Paul Polman at F4D's event with Ariana Huffington, Jane Wurwand and Evie Evangelou.

NEW YORK – While being honored by Fashion 4 Development Wednesday, Unilever chief executive officer Paul Polman chose to examine the corporate world’s weaknesses rather than his strengths.

After Livia Firth presented him with the 2016 League of Gentlemen’s award, Polman said, “To be honest, I always think the awards are not deserved until the job is done.”

A supporter of theUnited Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Polman said one priority is to provide a better livelihood for everyone. After the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that resulted in the loss of 1,129 lives, he noted that “a lot of people don’t think it’s cool to buy a $1 T-shirt,” he said. “In the age of transparency, the citizens of this world increasingly want systems to work better for them than they are clearly doing. The textiles industry is a huge industry, with many sourcing from the emerging markets.”

He continued, “With its tremendous role models and enormous reach, the fashion industry could send a very important signal by taking a more active part in creating a better life for everybody. There are not many supply chains that are that connected with the citizens of this world. This item [tugging on his shirt] that we all wear every day that is very intimate to us and is emotionally very well-placed to be part of that transformation.”

From his view, no one is deserving of any awards as long as 800 million people go to sleep hungry and 2.4 billion people lack access to clean water or hygiene. “The thing that bothers me, and has for a long time, is if you look at the crisis of 2007-2008, we all got a rude awakening that the system we have produced to lift people out of poverty really wasn’t sustainable,” he said, citing high levels of private and public debt and overconsumption as further burdens. “Any system where too many people feel they are being left behind, or are not participating, will ultimately rebel against itself,” citing examples like Brexit and the refugee crisis.

Addressing the crowd, Polman said, “The main thing we’re talking about here is, what can we do to challenge the system? We haven’t learned anything. Overconsumption is continuing with this linear model of let’s dig it out of the earth, let’s consume it and let’s dump it in the oceans or the landfills. And the number of people stepping back into poverty is actually increasing.”

Insisting the SDG are the answer, Polman said an investment of $3 trillion to $4 trillion a year – 3 percent to 4 percent of the global economy – would return $30 trillion to $40 trillion. “Governments unfortunately have fallen short in overseas development aid at only about $150 billion, which obviously doesn’t square. And they’ve fallen short in terms of courage. In my opinion, politicians are either panicking or they are complacent. But we don’t get much help from the political environment right now. For that reason, there’s no other alternative for business to step up, or civil society. The crisis after all was not a financial, economic or political crisis; the crisis that we have just gone through was a moral crisis. If it was a moral crisis brought on by itself, then humanity itself can get out of that crisis. It doesn’t take much other than willpower, which by itself is a renewable resource.”

Polman mentioned the need to take a gender lens through one’s entire value chain. “It’s not just a question of how many women you have on the board or directors at higher levels. That’s important, and I don’t want to belittle that. But that’s not where society’s biggest problem is right now.”

Asked if he will acquire Jessica Alba’s Honest Co., Polman said, “We never talk about what we do in the future.” Referring to this week’s acquisition of Seventh Generation (a reference to its seven-generations-ahead outlook), Polman planned to meet with Seventh Generation for the first time today. “With some humility and humanity, I’d like to learn what made them a great company. We can learn a lot from them, also in the way we transform the global agenda.”

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