a say/do gap with making promises but not delivering.”

Polman revealed that he had previously told former Prime Minister Theresa May that the UK government needed to change the corporate governance code, which he thought had too much focus on shareholder primacy (section 173 apparently). Barely pausing for breath, he mentioned that “We would be well served to also ensure our corporate governance in the UK reflects the need for society.”

Corporate boards might need to change as a result of the climate emergency

According to Polman, only 7% of board members are what he called “climate competent” and 17% are ESG competent i.e. able to chair a sustainability committee. He thought many board members will have a hard time figuring out how the climate emergency relates to a corporate strategy or what the major issues they need to focus on are. He also thought it would be a good idea if more social enterprises were represented on corporate boards. “The competencies we need for tomorrow’s world need to be reflected and are fundamentally different to what we treasured in the past,” Polman said.

He’s a big fan of social enterprises

Reflecting on the idea of Build Back Better post Covid, Polman said it was vital to involve all parts of civil society. “Social enterprises are a fundamental part of this, they are at the foreground of trying to move this society to be more inclusive.  They live every day the challenges of inequality that we see in this world. They often come up with creative solutions to address them, and with a little help you have an enormous impact. I could not think of us trying to rebuild better without including the social sector quite actively. I hope you celebrate a little bit for what you have done. Thank you for saving humanity and being incredible world citizens, I appreciate it.”